I Won’t Apologize for Taking Up Space in This World

Published on Elle Canada (September 2017) – Interview by Sarah Laing

When we shot Jessica Chastain in New York recently, she was at once just how you’d expect her to be and exactly the opposite.

Arriving from the Hamptons on a seaplane? That’s proper movie-star behaviour—what you’d anticipate from one of Hollywood’s A-listers. Crisp white jeans, giant shades, impeccably besuited Italian husband by her side? Well, that’s precisely how someone who has just been named the face of Ralph Lauren’s newest fragrance, Woman, should look, right? She is, after all, a highly respected actress who made her mark in blockbuster films like The Martian and The Help, has been nom­inated for two Oscars and won a Golden Globe for her role as a bin Laden-hunting operative in Zero Dark Thirty. And, of course, in conversation, as you’ll see, the 40-year-old is as articulate, sharp and sure of her opinions as you’d want one of the industry’s most vocal feminists to be.

And now for the unexpected—starting with the buoyant effect she had on the mood at the photo shoot. On any set, there’s a tiny bit of tension before the celebrity being photographed shows up, and that was certainly the case here until Chastain arrived…15 minutes early. The difference, however, was that the next usual phase of worry—Will she be friendly? Tired? Hate the clothes?—never came. The Sonoma Valley native was fresh off her honey­moon, having married fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo in Treviso, Italy, weeks earlier, so we’d anticipated a sheen of newlywed glow but not the level of deep-sprung joy that overflowed into a Molly Ringwald-inspired Running Man, flawlessly executed in hot pants to ’80s-era George Michael. Nor would we have guessed that, halfway through a series of shots that were all cover-worthy, she’d confess to feeling out of practice after weeks away and that she was grateful to everyone on-set for making it easier on her. Then there was that overheard kindness to her assistant, who got lost on the subway while fetching vegan food on her first real day of work—Chastain told her not to worry and that a car would meet her wherever she was.

The next day, we caught up with Chastain over the phone from her beach house—to which she had returned via that same seaplane—and it turned out that the reason for her very Hollywood mode of transport wasn’t the I’m-too-famous-to-sit-in-traffic diva variety you would be forgiven for assuming. She actually had a houseful of guests, she revealed, and was eager to get back to them. That behaviour—at once a mix of consideration for others and a healthy protection of her own needs—exemplifies Chastain’s MO. She is flexible but not a pushover—if, like at our shoot, she doesn’t think a beret looks good on her, she won’t wear it.

On subjects she wants to talk about—the role of women in society, empowering girls, her films—she is a generous communicator, but on more personal topics, like her wedding, she will firmly make it clear that it’s not up for discussion. It’s a mindset that Chastain articulates as “not apologizing for taking up space in this world,” and it informs the way she approaches her work, her activism and her life in the spotlight.

Is this attitude something you’ve learned over time?

“Everyone has to learn how to live in an environment that has not made it easy for women to claim their place, so I think it’s all women’s responsibility to step forward. My goal is that a girl will watch The Martian or Interstellar and think ‘I want to be an astronaut or a quantum physicist.’ It’s important to show powerful women who are good at their jobs because young girls need those examples.”

Was there anyone in your life who had that kind of impact on you as a child?

“I remember my great-grandmother telling me that women shouldn’t drive cars. I have such a strong memory of her saying she felt she’d paid too much for gas and ‘It serves me right because I have no business driving; women shouldn’t do stuff like that.’ I always thought you could do whatever you wanted to do, and then to have someone tell me that women were limited was disturbing. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized, ‘Oh, the programming starts so young!’”

Do you think you’d have made any different decisions in your life if you’d had different representations of women when you were growing up?

“I don’t think so. My whole life I wanted to be an actor. Perhaps the seed was planted when I saw Sigourney Weaver in Alien, wiping the floor with the men on the ship. Who knows? Maybe that’s why I always saw film as a way for women to break through stereotypes—although I realized as I got older how few and far between those characters are. That’s why I now work very hard to create more opportunities for women.”

You’re the ambassador for Woman by Ralph Lauren—a perfume inspired by the designer’s idea of a “fearless yet feminine” heroine. How does it feel to have been chosen as the embodiment of that ideal?

“I’m thrilled to be the face of Woman by Ralph Lauren, especially at a time when the idea of femininity is evolving. Women can be powerful, graceful and complex, with the ability to make any choice they desire. To me, the fragrance is modern yet timeless. It is delicate yet strong, sensual and sophisticated.”

Are you someone who wears perfume every day?

“If I’m not working, my beauty routine is pretty simple: moisturizer with at least SPF 50 and a spritz of Woman by Ralph Lauren before I head out the door. I like nat­ural products, such as rosewater and coconut oil. If I’m going out or doing a red carpet, I love a bold red lip and glamorous hair.”

Speaking of red carpets…that segues quite nicely into talking about what happened at Cannes this year. You were on the film festival’s jury, and at the closing press conference you expressed that you found the representations of women in many of the films you’d seen “disturbing.” Did you expect that comment to get the attention it did?

“The thing I’m sad about is that my comments were the only ones that went everywhere, because every other woman who was on the jury said something incredible in that press conference too. We’d been talking about it as a group, saying: ‘Are you guys seeing a pattern here? When are we going to see a film from a woman’s point of view with a female lead? How come all these women are just there serving the men’s storyline?’ When the press conference happened, I wasn’t planning on saying all that stuff, which is why I was a bit shaky. It was one of the first questions, and the [journalist] said he wanted to ask the women ‘A lot of female directors were acknowledged this year, so do you think the industry is in better shape?’ Which basically asks ‘Since so many women won prizes, is the problem fixed?’ All us girls laughed, and I went first, but everyone hit a different part of the industry that needs to be looked at in terms of how we view female characters.”

Why did you feel shaky?

“I’ve always been someone who speaks her mind, but the thing is I love Cannes so much. I talked to the festival director beforehand about what I was witnessing in those films and how it made me feel about how the world sees women. He actually said, ‘You should say something.’ It was never about me going against Cannes or stabbing someone in the back…. But my experience with the press is that sometimes things can be taken out of context, so in a situation like that, where I’m in front of all these journalists, speaking what I believe in my heart, I feel very vulnerable. In many cases, the media like to find something negative or turn it into a fight, especially when it pits women against each other, and I was aware of that while I was speaking. Like, ‘Here I go speaking my truth, but someone is going to misinterpret these words.’”

Why do you think they are so interested in seeing women fight each other?

“It’s divide and conquer. It’s like kings and commoners back in the old days: When the common people get along, they can overthrow those in power; when you have a minority group fighting each other, they are less strong. There’s a myth that women don’t work well together; they hope that by perpetuating that myth, we will never have power. I have never been in a situation where I’ve had bad experiences with women. To me, we’re so nurturing and supportive and the best collaborators.”

That reminds me of a recent headline speculating that Lorde was no longer in Taylor Swift’s girl squad—it was the biggest celebrity news of that day.

“They don’t write those stories about men. I’m very interested in sisterhood, and many times I’ve experienced a strong bond working with an actress that doesn’t end when the movie does. There is no one else who under­stands what it’s like to be a working actress. I can’t imagine life without my girlfriends.”

What do actresses talk to each other about?

“Oh, God, everything! Families, jobs, who’s good to work with, who’s bad to work with. We warn each other in terms of directors or studios or producers.”

What has your experience of fame been?

“I have a very strong separation between my personal life and my work. I know there are certain restaurants in L.A. or New York where there will be photographers, so I avoid them. I do my best to be as quiet as I can when I’m not working or doing press for a film. For the most part, people have been really respectful. The one thing I will say—and I’m not going to talk about it—is that the worst I’ve ever experi­enced was at my wedding. There were helicopters in the sky during the ceremony, and it was really shocking. I was like, ‘I get it. This is the trade-off,’ because, to be honest, I’ve never felt invaded before in this industry.”

You actually took to social media to call out those paparazzi.

“I wanted people to under­stand what they were viewing [when they looked at those shots]. Just like with hacked nude photographs of actresses, if you’re looking at it, you’re participating in it. I understand what I signed up for as an actress, and I know paparazzi comes with that, but I wanted everyone who was sending me beautiful comments to understand why I might not look super-happy in those pictures they were seeing. At some point, I will share a personal photo because it was one of the best days of our lives and I want people to know that it was about love, not invasion.”

Is there a question you get asked a lot that you hate?

“To be honest, I get pretty great, varied questions. I will say that the very first year I did press was when The Tree of Life came out and I was this unknown. At the end of the movie, my character kisses Brad Pitt’s character, and I was always getting asked, ‘What was it like kissing Brad Pitt?’ You get that whenever you do a movie with a famous male star, and I’m like, ‘Guys, come on!’ because it focuses on something that it’s not about.”

People do realize you guys are actors doing a job, right?

“Exactly. I have no idea what it’s like kissing Brad Pitt because we were playing characters and doing what our characters would do in that situation!”

This fall, you star in Molly’s Game, a film based on a real woman who went from being a world-class skier to running a high-stakes VIP poker game. Why was it import­ant to you to tell her story?

“I didn’t know much about her, but when I read Aaron Sorkin’s script, I was blown away, and I started to research her. What really fas­cinated me is that her story is about how society sees a woman taking charge, especially what that woman has to become for men to accept her in that position. I thought about that a lot.”

And what were you thinking?

“I think that in the United States, and probably in many other countries, it’s easier for men to accept a woman in power if they find her sexually desirable.”

Because being hot is essential to holding office, right?

“It’s ridiculous. The way forward is we need to understand that women have more to offer than their sexual de­sirabil­ity—what about their intellect or ambition? It’s sad if we as a society deem women only valuable for their looks because everyone ages out of that.”

What would you like your legacy to be, your ultimate impact on the world?

“It’s not a bad thing to want to make your mark on the world, but I don’t think it’s all that important to have your name withstand the test of time. It’s more about what I’m doing right now and what I’m doing to contribute to making the world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds.”