by Glenn Whipp
A text to Jessica Chastain led her to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
“If I ever ask you for anything it’s to speak with you for five minutes … just five minutes.”
Jessica Chastain received that mysterious text from producer Megan Ellison in 2011, completely unaware that director Kathryn Bigelow had been trying to gauge her interest in playing Maya, the lead CIA operative heading the hunt for Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“I thought, ‘Wow. That’s super-dramatic,’ ” Chastain remembers of the message.
She called Ellison immediately and learned a few details about the movie — but not many. Secrecy shrouded the project, and Chastain didn’t know the full dimensions of the role until Ellison sent her the screenplay. After reading a few pages, Chastain realized she was being offered the part of a lifetime.
“As an actor, I always look for characters I haven’t played before or characters that have opposites in them or characters we haven’t really seen before, and I found all of those in Maya,” the Oscar-nominated Chastain said in a video interview, above, the first segment of a three-part conversation.
“So then I wrote Kathryn an email, saying, ‘Look, now I’m going to be heartbroken because now I’m really passionate about this film,’ ” Chastain says. “So if we can make the schedule work, I’m there.'”
What hooked Chastain about Maya, the woman based on the real CIA operative who tracked Bin Laden?
“In the script, when it first describes Maya, it’s as petite, girl-like, looking younger than she is,” Chastain says. “And I really loved the idea of someone who’s small and you think is insignificant in stature and voice being this fierce lion.”
Daniel Day-Lewis may have been “clothed in immense power” in “Lincoln,” but when it comes to memorable movie lines from the past year, it would be hard to top Jessica Chastain’s forceful explanation of why she happens to be attending a particular CIA briefing in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
When Chastain’s CIA operative, Maya, feels herself being pushed to the margins of decision-making after discovering Osama bin Laden’s location, she tells CIA Director Leon Panetta, “I’m the … who found this place, sir.”
In the video interview Chastain said she still can’t believe the life that particular line has.
“I would never have imagined that line would hit such a button as it does,” the lead actress Oscar nominee said. “People come up to me and ask me to say it, and I don’t really cuss in real life. It’s a little uncomfortable.”
Musing on the line’s popularity, Chastain said, “I wonder if people erupt in cheers because it’s like the first time that she really comes forward. As an actor, when you see that scene, you justify everything. Maya has actually cussed throughout the script. She has a mouth on her. She’s speaking like that to Panetta, who is the top of the food chain. He can have her fired. Why would she do this? How is this not just a movie moment?
“When you look at the scene, she’s there, she’s been working this for so long,” Chastain continued. “She shows up in Washington … immediately starts getting ignored, told to sit in the back of the room, not allowed to answer questions that she knows more than anyone else. When someone answers wrong, badly, and they’re touching her stuff … I kept thinking, ‘Everyone’s touching her stuff.’ When [Panetta] looks at her and says, ‘Who are you?’ like ‘Why would you speak up?’ It’s like, ‘Who are you?’ To me it makes perfect sense that that’s how she would respond.”
See what else she has to say about the role, the moral implications of violence, and being in a film that gets people talking.
It didn’t dawn on Jessica Chastain until after she saw “Zero Dark Thirty” that her character in the film, a driven CIA agent named Maya, had a few things in common with the movie’s director, Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow.
“On set, you feel like you are the character,” Chastain says in the video interview above, the final segment of three parts.
Later, Chastain says, she realized, “Wow, there are two women that work in fields dominated by men … and they do expert work and they lead with their work before anything else and they never complain about the glass ceiling in their jobs. If you do good work, it will rise.”
As much as Chastain, who now has received back-to-back Oscar nominations for her work in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help,” loves to lose herself in her roles, she says she’s really more defined by family and friends than her job. But since the 35-year-old actress prefers those aspects of her life stay private, she’s more than happy to keep the public focused on the acting.
“In the press, I like to be known for my work and not for whom I’m dating or what my favorite ice cream is,” Chastain says. “So I feel honored to portray a character like [Maya] because I’ve known a lot of women who have chosen that in their lives but I’d never seen that in cinema. … It’s wonderful to tell everyone’s story.”