Published on October 22, 2014 on The New York Times
by David Itzkoff

Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain on ‘Interstellar’

After he plumbed the direst depths of Gotham City in his “Dark Knight” trilogy and traversed multiple levels of consciousness in “Inception,” it seems the only place the filmmaker Christopher Nolan could go next was outer space. In his latest feature, “Interstellar,” an intrepid shuttle team slips the surly bonds of earth to search for wormholes, black holes and planets beyond our galaxy; at the same time, the film is closely concerned with the pale blue dot the crew came from, which is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life.

The starry cast features the newly minted Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “True Detective”) as Cooper, a farmer and pilot tasked with ensuring humanity’s future; Anne Hathaway (an Oscar winner for “Les Misérables” and a co-star of Mr. Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”) as Brand, a fellow explorer; and Jessica Chastain (an Oscar nominee for “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Help”) as Murph, Cooper’s earthbound astrophysicist daughter. Audiences can see exactly how these celestial bodies align when Paramount Pictures opens “Interstellar” (which cost a reported $160 million) in Imax and other film formats on Nov. 5, and in wider release on Nov. 7.

Ms. Chastain, Ms. Hathaway and Mr. McConaughey gathered recently to discuss the pathways that led them to “Interstellar” and the universes to which it introduced them. Together, they carried themselves less like a crew of seasoned, seen-it-all veterans than three guileless novices still acclimating to their mission and to one another. They kidded around, swapped notes on Mr. Nolan and their interpretations of the film, and apologized profusely for their lack of Ph.D.s.

These are excerpts from that conversation.

Q. Did any of you grow up dreaming of someday becoming an astronaut?

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY I did not. I was very much, what’s happening on the ground was going to be enough. Until I made “Contact” [the 1997 movie about the search for extraterrestrial life]. That made me actually wonder: “O.K., it’s not just what’s happening here, east, west, in front of us. You can look up. What’s the new frontier to the north?”

JESSICA CHASTAIN I loved Princess Leia as a kid. I loved that she was so badass and took control. But I have no interest in being one of those people on the spaceships they’re advertising that go to the moon. No thank you. I’ll be one of those people that stays on Earth, eating corn.

ANNE HATHAWAY When I was in fifth grade, my older brother asked me how I was doing in school, and I said I did just get a 52 on a math test. Later, I said I wanted to be an astronaut, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to raise your math scores if you want to do that.’ Later in life, I discovered I do love science, and I do love physics. But I was really happy that in this film, I could still be bad at math and be an astronaut.

How were each of you approached by Christopher Nolan for this film?

CHASTAIN I was in Northern Ireland, shooting a Strindberg adaptation [Liv Ullmann’s “Miss Julie”]. It was cold and rainy and miserable, and I got a call that Chris was interested in me. They flew someone from L.A. to Dublin, who then drove to Enniskillen and handed me a script. Bright red, headache-inducing pages.

HATHAWAY I went into the Nolans’ library and read it. Kind of knew what I had just read, but wasn’t entirely sure. Chris had invited me over for a three-hour reading block, so I just went back to the beginning and read it again.

McCONAUGHEY You read it twice in three hours? It took me five and a half hours. [Laughter.] I was in New Orleans working on “True Detective,” and my agent said, “Christopher Nolan’s got a new project coming out, and he’s thinking of you — and some other people.” I went to Chris’s house, sat down for about three hours. Basically talked about being fathers, talked about our kids. We laughed a lot and said goodbye. I remember walking back to the car going: “I know what that was. But what was that?” It was not specific at all.

What ultimately won you over?

McCONAUGHEY It had the things that I had loved about Chris’s earlier films. That epic scope and size, which I think you get from him better than any director I know of. But also, this one seemed more intimate. It was a very human and a very simple question of a parent and a child, a father and a daughter. The most extreme circumstance of, “What would you do if …?”

As a director, Mr. Nolan has to contend with costly set designs and elaborate special effects. How does he work with his actors?

CHASTAIN He allows room for everyone’s process. In the scenes I did with Casey Affleck, Casey likes to improvise, and Chris was completely open to that. When I’d be working with Michael Caine, you went right by the lines. But you feel like Chris is the captain of the film. He knows what his movie is, and he’s going to help everyone find their own way there.

HATHAWAY On my camera test for [“The Dark Knight Rises”], I was wearing the [Catwoman] suit for the first time, in front of everybody, and hadn’t quite gotten into the shape that I wanted, and just had a million things going on in my head, none of them terribly helpful. Chris came up to me and goes, “I just wanted to ask you, what’s your process like?” I had come off a few years of not unpleasant but not totally satisfying film experiences, and I’d forgotten that you’re allowed to have a process. I just said: “You know, I’m not totally in touch with it. Can I get back to you?” I knew I was safe.

McCONAUGHEY My favorite times with Chris would be when we’d move to a new set — we’re going into a wormhole, now we’ve got a black hole — to sit down and go over the rules of this world. What’s gravity now? What’s time? It’s 23 years per hour? Thirty percent more gravity? And sometimes he’d say: “I don’t know about that. I’ve got to give myself some time to get bored, and that’s when I’ll figure these things out.”

Jessica, the space your character inhabits is, let’s say, discrete from Anne’s and Matthew’s. Did you get to interact with them on set?

CHASTAIN The week when we were prepping for the film, I was tagging next to Anne. I’m a little awkward sometimes.

HATHAWAY You were not! You were charming as can be. You taught us all how to make a poached egg.

CHASTAIN I’d just finished cooking school. And that’s not nerdy? Come on.

HATHAWAY I went home and tried it. I couldn’t make the whirlpool roll enough.

What did you gain from working with the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who was an executive producer on this movie?

McCONAUGHEY How great was it to see he had a sense of humor? He was just kind and dear. Nothing mathematical or stereotypically scientist about him.

HATHAWAY I was afraid he was going to make me feel dumb. But he doesn’t do that. His approach to it is always, “And….”

McCONAUGHEY That’s what I found about astrophysics. Everything you ask him, he goes, “Well, it’s not this or this. It’s both.” I was like, “Well, where’s the end?” He’s like: “That’s the point. There is no end. No answer you have in astrophysics should ever not lead to another question.” I was like, “You’ve got great job security.”

“Interstellar” imagines a not-far-off future where science and engineering are not highly valued, and humanity has lost its pioneering spirit. Do those ideas have relevance outside the film?

McCONAUGHEY Those parts of the film are very relevant today. If you’re looking at NASA, literally. This film challenges mankind, but at the same time has faith in it. It says: “Yes, there’s something outside there. Call it extraterrestrial, call it God, call it the Prime Mover, whatever.” But it loops right back and says: “Guess who’s responsible for getting there, if we’re going to get there? You.”

CHASTAIN We’ve already done terrible things to the planet, and there’s no backtracking. Of course, I think space exploration is important, but I also wish that we would stop sticking our heads in the sand about what we’re doing to this planet. As great as those other planets were that you guys looked at, I really like this one. I’m more interested in doing what I can to make sure we can stay.

Did the experience of “Interstellar” make you think about what it means to be a parent or a child?

McCONAUGHEY My largest reason, instinctually, for why I wanted to do this was for my son Levi. He got really into spaceships. “There’s the moon. We’ve been on the moon.” He’s like, “How?” Going back and having to explain things, even the basics of the solar system, kindled up a new imagination for me.

CHASTAIN Chris is surrounded by his family. It really opened up my character in an unexpected way, when I saw Chris’s daughter on set. I had my own personal issues with father-daughter relationships that I could easily draw towards, but the production — the [code] name of it was “Flora’s Letter.” And when I was on set and I asked this sweet little girl, who was kind of shy, what her name was, she said, “Flora.” I realized, it was a letter to his daughter.

Does it feel like science fiction is, for a moment, moving away from alien invasions, toward humanistic stories of exploration and technology?

McCONAUGHEY Chris sort of trumped the stereotypical science-fiction film. It’s usually about doom, the end: If they come get us, we are gone. Chris has his wonderful, witty British cynicism, but he’s an absolute optimist. He’s challenging mankind. He’s saying the unknown — the ghost out there — whatever they are, they’re good, and maybe we can use them to get to the next place. He’s taking it a step further, in a life-affirming way.

Could any of you now operate a telescope if called upon to do so?

CHASTAIN They gave us telescopes. Did you get one?

HATHAWAY I did. I can’t make it work.

CHASTAIN I can’t make it work either. It’s sitting on my windowsill. Someday, I’ve got to get this thing going. It just looks like a pervy New York telescope.