Jessica Chastain on sexism in Hollywood: ‘Somebody important kind of spanked me’

Telegraph | Published: April 29, 2017
By Elizabeth Day

Jessica Chastain plays ruthless secret agents, political lobbyists and wins endless award nominations. And she’s unafraid to speak out about sexism in the film industry. So why does talking about her granny make her cry?

Jessica Chastain still has a key ring she was given by her high-school boyfriend in Sacramento, California. He bought it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Inscribed on it were the words, ‘Looking forward to working with you here’.

‘That was my dream,’ Chastain recalls with a smile. ‘I was like, “Oh my God, I hope some day I get cast in their company.’’’ She pauses. ‘So where I am now is really kind of beyond.’

And where exactly is she now? Sitting in an armchair in Claridge’s hotel in London, at the top of her professional game, with two Oscar nominations already under her belt and a new film to promote. In two weeks, Chastain stars in Miss Sloane, in which she plays a hard-nosed Washington lobbyist who takes on the political establishment. Her performance has already been hailed as ‘riveting’ and ‘tough, driven and uncompromising’.

In person, Chastain is softer, and pulls the sleeves of her jumper over her hands as she talks. Her legs are folded neatly underneath her. She is wearing flat pumps and drinking tea.

Half an hour before, in a suite a few floors below, I had watched her dressed up in designer clothes, full make-up and a floppy-brimmed hat as she posed for photographs: tilting her face this way and that to catch the light, arching her back to make interesting shapes against the window. There was a focus to the way she did it. No eye contact with anyone other than the photographer.

A quiet determination to get it done as efficiently and as well as possible. She possessed that clear internal sense of what looked best, of how to move her own body, of what clothes would work. The right wardrobe, Chastain says, can be ‘an outfit for battle’.

On set, it helps her get into character. As Elizabeth Sloane, the protagonist in John Madden’s new film, she wears power suits and high heels. Chastain met with 11 female lobbyists before filming. Seven of them wore ‘black-green or black-brown or black-red nail polish’, she says. ‘Black is a colour that shows strength; it’s a colour that shows power. It’s not very feminine, it doesn’t show vulnerability, but you’re still polished, ready for work.’

Miss Sloane has black nails. Today, Chastain’s are nude. She is a warm and interesting person to interview, partly because you get the sense she takes nothing for granted.

Although she refuses to say exactly how old she is (‘I never talk about my age. Honestly, in male profiles, they never talk about the age. And I feel that the media needs to treat women the same as they treat men, and not perpetuate the problem’), it’s a matter of record that she only became famous in her mid-30s.

In 2011, after years as a jobbing actress in television shows, small films and regional theatre, Chastain broke through in spectacular fashion.

She had six movie releases over 12 months, including Take Shelter (directed by Jeff Nichols), the Ralph Fiennes adaptation of Coriolanus, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and her biggest commercial hit of the year, The Help, in which Chastain starred as a wannabe socialite who becomes friends with her black maid in segregated 1960s Mississippi. It won her a best supporting actress nomination at the Oscars.

Chastain appeared to come out of nowhere – a fully formed actress capable of playing anything from Shakespeare to box-office catnip. In fact, she had graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York in 2003, and was only just getting started: a role as an agent on the trail of Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 earned her a best-actress nod.

Chastain then turned her hand to almost every cinematic genre you can think of: science fiction (Interstellar), high gothic (Crimson Peak), gangster (A Most Violent Year) and big-budget franchise (The Huntsman: Winter’s War). Her versatility has won her wide acclaim. The film critic Roger Ebert once compared her to Meryl Streep: ‘Who else has such a range and ability to convince?’ he wrote.

It’s all a long way from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and her performance in Miss Sloane is a tour de force. Chastain is barely off-screen for 132 minutes. The dialogue is so rapid-fire it should come with a semi-automatic weapons licence.

Unusually for a female protagonist, we are given almost no backstory to explain Sloane’s aggressive and frequently unlikeable demeanour. When Sloane decides to campaign for a bill introducing greater controls for gun owners, she takes on the powerful gun lobby and challenges one of the founding principles of the American constitution.

Sloane ploughs on regardless, refusing to explain her motives. She is portrayed as a person who loves to win – at any cost. It’s like Raging Bull but with lobbying instead of boxing, and a woman throwing the punches instead of a man.

It’s difficult to overstate how refreshing this is to watch. Hollywood has got better of late at introducing complicated, multidimensional female parts, but there is still a tendency in some quarters to portray women as the Lycra-clad adjunct to a male comic-book action figure.

‘When I was starting out and auditioning I would read things [in scripts] like, “Rebecca, blonde, the girl next door,’’’ says Chastain. She gestures at her own auburn hair. ‘You’d never see a redhead! Women were in two categories: the brunette or the blonde.’

Miss Sloane was a welcome antidote. ‘I saw it as a study of addiction,’ Chastain explains. ‘I find that most people suffering from addiction are trying to fill this emptiness that they have inside. People do it with drugs, they do it with food, they do it with sex. I think Elizabeth Sloane does it with winning – the high that she gets from the win, you know? It’s like the hunt, the kill, that high she gets. In our industry, we are not [typically] presented with female characters that are allowed to show ambition.’

She thinks women in general suffer from the curse of perfectionism, and cites some research recently conducted in the States, which found that girls sitting maths exams at school would refuse to answer a question if they feared they might get it wrong. The boys had no such qualms and often scored higher for attempting to solve the problem, even if the answer was incorrect. ‘We talk ourselves out [of it],’ Chastain says.

In the early days of her career, she often experienced sexism. There is one particular incident that sticks in her mind: ‘I won’t say who, but I’ve been on a movie where someone very important… I had been walking down the hall and they kind of spanked me on the butt. And I did turn around and say, “Did you just spank me?” I was really upset about it. But in their mind it was completely normal. It was fine behaviour.

‘I think stuff like that happens all the time. Probably now it would never happen to me because I’m really… I’m not a shrinking violet. If I see behaviour against me, or against anyone, that is unjust, then I will absolutely say something.’

She meets my eye. I believe her. There’s strength in that smile.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Chastain has always been surrounded by strong women. Her mother, Jerri, a vegan chef, was a teenager when she had her. Her biological father was a rock musician who fell out of her life when she was a child. Chastain, her younger sister, Juliet, and her half-brother, Will (she has two other half-siblings through her father) were raised in Sacramento, California, by Jerri and her subsequent husband, Michael Hastey, a fireman.

It was not an easy ride: Juliet committed suicide in 2003 after struggles with depression and drug abuse, something Chastain understandably chooses not to discuss. But possibly the most formative influence in Chastain’s young life was her grandmother on her mother’s side, Marilyn.

‘She always seemed so glamorous to me,’ says Chastain. ‘I loved the way she smelt. She had this perfume that she had made for her. I would go into her dresser and smell her clothes.’

Marilyn was also a redhead and had grown up in Kansas before getting married to her high-school boyfriend at 18. She never enjoyed the opportunities her granddaughter had, simply by dint of when and where she was born. In other circumstances, says Chastain, ‘She would have been an amazing actress, probably.’

When Chastain was having a tough time fitting in at school (she was teased for her freckles, had a brief spell as a goth and used to play truant to read Shakespeare), it was her grandmother who brought her out of herself.

‘She was always the one who was trying to find inspiration in me, what would make me happy. I remember one year, for Christmas, she bought me a blue leotard and blue tutu and ballet lessons. And then she took me to a play, my first. It was a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and they had cast a little girl as the narrator.

‘Immediately I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is this little girl’s job. She gets paid for this?” And I knew: this is what my job is. Not: “I want to be this when I grow up.” It was just: “Ah, this is what I am.’’’

Chastain was eight. Twenty-something years later, she took her grandmother as her date to the Oscars. ‘I was so grateful for her being there because I didn’t understand the enormity of what was going on. Whenever my grandma is around, I always feel like I want to take care of her, I want to make sure she’s having a good time, that she feels comfortable.

‘So the feeling of everyone looking at me or taking a picture of my gown, like I have to perform, was instead turned into, “How’s my grandma doing?” and, “How is this for her?” I saw the experience through her eyes, and it was really emotional. She said to me that day was the best day of her life and…’

Chastain breaks off. Her eyes have welled up to the point where blinking will make her cry. Eventually she concedes defeat, blinks and the tears roll down her cheeks.

‘I think it’s because I just saw her,’ she says, by way of apology. The family recently spent time together in Napa Valley, she tells me. They did the kinds of things families do: went for dinner, saw a movie. Except when they walked out of the cinema, there was a huge poster for Miss Sloane.

‘And I stood next to the poster and did the position’ – she puts her hands on her hips to demonstrate – ‘and we all took pictures. You know, it’s only been five years [of fame]. I know it feels like it’s been longer because I’ve done 27 movies or something ridiculous. But it really has only been five years since my movies have been out in the theatres. We never really talked in terms of this kind of life. We’re all still catching up. Even I’m catching up a little bit.’

Her grandmother sometimes tells her that she’s ‘not doing a good enough job at being a famous person’, but Chastain prefers to keep things low key. She lives in New York with her boyfriend, the fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, and knows, when she visits Los Angeles, to keep away from the paparazzi spots.

‘If you have lunch at The Ivy on Robertson, you’re probably going to get photographed. I know what places to avoid.’

Chastain was the first person in her family to go to college, and also the first not to become a teenage mother. Was that a conscious decision?

‘Definitely. Yeah, it was really conscious. I saw what my grandmother, my aunts, my mom, struggled with, and I’m really glad they did because I’m here because of what they struggled with. But I saw that they didn’t really have control in their lives – financial control or… you know, they didn’t have jobs that they loved. So I knew growing up that that was something I wanted. I wanted something different.’

That determination has paid off. This year sees Chastain continue her assault on the big screen with roles including a Polish zookeeper who saved lives during the Second World War in The Zookeeper’s Wife, and a disgruntled skier in scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game.

She is also on this year’s Cannes Film Festival jury. She immerses herself in such a broad range of parts that I wonder if she ever gets recognised as herself?

‘Yeah, sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. I will say, sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t. It helps because I was in a car with someone who got pulled over – this was like a week ago – for speeding, and then the cop came to the door and he said, “Well, what are you guys doing here?” And I said, “I’m making a film.” And he kind of looked at me and he could recognise me, but he couldn’t place me. I think that’s what I get a lot. And when I saw him I was like, OK, a cop, I’ve got one chance at this. Then I said, “Zero Dark Thirty’’.’

It was the right choice. The policeman asked her to pose for a picture with him and his partner. Then he let them go. ‘So that was a positive thing because we didn’t get a ticket!’

She’s genuinely delighted and surprised. I think her grandmother’s probably right. For all her success, I’m not sure Jessica Chastain has got used to being a famous person just yet.