LOS ANGELES—Jessica Chastain almost did not get to do the role in “Zero Dark Thirty,” for which many critics consider her as the Best Actress frontrunner in this awards season.
The redhead actress, who has been winning acclaim in recent years, puts her distinctive stamp in her portrayal of Maya, based on a real person, a young CIA officer who was key to finding Osama Bin Laden. Jessica is terrific in the follow-up film of screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow to their Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker.”
“They made an inquiry about me for this film,” shared the actress. “I wasn’t available, schedule-wise. You usually don’t hear about that, because the worst thing to hear from your agent is, ‘By the way, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to work with you, but you can’t do it.’ So, I didn’t even know about it. It wasn’t until the end of November (2011) that I got a telephone call from Kathryn on my cell phone. She left a message after I had heard about the movie from Megan Ellison (one of the film’s producers).”
The actress, memorable in one film after another, from “The Help,” “Take Shelter” to “Tree of Life,” was hooked when she sat down to read Mark’s screenplay. She enthused, “I immediately said, ‘I want to do this!’ I felt like I understood this woman—I understood the idea of becoming a servant to this drive that she has. It was just a schedule conflict that we needed to work out. Everyone did whatever they could. Thank God it happened because, after reading the script, it could have broken my heart had I not been able to play her!”
Then came the harder part—Jessica couldn’t divulge the role she was playing until recently. “I read the script in November over a year ago,” she recalled. “I’m the worst at keeping secrets, so when I got the part, I wanted to scream it from the mountaintops—and I couldn’t! I had to keep it all quiet until several weeks ago, actually.”
“The second that I started reading the script, every page was a secret,” she added. Part of the film’s appeal is following Maya, whose young-girl looks belie a strong personality, who is determined to find the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“It was something I didn’t know about,” she said of the female agent’s role in the manhunt. “Everyone saw Maya as a girl. The wonderful thing to think about the screenplay that Mark wrote and Kathryn made into a film was that even in the end, when Maya identifies the body of Osama Bin Laden, and she’s on the phone and someone says, ‘100 percent,’ you hear him say, ‘The girl.’
“Even at the end, she’s known as the girl and not as the woman, despite all the hurdles that Maya struggled through. Every day was full of secrets. I am just glad that there are finally no more secrets. We have to protect everyone involved, because they’re active members of the CIA. You have to shy away from talking about it in the press, but I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to portray this woman.”
Maya is a different kind of female protagonist: “We’re used to seeing spy movies, where a woman uses her sex,” Jessica explained. “This is the true story of a woman who does the opposite. She actually becomes sexless in a way, like a machine—it’s all based on her brain rather than her feminine wiles. That I find very inspiring to play!”
“When we were filming the torture sequences, and being in that environment as a woman, I did start to get scared,” Jessica admitted. After our interview, controversy brewed over those torture scenes when several US senators denied that harsh interrogation techniques were used. “But, I don’t want to be someone who lets her life be controlled by fear. I hope everyone who sees the movie understands that we tried to create as accurate a depiction as possible and be as respectful to those involved.”
Asked about all the hosannas being heaped on her for this performance and in recent ones—even the UK’s The Guardian has declared that she has the promise of being the next Meryl Streep, Jessica was modest. “I always feel a little out of my depth,” she revealed. “Even when people are being nice, I feel a great responsibility to something that I don’t know if it’s even there. I feel like, ‘How am I going to live up to that?’ Maybe that’s because in my head, I have self-doubt.
“I’m sometimes afraid of praise, because I don’t like disappointing anyone. It’s a beautiful thing to work for a long time, and to have people tell me that they believe in me because, as an actor, I am not 17 years old anymore—I’ve worked for a while. To be at a place where I’m having people encourage me, lift me up, and give me hugs—that’s a beautiful thing!”
Right after “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica made two films, including “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” where she worked with Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, James McAvoy and Viola Davis. “It’s a great cast,” she said. Then, she went on the Broadway stage in “The Heiress” which runs until February. But, with her recent nominations for “Zero Dark…,” Jessica cleared some dates so she can grace several awards shows. At the rate Jessica is earning nods, her understudy will be busy playing Catherine for several more nights.
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