Published on Evening Standard (Dec 17) – Interview by Sanjiv Bhattacharya
Having come to fame from difficult beginnings and much later than most actors, Jessica Chastain is still fighting for what she sees as being right.
An actress and her publicist are sitting around a kitchen table in boiling hot Beverly Hills, eating macrobiotic salads and talking about Harvey Weinstein.
So far, so unremarkable. These days, this is a scene that’s being repeated at lunch tables throughout the city. Only today, the actress is Jessica Chastain, who knows Weinstein — she made a number of movies that he bought and distributed. And she knows some of the other people involved. So she has a lot to say on the subject.
‘Yeah, he tried to get me to pimp out my best friend [the actress] Jess Weixler,’ says Chastain. ‘Like very flirtatious, “Oh I’ve got such a crush on her — you got to help me.” He’s incredibly friendly but also very volatile. He normalised the abuse. But everyone in this industry is complicit. We’re all part of the problem. I heard the rumours even before I entered the industry. So we have to ask ourselves, why was it okay? Why are agents sending actresses to meetings in hotel rooms? It goes back to the days of Fatty Arbuckle, Louis B Mayer, Jack Warner. Shirley Temple said in her biography that when she was 12, a producer pulled out his penis! So we can look at Harvey as though he was the cancer or we can be realistic. He’s not the disease, he’s the symptom.’
After only a few minutes in Chastain’s company, this much is clear: she’s not one to hold back. Small and flame-haired, she possesses the kind of fierce confidence that comes through her own grit and talent. So when something bothers her, she speaks up.
A case in point: when the reporter Sharon Waxman accused Matt Damon of trying to kill a New York Times story about Weinstein (which Damon has since denied), Chastain, his co-star in The Martian, leapt to Damon’s defence on Twitter.
‘I believe he had no idea what the story was about when he called the journalist,’ she tells me. ‘He was manipulated by Weinstein. But…’ She grimaces. ‘I really don’t want to talk about Matt because it’s just another gossipy distraction. I’m more interested in how we can make progress. We can’t just let this be a reaction to the Trump presidency. We have to create change. And I believe our attention goes where our intention goes.’
That sounds very Deepak Chopra, I tell her. And she laughs.
‘It does. I haven’t actually read any of his books but I do always try to look for the positive line of energy. How can we transform this into something healing?’
‘Like a safe place in this industry for women to go if something has happened to them. And we need movie studios with a board that’s not one gender. More women filmmakers, writers and producers. The one huge thing that we’ve never tried in Hollywood is putting more women in positions of power.’
Chastain has never shied away from politics. When the Sony email hack of 2013 revealed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were being paid significantly less than their male co-stars on American Hustle, she was quick to speak up.
‘Yes, I’ve made a few decisions,’ she laughs. ‘I’m not going to make a movie with Harvey Weinstein. And I’m not going to get paid a third less than my male co-star who has equal experience. If you want to blackball me for that, then okay, but I won’t participate in the disease.’
Chastain has a section on her Wikipedia profile that reads ‘Feminist lead roles’, and it’s well earned. She’s known for playing tough women who subvert gender expectations in some way. In Zero Dark Thirty she played Maya, a fictional CIA agent who tracks down Bin Laden. In The Huntsman: Winter’s War she played a warrior, one of three female leads. In Miss Sloane she played a ruthless DC lobbyist who takes on the NRA. ‘But it’s about much more than guns,’ she says. ‘It’s about who’s been bought. How to effect political change. I don’t have a gun myself but I believe in the right to buy one. That might shock some of my liberal friends. My dad used to hunt.’
In truth, Chastain has played lots of other kinds of women in around 30 movies. Like Celia in The Help, or The Zookeeper’s Wife, or The Tree of Life, in which she played the embodiment of grace. ‘We’ve just gotten used to seeing women as plot devices or props to push the male story forward. So I look for scripts with women who have an inner life and their own goals and objectives. People say, “Oh, she’s so strong”, but she’s just a realistic character.’
Her latest character, in Molly’s Game, is particularly realistic. The directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, it’s a ‘based on true events’ story that fits squarely into the modern narrative of female empowerment. It tells the story of a waitress who finds a lucrative gig assisting a boorish man who runs an illegal poker game in Hollywood. Fed up of his mistreatment, she steals his customers and starts her own game using Playboy models as croupiers and waitresses. She makes $4 million a year while the going’s good, but then the FBI busts her because some of her regulars are Russian mobsters.
On the face of it, she’s a criminal opportunist who, thanks to her lawyer (Idris Elba), gets off lightly (no prison, just a fine and probation). But Chastain sees her differently — as a woman who dared to enter a men’s world, so the men turned on her.
‘Underground poker is a glorified man cave,’ she says. ‘It’s about a woman who worked incredibly hard to become successful in an industry where very rich, powerful men make the rules and the rules change depending on their whims. This is the story that needs to be told right now.’
Like Molly in the movie, Chastain is self-made. In an industry rife with nepotism and privilege, she’s someone who grew up poor, in a small town near Sacramento in northern California. Her now-deceased biological father, about whom she won’t speak, left when she was a child, so she was raised by her stepfather, a firefighter, and her mother, a vegan chef, who had her hands full — she was 16 when she had Jessica and by the age of 22 she had three children to raise.
‘We stole food at the store because we didn’t have any money,’ says Chastain matter-of-factly. ‘And some people knew she was doing it but didn’t stop her. So there is kindness everywhere. We’re okay now because people were protecting her.’
It was her maternal grandmother, Marilyn, who inspired her to act. She took her to a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, where she saw a young girl who’d been cast as the narrator. Chastain, who was eight, decided to be like that girl — an actress. Twenty-six years later, when she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for The Help, she took her grandmother as her date.
‘I grew up rooting for the underdog,’ she says. ‘The person that no one believed in, who came from nothing and maybe had boundaries because of their gender or race. I’ll go into battle for them more than myself. And animals, too — they’re the ultimate underdogs.’
A vegan now for 12 years, she laughs, ‘I was vegan before Beyoncé!’
She was the first in her family to go to college, winning a place at Juilliard in New York, on a scholarship funded by Robin Williams. But it wasn’t a joyous time. The stress was too much. Her extended family had scraped together the extra fees for her and ‘I worried, “What if I get kicked out?” It caused a lot of anxiety.’
Then, just three days before graduating, her full sister Juliet committed suicide at their biological father’s house. Jessica was 24 at the time.
‘Losing my sister did bring us together as a family,’ she says. ‘When you lose someone, you never want to lose another person again. Even a stranger. That’s why I have so much empathy for people struggling with depression. Because society doesn’t really understand it, they’re made to feel like they’re being selfish. I noticed that with Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.’ She supports a charity called To Write Love on Her Arms that helps with depression at high schools.
Her film career sputtered at first, but she was doing a lot of theatre. And one part, as Salome opposite Al Pacino, changed her life. ‘That was the moment for me,’ she says. ‘All the film people in LA wanted to see Al Pacino on stage, and oh, who’s this girl that no one’s ever heard of?’ She and Pacino went on to make the movie Wilde Salomé, with Pacino directing, and Chastain can’t speak highly enough about him. ‘My film work is because of his friendship and mentorship — that student-teacher relationship. He taught me how the camera is connected to your soul. Whatever you’re feeling, the camera sees. He changed me as an actor. And, yeah, we’re still friends. He’s a big texter. Loves emojis!’
Of all the film auditions that followed, the game-changer was The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick — still her favourite movie. ‘It was huge — personally, emotionally, spiritually,’ she gushes. ‘And that’s what gets forgotten with all this Weinstein stuff. There are some amazing men who are trying to make things better. Al Pacino was a great mentor and protector. Terrence was like a spiritual guide. John Madden [director of Miss Sloane] too. I just want to acknowledge the good guys. Gotta try to find the positive.’
It was 2011 when Chastain went from relative obscurity to suddenly being everywhere at once. And she remembers the moment well. ‘I came home from Cannes and was having brunch in LA, and I got a call to say that The Tree of Life had won the Palme d’Or and my other film, Take Shelter, had won the Grand Prix. That was when it turned.’
She won two Oscar nominations in consecutive years for The Help and then Zero Dark Thirty. And the run of hits continued: Mama, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar and The Martian, not to mention she’d met her future husband, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, along the way.
‘Yeah, we met at a fashion show five and a half years ago in Paris, on the day that I got nominated for The Help,’ she beams. ‘That’s what I call a good day.’
Passi de Preposulo was once the PR director for Armani, but is now at the fashion brand Moncler. And he’s Italian nobility, too, from a lineage that can be traced back to the first millennium. His family makes its own prosecco. At the wedding in June this year, Chastain celebrated with Anne Hathaway, among others, at a reception in Venice.
She has some tantalising prospects on the horizon, playing Ingrid Bergman and Tammy Wynette. Her production company, Freckle Films, is on the hunt for true stories to adapt for TV, especially ‘incredible stories about minorities and women that haven’t made it into the history books’.
And when she’s not working, she’s escaping to a country home on the east coast — a secret location — where she and her husband enjoy an idyllic existence.
‘I’m up before dawn — I’m a morning person. I just get my tea and sit and listen to the birds while the sun comes up.’ She’ll work her vegetable garden there, pop to the farm down the street to pick blackberries and then come home and make a pie (she loves to cook). There are even a couple of wild swans who pay her a visit. ‘I’ve named them Eleanora and Phoebe, and I feed them bread in water. They eat out of my hand.’
She turned 40 in March and life is coming together just like it’s supposed to at this age. Something about finding fame a little later than most — she was 34 when everybody learned her name — has given her both an appreciation for success but also a healthy distance.
‘I don’t feel too beholden to fame,’ she says, ‘because at the end of the day it could all go away but I’ll be okay. That’s why I don’t have to make myself smaller to get work. I’ll just do theatre like I used to. Actually…’ She brings a finger to her lips as she remembers. ‘I’m talking about doing theatre in London in 2019. I can’t wait. I’m there a few times a year anyway, but oh I love it there. Marylebone, Kensington Park, the shopping, Liberty… and the Indian food — it’s better than in India.’
I have a feeling London won’t know what’s hit it.
Molly’s Game is out 1 Jan