Jessica Chastain Talks “Jolene” and The White Stripes

Artistic Direct
Published: December 01, 2010

Jolene could’ve come out during the ’70s film renaissance.

Cut from the same cloth as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Badlands, it’s an existential tale about an orphan—Jessica Chastain’s Jolene—who can’t fit in anywhere. She bounces through the strange underbelly of America on a poetic, poignant and powerful journey that’s as heart-wrenching as it is heartfelt. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s short story, Jolene: A Life, the film examines the search for love with an elegant sensitivity that yields one of the year’s most memorable cinematic displays. Chastain provides the emotional core, and her portrayal of Jolene soars from depths of sorrow into heights of elation beautifully. She’s bound to be a star, and this flick proves why…

Jolene star Jessica Chastain sat down for an exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor and Dolor author Rick Florino about the dreamy elements of the movie, what she listened to in order to find Jolene and so much more.

Was the surreal, dreamy aspect of the film instantly attractive to you?

Yeah, I definitely felt that way. For me, the artist Turner G. Davis, who did a lot of the paintings in the film, has that surreal dreamy quality to his work. I hadn’t talked to the director Dan [Ireland] about it, but I wonder if that inspired that quality of the film.

Do you feel like the paintings were a crucial part of Jolene’s character?

Absolutely! That’s the first form that she’s able to express herself in. I started looking at Turner’s paintings before we started shooting, and he definitely influenced me.

In terms of creating Jolene, was there anything that resonated with you immediately about her?

I loved the idea of this orphan who has just been passed around as a child from foster home to foster home. She’s this unwanted orphan who hits the road and is then, in a way, still passed around. In doing so, it becomes this search for love and what love means. She does find it in the end, but it’s not theone she expected. It’s not the relationships with men; it’s the relationship she has with her child.

Arguably, that’s the only unconditional love that anyone can truly find.

Definitely! What happens is beautiful.

Were you listening to any music in order to get into character?

I was! I listened to The White Stripes’ cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” a lot. I changed and listened to Patti Griffin’s cover of “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” For me, music is really important. We shot this really quick. We did six day weeks. We would shoot Monday through Saturday. Sunday night, I would meet the actor who I was going to work with that week and then Monday morning we’d start shooting and we didn’t shoot in chronological order. It was probably the hardest shoot I’ve ever done.

Was the music one constant you could keep going back to?
B Yeah, I had different songs for different sections of the movie and various artists I’d listen to. I listened to The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Zero” in the tattoo parlor, especially when Coco leaves her and she trashes the joint [Laughs]. For me, music is really important. Sometimes, I can hear a song that will bring me back to my college days at Julliard. I’ll go, “Oh, I remember being in New York during this and going out with my friends.” I tried to use that technique with Jolene as well.

Who is always on your playlist?

I have Iron & Wine. I’ve got a really strange mix of music! I like Dolly Parton. I like things that are emotional. Ryan Gosling’s new band does “Put Me In the Car,” and I’ve been listening to that song a lot now. I love listening to music that has a story. In a way, it’s like watching a film, hearing a poem or looking at a painting—something that the singer or musician is expressing him or herself emotionally through.

How tied to the book was the film?

We were completely tied to the text. It was based on the short story, Jolene: A Life by E.L. Doctorow. If there was ever any question of changing something, it would usually be brought up on Sunday during our dinner with the actors. We didn’t have much rehearsal. We were such a tight schedule, so nothing could really change.