04.22.16

The actress on her role as a feisty warrior in ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War,’ her recent string of dark movies and the wage gap between men and women

Actress Jessica Chastain says people often ask her if she looks for strong female characters to play. In her view, she’s just playing real women. “I want to play a character who’s in charge of her own destiny, and while some people might describe that as strong, I just describe that as normal,” she says.

Ms. Chastain, 39, has become known for her roles in “The Help” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and “Interstellar” (2014). Her latest is a starring role as a warrior who battles an evil queen in “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” a sequel to the 2012 film “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Her last few films have dealt with somber subjects, including “A Most Violent Year” (2014), about New York’s 1981 crime wave. So Ms. Chastain decided that it was time for a more lighthearted role. “I had just done a string of very dark characters, and I was feeling very down,” she says. “I was like: I need to get a comedy. I need to get something just really silly and fun.”

“The Huntsman” isn’t exactly a comedy. Still, when the Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title character, gave her the script to consider, the warrior’s feisty side piqued her interest. She also liked the fact that the warrior and the huntsman, who fight alongside each other and become romantically involved, treat each other as equals. In romantic relationships, she says, “You don’t want one person to be the one making all the decisions and the other to follow. You want to be a partner.”

In her own life, she is currently dating an Italian fashion executive. She doesn’t like to date actors; she thinks it invites tabloid exposure. “If you date a famous person, you’re doubling up the interest in you and your personal life,” she says.

Lately, Ms. Chastain has joined actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette in speaking out about the wage gap between men and women in Hollywood. The pay disparity points to a wider problem beyond the film business, she says. “People ask, ‘Why are these actresses complaining?’ but I’m not saying I personally need more money. I’m saying it’s not just about actresses, it’s about secretaries and receptionists too.”

Ms. Chastain grew up in northern California, the daughter of a vegan chef and a musician. After graduating with a bachelor’s of fine arts from the Juilliard School in New York in 2003, she moved to Los Angeles. She asked her newly retired grandmother, with whom she is close, to be her roommate. Her grandmother said yes. “I don’t know what college kid says that,” Ms. Chastain says.

Although she auditioned for many parts, her career didn’t take off for a while. She earned her Screen Actors Guild card in 2004 for a guest role on the medical television drama “ER.”

Her big break came seven years later with the role of Celia Foote, a Southern blonde bombshell in “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book about African-American maids in Mississippi in the 1960s. The film earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress.

It turned out to be a busy year. She appeared in six other 2011 releases, including Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter” and Ralph Fiennes’s “Coriolanus.” “That was probably the best year of my life so far, but I’m grateful for not living it again,” she says. “Every day was the fear that I didn’t know what would happen tomorrow—is it going to be good or bad?”

Her role as a CIA officer in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” earned her another Academy Award nomination, as well as a Golden Globe win.

Now Ms. Chastain says that she has more choice in scripts than she ever expected. After “The Huntsman,” she has five movies scheduled to come out in the next year. Her next release is “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” about a couple in Warsaw who save both people and animals during the Nazi occupation. She recently formed a new production company called Freckle Films, led by female executives, including producer and director Trudie Styler and producer Celine Rattray.

Along with bolstering the voices of women in Hollywood, she would like to see more prominent film roles for minorities. As a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures, she voted in last year’s Oscars, which drew controversy because there were no African-American nominees. Per Academy rules, she can’t say who got her vote in the nominations, but she hints that Idris Elba’s performance in “Beasts of No Nation” was one of her favorites. The bigger problem, she says, is a lack of good roles, “so the awards are just a reflection of what’s in the industry.”

Lately, Ms. Chastain has been in Washington, D.C. to finish filming “Miss Sloane,” in which she plays a lobbyist taking on the gun industry. For the role, she interviewed female lobbyists, and she noticed that many of them wore black nail polish. “It was one little detail I noticed, and I realized it’s very strong,” she says. “One woman told me, ‘Just so you know, politics is a contact sport.’ ” Ms. Chastain decided she, too, would paint her nails black for the film.

Going forward, she’s open to acting in all kinds of films. She particularly wants to try acting in a Western. But no matter what, she says, “I don’t want to play the wife who’s sitting there and cheering her husband on.”

Credits: Alexandra Wolfe for Wall Street Journal.
Pictures by: Shayan Asgharnia