Five years ago, a virtually unknown stage and TV actress from California auditioned for a play that Al Pacino was directing and starring in. The play was Salome, written by Oscar Wilde, and the actress was Jessica Chastain. A film was made of the stage production, and within three years Chastain had been nominated for two Oscars.
Now Pacino has made a documentary about the making of Salome – called Wilde Salome – and they are both available for the first time to British audiences.
“This is really special to me”, says Chastain. “This is my first film role, and this is the first time anyone ever really believed in me. Before I got this role I could rarely even get film auditions”.
This is really special to me. This is my first film role, and this is the first time anyone ever really believed in me. Before I got this role I could rarely even get film auditions.
“I got cast in the play first, and we did that, and then Al wanted to make the play into a movie in Los Angeles – because when Al Pacino does a play, everyone wants to see him – and then that was an incredible showcase for me. The audience would be scratching their heads and saying, ‘Who’s that red-headed girl with Al playing Salome?'”
Wilde’s play, originally written in French in 1891, is a tragedy based upon the Biblical account of the Tetrarch Herod (played by Pacino), who gave his stepdaughter Salome the head of John the Baptist in return for her dancing for him.
The original Salome was supposed to be about 16-years-old but Chastain, who was 32 at the time, does not think that her being twice Salome’s age mattered in the casting. She said: “The play still shows the themes – it’s a woman discovering her sexuality and trying to test its boundaries. It was a very dark, different play for Wilde to write compared to his other comedies.
“I am really interested in the arcs of characters – how do they finish their journey from where they began? That to me is incredibly interesting. Salome comes on stage, talking about herself, and says that she’s determined to live a life of purity that’s chaste, separate to the reputation of her mother Herodias, and separate from the debauchery of the court.
“She ends the film kissing a severed head. So that’s quite an exciting arc to go from this purity, to necrophilia.”
The actress, who is now 37, went on from Salome to be cast in independent films such as Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols, Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes and Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. She secured a supporting part as Celia in Tate Taylor’s The Help, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
The following year, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for terrorist drama Zero Dark Thirty.
“Watching Salome now, and the making of it, Wilde Salome, is like having a photo album of that time of my life, which I look back on as a very special time,” says Chastain.
“It’s hard to keep going if you’re an actor, to keep believing, and Al was the first person to give me that big chance. It was the first time that I had actually gone to an audition and started reading a classical text – and in LA you don’t often get to read those sorts of texts – and I could hear the director cheering me on, encouraging me from the audience.
“That was Al Pacino, and it did so much for my confidence, because I thought, ‘Wow, he really sees me as an actress.’
“So whatever I do now, I take those lessons that he taught me with this film. He is my acting godfather, he’s like a second father to me, and I just adore him. The most shocking thing is that he’s so funny. Who’d have thought that Al Pacino would be funny?”
Chastain will next be seen in the leading role in Norwegian director Liv Ullmann’s film of August Strindberg’s play about seduction, Miss Julie, as well as opposite Oscar Isaac in JC Chandor’s new thriller, A Most Violent Year. She says though, if the offer is right, she would like to spend a season back on stage, preferably in London:
“I would love to do the West End,” she says. “I would love to have a part at the National Theatre. Just before I got cast in Salome, I had a meeting at the National and told them how much I wanted to work there – but anywhere in London, yes.
“I’d also love to go and work in with directors like Michael Haneke, perhaps spend time in another country. As an actress I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, so the more strange the experience the more I feel that I am participating in life.
“So I would love to work in French, to act in Italian, in as many countries as I can, meet as many different people as I can, to have many adventures. I have such an appetite for people and experiences – and this is the great thing about acting, as this profession can really provide that for you.”
Salome and Wilde Salome are on release now.