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CIFF 2014 Interview: Jessica Chastain

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival opens tonight with a display of sexually charged fireworks, courtesy of the onscreen sparks set off by Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell as they co-star in “Miss Julie.”

The fifth feature directed by two-time Oscar nominated actress and Ingmar Bergman muse Liv Ullmann is based on August Strindberg’s stage classic. The setting has been shifted from Sweden to a rural castle in late-19th-century Ireland, but the issues hotly debated by Chastain’s imperious yet vulnerable lady of the manor and Farrell as her father’s admiring yet defiant valet are the same: gender roles, class divisions and the ever-escalating heat between them.

Chastain, 37, is having a busy fall with the double release of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (the separate Him and Her versions of the relationship drama opens this Friday); Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller “Interstellar” (Nov. 5); and J.C. Chandor’s crime drama “A Most Violent Year” (Dec. 31). But the Juilliard drama-school grad found time to chat in Toronto about working with Ullmann, collaborating with actor-directors and why the seemingly timeless “Miss Julie” continues to be performed more than 125 years after it was written.

This interview is for The website is continuing to uphold the tradition of Roger’s work with a team of contributors now.

I just saw the documentary (“Life Itself”) that came out. And I was stunned. When I saw “Tree of Life” featured in the documentary; that is when I completely lost it. Because I thought, my first year in film (she was in two smaller features before 2011, when “Tree” was released) was kind of the last year he was reviewing, but that he loved my film was so special to me.

Do you like working intensely or is it just that all these movies are coming out all at once?

I think it’s that I grew up with such a passion for film that I feel in a way I was raised by movies. That is why I liked watching the documentary, because it was so emotional for me. And to finally be a part of it, after so much of my life was spent dreaming of being a part of it. To finally, like, “I get to meet so and so and I get to work with that person and this actor and that director.” It’s like the biggest gift I could ever have. I just don’t want to stop.

It’s great that you get to do such a variety of roles. Watching you in “The Help” as sweet, helpless Celia and then being such a hard-ass in “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is hard to believe they are both you. Now you are a completely different character in “Miss Julie.” I would assume that working with Liv Ullmann was a big draw for you to do this film?

That was THE draw. Of course, I loved the character. I studied “Miss Julie” in theater school. And I did scene work from it. But the second I heard Liv Ullmann was directing the film, it could have been anything. I wanted to be on a set with her for three months. I know the stories I would take away from that I would remember my whole life.

To me, it makes sense you both would do a project together, because I do see some of Liv in you. You are both very female, yet you both have a strong aura. She is always that way. Your face has definite features but it also has a softness, too. As does hers. It is kind of like Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in a way.

In fact, you know what is so beautiful? When I was shooting “Tree of Life,” doing one scene, Terrence Malick actually said, “Jessica, you look like a young Liv Ullmann.”  First of all, I was thinking, “I am on a set with Terrence Malick. And he just said I look like Liv Ullmann.”

Are you familiar with a lot of her films?

Yes, but “Persona” for me is the one.

The one for me was “Cries & Whispers.” It was always strange to see her in Hollywood films, though, like the romantic comedy “40 Carats.” She has such a special Nordic quality to her.

Yes, but also there is something so ethereal about her.

“Miss Julie” requires a lot of acting from you and Colin. You both are talking nearly non-stop.

There is also theatricality to the dialogue. It’s like an opera. I knew that going into it and after talking with Liv. In my film work, I try to be as subtle as I can be. It was like a big leap for me. But actually it was great, because Liv had never played the role. She wanted to, but it never worked out. Sometimes as an actress, especially with the classics, you grow out of a role. I’m very aware of that. I have to play Rosalind in “As You Like It.” I’m thinking in my head, “OK, before I get too old … don’t age out of these certain roles.” But with me, we did it together.  I’ve never done that before. I’ve worked with directors who were actors, Al Pacino (“Wilde Salome”) and Ralph Fiennes (“Coriolanus”), but never worked with an actress director who would have been amazing in the role. There was a sense of this invisible connection that we had.

You were sort of doing this for her as well as yourself. Did you two meet initially before you were offered the part?

I got offered it before we met. We spoke on the phone and then we met in L.A. after I was attached to the film the first time. We met around Oscar season for “The Help.” And I always tried to keep my cool. I still feel that I get starstruck. And have this reverence for people. I worked with Isabelle Huppert (her mother in “Eleanor Rigby”). I am never going to be like, “Hey, baby. How you doing, girlfriend?” There are people that are such an important part of our history and our films. I still get a little shy around them.

What makes “Miss Julie” relevant to today? 

It’s interesting because it is a play that’s done a lot. Right? You always see it. It is playing right now in London. I just saw this incredible production that was set in South Africa. An amazing production. You learn it in drama school. And there are these certain plays that keep coming up. I think in many classics – it’s in Strindberg, Chekov, Shakespeare, many others --  the reason why their plays are performed over and over again is because the writing is so good and so layered, that any actress who jumps into the character will illuminate part of the story that you didn’t understand. I’ve seen at least 10 productions of “Miss Julie.” I saw Helen Mirren’s Miss Julie on VHS. I’ve seen the most beautiful things. And every great actress in the role is a different part of Miss Julie. And how beautiful. That makes me feel a part of this sisterhood, something that you don’t often experience in films. Once a character happens on film, it is very rare that it will be repeated or remade. Yet the beautiful thing with theater is that you are allowed to continue to explore the characters and the themes.

I assume working with Colin Farrell was a great hardship for you?

He is so lovely. He is just like gorgeous. Everything about him is gorgeous. He is so lovely. One day, my knee was hurting because I had knee surgery a few years ago. A couple hours later, he had bandages and arnica. “I got all this stuff for your knee (she says, imitating his Irish accent)” Binding my leg.

Did you, Colin and Samantha Morton (as a housekeeper and the valet’s unofficial fiancée) rehearse a lot?

We had two weeks of rehearsal. It is like a filmed play. That is definitely what we were going for. We rehearsed it like we would a play. And I started two weeks before with the accent coach, Joan Washington. And she came with me to Ireland. We were going to go through the entire story, just like “OK, this is where we are going to go with our movements,” just so the camera could be ready and with lighting and everything. But then, because Liv is such a beautiful, considerate and open person, as we were rehearsing and once we got towards the end of the play, I came in that day and it was our last day. I was feeling so depressed. She asked me if I was OK and I said, “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. I’m just feeling a little down.” She goes, “Let’s stop.” It was a Friday and we were going to start filming on Monday. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I think that was a brilliant thing she did. Because near the end, something snaps in Julie’s head and there is no recovery. If we had opened that box too early and then went back to the start of the play for filming, it would have been too difficult. But most directors wouldn’t be so sensitive to pick up on that. 

You have worked with Liv Ullmann, Kathryn Bigelow on “Zero Dark Thirty” and you are supposed to do “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (a fact-based World War II story about Jewish prisoners who were given refuge at the Warsaw Zoo) with Niki Caro, who did “Whale Rider” and “North Country.” Is that definite?

I hope so. I really hope we do it. I also worked with Ami Mann, Michael Mann’s daughter, on “Texas Killing Fields.” 

Is it different working with women directors?

It’s not different for me at all.  I’m definitely like a girl’s girl. I love to be around women. I loved “The Help.” That was a male director but I loved all the girl characters. We had so much fun.

If anything wasn’t quite right, I am certain you all would have told him.

We would point him in the right direction, that’s for sure. For me, there is no difference between men and women directors. But there is definitely a difference with an actor director. It is like being in a master class for me.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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