Jessica Chastain: The Good Fight
December 13, 2022
Her passion for telling women’s stories has won her a Best Actress title, inspired a production company, and made her a bold-faced name within the industry. But the Hollywood heavyweight isn’t stopping now.
Jessica Chastain isn’t shy about loving The Real Housewives. During recent talk show appearances, she’s declared her love for a Beverly Hills star and gleefully dissected a Salt Lake City housewife’s hot mic drama. It’s less common knowledge that the Oscar winner also enjoys Southern Charm, Summer House, and Winter House. Yes, Winter House—the low-rent spinoff in which the gang gets wasted for 17 days straight at Vermont ski chalet. “It’s not great thinking, the television I watch,” she admits, burrowing into a loveseat in a chilly subterranean sitting room at a beachside Los Angeles hotel on a Sunday afternoon in November. “But most of the time, when I watch it, it’s because my life is stressful and I need to just not think for a while.”
Turning off her brain has never been Chastain’s strong suit. She’s one of the most respected and powerful players in Hollywood, known as much for her work ethic as that cut-a-bitch chin. In just the last few months, she’s released the Netflix hit The Good Nurse, co-starring Eddie Redmayne, and announced she’ll be headlining Broadway’s A Doll’s House. She’s been nominated for three Oscars and won once–just this year, the best actress statue for her compassionate reimagining of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. “She’s always, like, three or four things deep,” says Kelly Carmichael, president of production and development at Freckle Films, the company Chastain founded in 2017 with an eye toward female-led projects, including The Eyes of Tammy Faye. “There’s no part of our industry that she doesn’t see as a learning opportunity.”
Their latest, the Showtime miniseries George & Tammy, out now, tells the whiskey-soaked love story of ’70s honky tonk power couple George Jones and Tammy Wynette (single mic duets and all). But unlike other portrayals of the birdie best known for singing “Stand By Your Man,” Chastain’s Tammy radiates main character energy. “The song isn’t about being a doormat. And the reality is Tammy Wynette was married five times.” Chastain says. “She made decisions in her life. To be a producer, and to have a production company, means you get to police that in the writing. You get to say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. We need to honor women as human beings. And they make their own choices—just like men do.'”
A pivotal choice comes in the show’s first episode, when country legend George (played by the ever-soulful Michael Shannon), confronts Tammy’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Don. In an early outline of George & Tammy, George gets Tammy alone that night by distracting Don with an escort. “I read it and I was deeply disturbed,” Chastian remembers. “[Tammy] was just kind of sitting there. People were creating stuff so she could be caught rather than her making decisions.” The escort subplot was quickly nixed. (“She’s very attuned to when things aren’t working,” says Carmichael.) During filming, Shannon made one final tweak.
As scripted, the scene went something like:
DON (picture a pencil neck with an ego): You’re going to fuck my wife, aren’t you, George?
GEORGE (Michael Shannon): Yes, I’m going to fuck her.
“[Michael] changed the line from, ‘Yes, I’m going to fuck her’—excuse the language—to, ‘I sure would like to,” Chastain remembers. “The second he said, ‘I sure would like to,’ it was like, ‘Oh, yes, this is happening. Because he sees her as someone who gets to make the decision. And that’s working with an actor who’s very aware he doesn’t own me.” Another perk of being producer? You get to pick your scenemates. “We were so in tune with one another,” says Shannon, who first met Chastain on the set of 2011’s Take Shelter. “The notion of sitting in front of another man and looking at a woman and proclaiming that you’re going to fuck her, seems a little neanderthal to me. I mean, if I was the woman in question, I wouldn’t enjoy that so much.”
(Spoiler: Tammy picks George.)
The idea of female agency has interested Chastain ever since she was a young girl surrounded by women. “My mom raised me. I was very close to my grandmother, who was single most of her life.” Women who had choices to make. “I remember I was in sixth grade, my sister was in fourth grade, my brother was in first grade, and my mom was out working as a bartender. We were home all the time alone at night. It was just like, ‘We’re taking care of ourselves,'” she says. “There was no other option. My mom couldn’t afford childcare, and she was trying to just get us fed. Getting food was the big deal.”
Over the years, the Jessica Chastain origin story has evolved into something shinier like: Middle class California girl and daughter of teenage sweethearts etc etc follows an acting pal to Juilliard, where she receives the Robin Williams scholarship, meets talented besties Oscar Isaac and Jeremy Strong on the acting scene, and bingo bango, a best actress Oscar nod for Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a nice little narrative arc, but the reality has far less to do with luck than it does hard-nosed determination.
“Zero Dark Thirty is when something switched in me,” she says. “Because I did that movie, and I love [director] Kathryn Bigelow. And then I saw the media with her.” The 2012 film about the capturing of Osama bin Laden was criticized as being pro-torture. “She had just won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. And the way she was being treated, I was like, ‘This is insane.’ I really felt a difference in gender.” The attitude shift proved permanent, something her producing partner clocked from the beginning. “When we first started working together, I noticed we would be on conference calls and I would wait for other people to give their opinion and she would be like, ‘No, no, no. What do you wanna say? You have something to say, please say it,'” Carmichael says. “I think it’s just how she operates. It’s just who she is.”
“I’m fiercly protective of women. To me, it is my great fight.“
Her direct approach and fierce determination goes beyond the work she does on-screen and behind the camera: Chastain wants to make sure the stories of real women in vulnerable positions around the globe are heard loud and clear. “I’m going to say something controversial right now, and I’ve had a margarita, so no one’s stopping me,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of press recently, and a lot of people want to talk about Ukraine. But when I bring up Iran, no one wants to talk about that.”
When I ask why she thinks that is, she doesn’t flinch: “I think because it’s a women-led revolution, and I think because Ukraine is mostly white people.” She has tried to use her platform to draw attention to the subject matter, even wearing a T-shirt in honor of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died in custody after being arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly, during a recent press tour. “I’m fiercely protective of women. To me it is my great fight,” she says. It’s likely why she became an actor. Why she willingly signs up to be a conduit for other women’s stories, their trauma, and their pain. “I use my job to try to celebrate women, but also celebrate women as human beings. Which means, yes, I can play characters that are flawed and do terrible things sometimes. It’s like my job is to constantly remind society that women are human beings.”
I tell her that her job sounds exhausting.
“It feels like there’s a cost,” she admits, tears forming in the corner of her eyes. “It costs me something. But at the same time as it costs me something, I gain something.”
The week before our conversation, Chastain found herself in another challenging role: Hollywood interloper at the Country Music Awards. “I was just terrified,” she says. “I was like, ‘[Tammy] is the first lady of country music, and here I am trying to emulate her. Are they going to run me out of town?'” Photos from that night show Chastain backstage, her glorious strawberry hair teased closer to God, wearing a beaded Gucci dress and drinking from a red Solo cup alongside Miranda Lambert. “Honestly, they couldn’t have been more kind, more generous, more loving,” she says. “It was such a lesson in…what is it? In judging people before you meet them, I guess.”
In the first week the George & Tammy trailer dropped it had amassed around 90,000 views, “which is pretty normal,” she says. “We did the CMAs, and then all of a sudden it started going up a million a day.” At press time, the trailer in which she sings Tammy Wynette’s most iconic song, had been viewed nearly six million times.
I suggest that perhaps the country crowd has been historically underestimated by Hollywood.
“And underserved,” she says, her producer hat firmly back on.
It would be so much easier for Chastain to stay in her lane. To retreat to the Manhattan brownstone she shares with her husband and their two young children, over whom she is fiercely protective.
“Normally I never talk about my personal life,” she says. “But I had a conversation with my daughter not that long ago. And when you’re talking to kids it’s like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘I want to be a ballerina. And she was like, ‘I want to be a mama.’
And I was like, ‘That’s a great thing to be. But you know, you can be more than one thing.’
She’s like, ‘What do you mean?’
I said, ‘Well, look at me, honey. I’m a mama. I’m an actress. I’m a producer. I’m a business owner. I’m a friend. I’m a cook. I started listing all these things. Like, I am many things, so you can be whatever you want. You can be the president. You can be a ballerina. You can be a mama. And it was so shocking for her to hear all of this.”
I say that being a president-ballerina-mama sounds exhausting. I’m kidding!
“I just demand more than anyone else could demand of me.”
Maybe one day Chastain will actually stop working so hard. Stop fighting the big fight. She’ll star in some dumb franchise that demands nothing of her, make a gazillion dollars, and spend the rest of her days watching Housewives and polishing her Oscars. Maybe, but probably not. “I just demand more than anyone else could demand of me,” she says. “I feel incredibly lucky to have the life that I have right now, and to make the choices that I get to make, to have the freedom over my body that I get to have. And to just sit in the ease of all of that—in the financial ease, the freedom-of-my-body ease—without trying to create it for others? I feel like that’s selfish. I just wouldn’t like myself.”