For ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ much was left to Jessica Chastain’s imagination
BY CINDY PEARLMAN December 27, 2012 6:58PM
Zero Dark Thirty Stationed in a covert base overseas, Jessica Chastain plays a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' electrifying new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, ZERO DARK THIRTY.
Updated: January 31, 2013 6:24AM
NEW YORK — Jessica Chastain didn’t just get into the mindset of a top CIA agent for “Zero Dark Thirty.”
She lived the role in a way that reminds you of the Carrie Mathison character on “Homeland.”
“I had a printout of all the pictures of the terrorists and hung them all over the walls in my hotel suite,” she says of the shoot in India. “On my nightstand were books on Osama bin Laden.”
It’s a far cry from the trappings of her New York hotel suite on this day. Chastain arrives looking lovely in a pink and white flowered dress. Her red hair flows down her back but soon will be pinned up for the night’s performance of “The Heiress” on Broadway.
“Zero Dark Thirty” (opening Friday in Chicago) sits at No. 1 on many Top 10 lists. It’s also poised to compete for the best picture Oscar, with Chastain a strong contender for a best actress nomination for playing Mya, the CIA operative who won’t stop until she brings down bin Laden.
“When I read the script for this movie, every page was a shock to me,” she says. “Then I got upset that it was such a shock. Why would I assume a woman wouldn’t be involved in capturing bin Laden?”
She sighs and adds, “Usually women in movies are defined by the men. But [director] Kathryn Bigelow wouldn’t make a movie like that. She’s so capable and intelligent. She represents this generation of women.”
Mya is based on a real-life agent. Though Republicans have alleged the “Zero Dark Thirty” team received classified information from the U.S. government, the actress makes one thing clear.
“I never met Mya,” Chastain says. “She’s an undercover CIA agent, and it wouldn’t be a good thing to meet her.”
She says that she found what she needed to play Mya in the script by Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker) and from Bigelow. “I got a lot of research from Mark. It really helps when your screenwriter is an investigative journalist. He could answer any of my questions,” she says.
“I also had to use my imagination to create a character that respected the real woman.”
The star of “The Help” and the recent “Lawless” says this was the acting challenge of her career.
“I’m playing a character who is trying to be non-emotional and analytically precise,” she says. “As an actor, you spend your whole life trying to be emotionally open. To find the humanity was a great challenge.”
Some controversial scenes depict U.S. operatives torturing prisoners, under Mya’s watch.
“Those scenes were tough to film,” Chastain admits. “We shot them in an actual Jordanian prison. It was good that we weren’t on some soundstage in L.A.
“The location created an atmosphere that’s absolutely needed. But it was still a very tough week. Instead of making judgments on what I believe is right and wrong, I focused on that this was an introduction to Mya who was recruited right out of school.
“She shows up in her suit to see this torture and it’s much more intense than what I or she imagined.”
More fun for Chastain was a bombastic moment involving only verbal hits. “I loved the yelling and cussing scene. It felt really good to just emote,” she says. “Again, it’s very hard to play someone who is so subtle and specific.
“So it was fun for me to chew out Kyle Chandler’s government figure,” she says with glee.
But her favorite scene was the final one, where Mya breaks down in tears. “It says more about who this woman is than anything else,” Chastain says. “This is not a propaganda movie where we’re shouting, ‘Go America.’ It’s about a woman who became a servant to her work and lost herself along the way. We ask, ‘Where does she go from here? Where do we go as a society?’ To end the film on that question is far more interesting than finding an answer.”
She stops because soon she has to leave to get ready for “The Heiress.”
“I’m a crazy person,” Chastain admits. “I think my first film came out a year and a half ago. Now, I’m so busy, but I’m lucky to do what I do.
“It’s a very strange thing to be talking about this film with you and then go, ‘OK, in a few hours, I’m going to put my nose on and my pin curls in and go on stage.’
“It’s a great gift. I’m in love with my work.”
“I’m a very emotional girl and very sensitive,” she says. “It’s nice to play all these people so different than me.”
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