Oscar Contender Jessica Chastain on Embracing Power of ‘Difficult Women’ in ‘Miss Sloane’

TheWrap Magazine: “I’m playing a woman who’s ambitious and driven and flawed. We see male characters like this all the time,” actress says

Miss Sloane Jessica Chastain

A version of this story about Jessica Chastain first appeared in the December 9 issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

In John Madden’s drama “Miss Sloane,” Jessica Chastain plays a fierce Washington lobbyist who leads a campaign to pass gun-control legislation. But the film is timely for more than just the always-current Second Amendment debate, because it also paints Chastain’s character as a strong, intimidating woman who is relentlessly attacked by (male) opponents intent on uncovering real and imagined ethical lapses.

After a limited release just before the election, “Miss Sloane” goes wide on Friday, in a different political atmosphere than the one in which it was made. It also comes at a time when the 39-year-old Chastain, who has landed two Oscar nominations and worked incessantly since her breakthrough year in 2011, is looking to move away from acting in favor of producing.

True to form, though, her move away from acting may not happen before she appears in the period drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” in Xavier Dolan’s “The Life and Death of John F. Donovan,” in Susannah White’s “Woman Walks Ahead,” in Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game” and maybe in a few others to boot.

One remarkable thing about “Miss Sloane” is that at the beginning of the film, your character tells us her strategy and what she’s going to do. But when she actually does it, we’re surprised.
I know. Because we’re smarty-pants audience members, we think we can guess the ending to every movie. And in this one, we think we’re about to see her say, “I had a really difficult childhood, that’s why I’m like this, and I’m so sorry.”

Which she would never do.
Never, never, never. Elizabeth Sloane would never talk to anyone about her life. You get clues, when she says things like, “I grew up lying. I didn’t want to, but I had to, and that’s why I excel at it.” You know there’s definitely some therapy that needs to be done, but I like that the movie doesn’t make her apologize for the way she acts, because in real life she wouldn’t do that.

She needs to be intimidating and strong — when you’re working in a profession where less than 10 percent of the lobbyists in D.C. are women, they need to send the energy into the room before they arrive. And she does that. If you’re a man and you hear the high heels clicking off the marble before she arrives, it’s like the sound of the predator coming.

But then Mark Strong’s character says, “Were you ever normal?” and you really feel the loneliness of my character. There are limits on how much control she can ever give up, and how intimate she can be with another human being. It was a lonely character to play.

The audience doesn’t know her backstory because she never really talks about it — but as an actress, do you have to know exactly what happened to her growing up?
Oh, yeah. I have to create a backstory for my character, and secrets that I don’t even necessarily share with my director or writer. In some ways, that’s how I can take ownership of the character.

I do that with every single person I play, and I believe that when you’re watching, you see glimpses of it even if you don’t understand what you’re seeing. I see that a lot with Isabelle Huppert. She doesn’t show you a lot, but you see glimpses of things and you want to learn more about the person.

Did the film feel timely when you were making it?
It felt timely in terms of the gun debate, because that’s what the character is lobbying for. But then I saw the movie after the presidential debates and I realized the gender politics.

It was different from what I thought we were shooting, because in the movie she says, “Gender doesn’t interest me.” But then in the first debate, the criticism of Hillary was that she was over-prepared, and I’ve never heard that said about a man, ever.

And I’m playing a woman who’s over-prepared, a woman who’s ambitious and driven and flawed. We see male characters like this all the time, but we don’t see women take these roles — and when we see them in society, running a company or running for president, we label them difficult or say, “There’s something about her I don’t like.”

It is very timely, isn’t it? I didn’t think about that when we were shooting it, but it really has affected me and forced me to look at this character. And even looking at the industry — we’re still patting each other on the back for making movies with people of color and women directors. When that stops, and we still make those movies but the congratulating stops, I think that’s when we’ve made a step forward.

At some point after you became known, it seems to me that you made a conscious decision to start agitating for change — for more opportunities for women filmmakers, among other things.
It came a few years ago. I took stock of where I was and what I was contributing. I kind of felt like all I was getting was gifts. Every day was like, “Do you want to be in this movie?” “Yes, I do! Thank you! I’m so fabulous!” It was like eating cake every day. But after a while you’re like, “Have a piece of cake with me. Let’s spread this out a bit.”

I just wanted to move the needle in a positive direction and take control over what I was putting out there. I really want to work with female directors. I’m not saying I want to work exclusively with women – I want balance in my life.

So was your success disorienting to you?
Yeah, because how do you say no? But I’m grateful that success found me later, even though it was frustrating at the time. Because I think it gave me the confidence to look at my life and what I can do. I’m now reaching a point where I’ve had so much that I’m starting to think I want to shine a light on other people.

I’ve created a production company, I’m starting to get more interested in producing, and I think I’m going to step away from acting a bit. It’s not that I’m not going to be an actor anymore, but I’d rather redirect attention to others who normally don’t get attention.

Like Johan Heldenberg is this incredible Belgian actor who was in “Broken Circle Breakdown,” and he plays my husband in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and he’s one of the best things in the movie. And how wonderful that when people see this movie, Johan is going to have opportunities that he didn’t have before.

And when people see Niki Caro, the director [of “The Zookeeper’s Wife”]. And [“Woman Walks Ahead” director] Susannah White, she’s a great director. Gugu [Mbatha-raw] in this movie. I’m more excited to go, “Look at them, they’re amazing.”

Click here to read more of TheWrap Magazine’s Oscars Issue. 

OscarWrap Annette Bening cover