There is a story Jessica Chastain tells about a trip to Disneyland when she was 10 years old, and a stranger’s act of kindness that made a lasting impact on her. As a child, she was an “ugly duckling”, with red hair and freckles. Her $100 clothing allowance had to last all year. It can be hard to credit – now she’s on the cover of Vogue, walking the red carpet in Versace and Givenchy – but for the first half of her life, almost no one gave her a second glance.
She was with her family, waiting for Mickey and Minnie to pass by in the parade, when one of the dancers spotted her in the crowd. “I hated everything about the way I looked, and a stranger came up to me and said ‘I love your hair’,” Chastain says. “And her talking to me that way empowered me. The idea that I could go and help someone feel stronger and more powerful and maybe step forward in their lives is really exciting to me.”
Chastain got her first big break in 2005 when Al Pacino cast her in the title role of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Each night, she stripped to perform the dance of the seven veils for 1400 people at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles. During the day, she reprised the role on a movie set, while a second film crew made a documentary about the process. Pacino played Herod and directed the enterprise in a kingly fury.
Casting agents noticed her performance, but the film, Wilde Salome, wasn’t released until 2011, the year Chastain became “the unknown everyone’s already sick of”, as she puts it, when seven of her films came out in a few months. In May, she was in Cannes with her Tree of Life co-stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. By January she had been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for The Help.
The glut was a coincidence of scheduling, the result of Pacino and Tree of Life director Terrence Malick’s glacial creative tempo, but it worked in Chastain’s favour by showing off her range as an actor, equally capable of playing a southern socialite, an Israeli spy, a bereaved mother and the frightened wife of a madman. From the Shakespearean verse of Corionalus to the police procedural of Texas Killing Fields, she could do it all.
“I look at her movies, the performances in her career, and it’s as if those characters are being played by different women, such is her ability to shape shift,” says Niki Caro, who directed her in new film The Zookeeper’s Wife. “She’s peerless. She has so much skill and so much depth.”
Chastain plays the title character, Antonina Zabinski, who ran the Warsaw Zoo with her husband Jan. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the reich’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck shipped prized animals to Berlin and had most of the rest killed. The Zabinskis suggested turning the zoo into a pig farm to feed the troops, and under cover of collecting scraps, smuggled more than 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to safety.
While playing a CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain taped images of al-Qaeda leaders to her bedroom wall. On the set of The Help, she drank moonshine and lived on fried food to fill out her figure. At Malick’s suggestion, she learned to meditate and studied paintings of the Madonna and poems by Thomas Aquinas, to play “the embodiment of grace and the spirit world” in Tree of Life. Among her peers, her dedication inspires awe.
“I just try to fill myself up with as much history of the character as I can,” she says. To become Antonina, she read her diaries (the bestselling book that the movie is adapted from draws on them extensively), met her daughter Teresa and visited Auschwitz.
“I know Antonina wouldn’t necessarily know what was going on in the camps, but for me this film is bigger than this one family, so I wanted to be there, to feel that ground beneath my feet.”
When I ask whether the recent nationalist uprisings, in Europe and the US, make the film uncomfortably resonant for her, she answers carefully: “I wasn’t making it as some political stance against rising nationalism. But I do see history as something you learn from … If we were to forget this time in history, and the warning signs that led there, then we’re going to make the same mistakes all over again.”
The film was shot in Prague and Josefov, an 18th-century fortress town near the border between the Czech Republic and Poland. Chastain wrote an essay for The Hollywood Reporter from the set, describing how working for a female director, with an unusually high number of women in the crew, had made her “giddy with happiness”.
“It just makes everything easier when you have diversity in storytelling,” she says. “It just felt easy, and happy, and we were laughing so much, even though we were making this very dark story. Any environment, whether it be Wall Street or politics or filmmaking or childcare, that is predominantly one gender, it’s not going to be a healthy environment.”
In 2014, emails hacked from Sony’s system exposed huge pay disparities in Hollywood. The following year, The New York Times published interviews with women working in movies, talking about the many small ways they are discriminated against and their struggle to be heard and win jobs they deserve.
“I’ve seen a change from when I first came into the industry,” Chastain says. “Then people were afraid to talk. Now you have Jennifer Lawrence writing an essay. You have Natalie Portman talking about how she made a third of her co-star’s pay. Zoe Saldana saying her co-stars are getting a private plane and she’s being denied childcare on set.”
Chastain is an active presence on social media. On International Women’s Day, she posted pictures of herself marching in Warsaw, in solidarity with women striking for income equality and abortion rights. When Moonlight triumphed at the Oscars, she tweeted: “A film about gay black love won best picture. I’m so in love with the ‘out of touch liberals’ in my industry.”
She attributes her social conscience to growing up poor, the daughter of a vegan chef and a firefighter stepfather. The family were evicted “two or three times” when she was a child, and she was only able to attend the Juilliard School in New York thanks to a scholarship sponsored by actor and comedian Robin Williams.
“Young people today, I think they’re feeling hopeless, they’re feeling like they don’t have a voice, they don’t have a platform,” she says. “So if I can encourage people to step forward in their lives, that’s my greatest goal with any of my films, with anything that I say on social media.” Chastain credits her versatility and her commitment to veracity to her education at Juilliard, where she prepared for a career in repertory theatre, studying Eugene O’Neill one day and commedia dell’arte the next. One day she would love to return, to pass on what she has learned.
“Acting is the only thing I’d know how to teach,” Chastain says. “There’s misconceptions. Some people think it’s lying, but I think it’s actually about being authentic and telling the truth. “If I can help someone let down any wall, or [take off] armour that they’ve put on themselves to go out into the world, and say ‘what is unique about you, what is authentic about you is what we want to see,’ that would be so rewarding to me.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife is released in cinemas on May 4.
Trunk calls in game with elephant
Playing in the opening scene of The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jessica Chastain’s character Antonina Zabinski is called away from a cocktail party to deal with an emergency in the elephant enclosure. A newborn is unable to breathe and will soon die, unless Zabinski can remove the obstruction in its airway, while fending off the infant’s panicked mother.
In preparation for the role, Chastain shadowed zoologists caring for animals in captivity. She chatted to Zabinski’s daughter, Teresa, who told her that her mother never wore trousers, no matter how dirty the work. She also spent several afternoons in the fields with her co-star, Lily the elephant, hunting for leaves.
The baby elephant was an animatronic puppet – realistic enough for the screen but of little appeal to Lily.
“The first take was a disaster, because she wasn’t interested in anything I was doing with this puppet,” Chastain says. For take two, she hid some apples – Lily’s favourite food – under the doll. “In the next take I knew ‘this is magical’ because her trunk was everywhere, searching for those apples. She looks desperate but we were actually playing a game.”
Director Niki Caro says the scene – shot at night in the freezing cold –demonstrates Chastain’s extraordinary professionalism. “There’s Jessica Chastain, in a tiny little cocktail dress, barefoot, on her knees on the concrete, covered in elephant mucus, while the rest of us are wearing four pairs of pants and three ski jackets … With this role, I think for the first time, she showed how soft she can be. A lot of her other roles are on the strong women end of the scale.”