Q&A: JESSICA CHASTAIN’S DARK RIDE

By now everyone’s heard about the controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film, Zero Dark Thirty. Written by investigative journalist Mark Boal—and allegedly aided by Navy SEALs involved in the mission that ended Osama Bin Laden’s life—the film traces the decade-long manhunt for the most wanted man in the world. In the interview below, Oscar-nominated star Jessica Chastain discussed the film’s political implications as well as what it was like to get inside the head of a woman who helped scour the planet for a ghostly figure. At the time, she was still starring in the Broadway revival of The Heiress, in which she played the titular character who was being wooed by a young man of suspicious intents while also coping with a repressive, highly critical father.

I never knew about The Heiress until I recently saw you in it on Broadway. It’s a decades-old story that’s very feminist. It’s bleak but very interesting and unusual.

It’s a great story. The first time they did it [in the late ’40s], they were pressured to change the ending. They did it in Boston, and it was such a hit that they let the playwrights end the play with her choosing not to marry anyone.

Now you have Zero Dark Thirty, which is another happy role for you.

I know. I’ve got to do some comedy soon.

I was watching the first torture sequence and wondering if your initial reactions were acting, or were those just your actual responses?

Every time I’m acting it’s always me. But the difficult thing was that I’m playing a person who’s trained to be unemotional, and I’ve been trained my whole life to be emotional, so in real life I would’ve had a much more extreme reaction to being around all of that stuff. But what I had to deal with was that this was the very first time she’d ever seen this and allow her to have this feeling of stress, and I also had to be the professional that she is. Washington, D.C. says she’s a killer, so you have to see her overcome any kind of vulnerability that she might feel.

Did you have a real-life CIA liaison or someone with insider information who could guide you through what your character was going through?

For the majority of my work, I just counted on Mark Boal because he’s an investigative journalist, and there are other parts I’d rather just not talk about. I’ve never been in such a controversial film. Everyone’s trying to re-appropriate it. Perhaps because it’s a very controversial subject. Before it came out, Republicans were saying it was a pro-Obama campaign commercial, which is not the case. Now there’s the movie critics’ idea that it’s pro-torture, which is absolutely not the case. Had we not included scenes of torture in the film, for me that would have been a great immoral lie. Sweeping something under the rug is like saying it never happened, and we need to be responsible for our American history and decide how we’re going to proceed in the future.

I heard that Kathryn wanted to make an apolitical film, and in a way it really is. You don’t walk out of there necessarily taking one side or the other, it’s more like a re-creation which leads you to debate the positives and negatives of the situation.

She ends the film with a question: “Where do you want to go?” And it’s never answered [by Maya]. Where could she go? Who could she become? She’s nowhere near the woman she was at the beginning of the film. Where can she go? Where do we go as a country? Where do we go as a society? And what do we do now that we’ve seen what our past has entailed? Does shedding blood actually solve problems?

Is your character based on a real person?

She’s absolutely based on a real person. The Washington Post wrote an article about her saying that she was passed up for a promotion because she has a difficult personality and doesn’t play well with her colleagues.

Was she the actual person leading the manhunt, or was she involved in it to a large degree?

She was never leading the hunt—she doesn’t have that sort of seniority in the CIA—but she was the person who found the data on Abu Ahmed and tracked him down to the compound. She was there at the end of the day when Osama’s body was brought back. [Navy SEAL] Mark Owen talks about her as Jen in his book, and stays very close to what was shown in the film.

What was the most difficult sequence for you to film?

All the torture stuff was a nightmare to film. Even though we were being very responsible with each other, no one had fun on those days. We were filming in actual Jordanian prisons, so the environment of the shoot wasn’t great. The energy was just really low, and it was kind of depressing.

 

VIDEO PROVOCATEURS

Raging German headbangers Rammstein may not sing in English much, but the industrial throb and militant drive of their music has won followers worldwide. Years back, a woman told me that her neighbor used to annoyingly blast Jewel while working out, so she retaliated with Rammstein. The problem stopped. Rammstein had one album go gold here in the late ’90s, but even though sales have since dropped, they can still play Madison Square Garden and similar venues because of their wild concerts featuring flame-throwing and simulated gay sex. Rammstein: Videos 1995-2012 obviously encapsulates their career, but it’s more than just a standard video collection as it includes insightful featurettes into the creation of every provocative clip. The three-disc DVD (or two-disc Blu-ray) set also comes packaged with a 56-page booklet featuring video stills and song credits. These musical insurgents flout homoerotic overtones, surreal imagery and unglamorous characterizations of themselves portraying everyone from slaves to obese rockers to banged-up convicts. My favorite video of the lot is still 2005’s “Amerika,” in which they mock and satirize our country’s arrogance during the height of the Iraq War. It was great therapy for those of us who hated the Bush administration. Rammstein make great use of the video medium, more than most modern rockers.

 

SASSY SLEUTH

One might think the murder-mystery show genre had run out of steam, but the audacious Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries gives it an invigorating kick in the butt. Essie Davis plays the main character, a wealthy, spunky, smart, cultured, naughty and witty individual who gives the local police inspector a run for his money—often agitating him with her unofficial investigations that are helpful rather than hindering—while also battling sexist attitudes in 1920s Melbourne. Armed with a golden revolver, sense of justice and fearlessness galore, Phryne Fisher (first name “Fry-knee”) is charismatic, fiercely single and independent and socially progressive. (Her younger assistant Dot is her exact opposite, a reserved Catholic who fears technology and must cope with her employer’s seemingly sinful ways.) The first three episodes of season one alone incorporates topics like abortion, the right to choose, gay rights and interracial marriage into their briskly paced whodunits. Set to a swinging jazz score with lavish sets and superb costuming, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are instantly addicting. Phryne is my new on-screen crush. Somebody find me a time machine!

 

BACK TO MIDDLE-EARTH

If you couldn’t get enough of Peter Jackson’s cinematic rendering of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, now you can get another fix with the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy. One can easily question why a trilogy of new films is necessary when two at most would suffice, but Hollywood’s running out of fantasy franchises to milk. That cynical jab aside, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a raucous, mirthful romp that reunites us with Gandalf as he and Bilbo Baggins (“uncle” to Frodo) embark on a quest with 13 dwarves to help reclaim their homeland and massive treasure from the evil dragon Smaug. There’s plenty of danger along the way from goblins, trolls and orcs, and we get re-introduced to the creepy Gollum when he actually possessed the One Ring. The 3D presentation bothered some moviegoers with its 48 frames per second shooting speed that made some scenes look video-like. But in 2D the movie looks fantastic and works well, which should be the hallmark of any great movie. Some of the action sequences in the goblins cavern look like a video game, but that’s the way big genre pictures are going. Overall, though, this is a fine film.

 

NETFLIX FIX: I SELL THE DEAD (2008)

Netflix streaming offers plenty of cool fear flicks, and this horror-comedy co-starring Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden as 19th century Irish grave robbers who become involved in body snatching of the undead is a quirky indie picture with a devious sense of humor. I originally read the comic book of I Sell The Dead, not realizing that it was a movie first, but enough time went by that I was able to watch this twisted tale with refreshed eyes. It’s reminiscent of Burke And Hare—the original reviewed in this column months back, a recent remake done by Animal House director John Landis—and the film features nice turns by Angus Scrimm as a cold-hearted surgeon requiring fresh corpses for private experiments and Ron Perlman as a rather imposing priest taking down the confession of one of Monaghan’s characters as he awaits beheading for his crimes. (The stories are told in flashback in his prison cell.) Even though this is a low budget effort, the witty banter and use of some comic book panels as well as creative set pieces, lighting and sound design make it a pleasure to watch.

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