Guest of Honor

Jessica Chastain’s Gold Streak

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ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Roger Ebert called Jessica Chastain “One of the finest actors of her generation.” She made a splash in 2011 when she starred in seven films, including Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and “The Help,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination. This year, she’s nominated again, for her role as an uncompromising CIA agent on the trail of Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Jessica chats with Brendan about idealizing mamas, channeling ‘nothing,’ and raising pigs.

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Jessica Chastain: Last year I was so shocked. I kept saying during the press event, “Well this will never happen in my career again.”

It’s the best year of my life, I can’t believe everything that’s happened. I’m nominated for an Oscar, and then a year later I’m nominated for an Oscar. This year though, I can honestly say it’s not gonna happen next year.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really? Well who knows? Well, I guess you know what you’re in.

Jessica Chastain: No, I’m not knocking the films that I’m in, I’m just saying that it would be way too weird.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It would be gauche.

Jessica Chastain: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So I was re-reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography for some reason this weekend, and at one point he talks about the actor Tony Curtis is talking to him, and he’s like, “Tony Curtis once told me that fame is an occupation in itself.”

And it occurs to me that 2011 was your big break year, but now you’re kind of a celebrity, and do you see it as a different occupation?

Jessica Chastain: You know, I keep going back and forth being in denial of it. I don’t really see myself as a celebrity, and I know that I am because I know that I’m in magazines, I’m on the cover of magazines.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re on this show talking to me.

Jessica Chastain: Yes, I’m talking to you, but part of me wonders because I don’t really share a lot about my personal life, and I wonder if because of that it makes me not really a movie star. Does that make sense?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, last week you ruled the box office with your two movies, “Zero Dark Thirty” and the horror movie “Mama.” You left Arnold Schwarzenegger in the dust- that’s kind of celebrity power level.

Jessica Chastain: Oh gosh, you know, I did “Mama” because it was right after “Tree of Life” came out and I noticed immediately I was getting typecast as the perfect mother because of that movie.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I totally wanted you to be my mom when I saw the movie.

Jessica Chastain: I tell you, when I have kids and they start talking back to me I’m gonna say you sit down and you watch the “Tree of Life,” and then you tell me what a bad mother I am.

Brendan Francis Newnam: For those who don’t know, you play a wonderful mother in Terrence Malicks’ movie “Tree of Life.” Also, I should say mom? I didn’t mean that.

Jessica Chastain: Yes, you have to be very nice to your mother.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I will, I am. So let’s talk about “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s a movie about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. You play Maya, a CIA agent who tracks down Osama. When you’re given a script based on recent events that’s fresh in the minds of so many people, is that restrictive or inspiring?

Jessica Chastain: No, it’s very inspiring. I had three months before shooting to learn  as much as I could about this woman. But she is an undercover agent in the CIA, so I couldn’t meet her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’ve never met her? She hasn’t secretly like texted you or something.

Jessica Chastain: No man. Nope, she’s doing her job. And the kind of amazing thing I’m really, really pleased with is, there’s been some articles like the Washington Post had an article where the journalist talked to colleagues of hers and it really matches up to what we’ve played.

I mean, the more research this gentleman from the Washington Post found on her, he found that she was not popular, she is not popular in the CIA, she was actually passed over for promotion because she doesn’t make a lot of friends, and if someone’s wrong she will tell them, and so when I read it, it was after our movie came out, I thought that’s what we were playing. It’s kind of incredible.

I hope- I mean of course I don’t want her to be discovered because I think she’s a genius at her job and I feel safer knowing she’s out there – but if by chance in the future she ever quits the CIA, I hope she writes a book someday and I’d love to read it and meet her.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You won a Golden Globe for your performance, and during your acceptance speech you thanked the movie’s writer Mark Boal for writing a “strong, capable woman who stands on her own.” Are you hopeful that the success of this movie will inspire other writers to kind of write the same character?

Jessica Chastain: Listen, I’ve been given a lot of great female characters. What shocked me so much about “Zero Dark Thirty” is this is a woman who’s defined by her work and not her love interest, and that to me is a very strange thing to see in cinema. It doesn’t mean I always want to play those characters-

Brendan Francis Newnam: No, no, sure.

Jessica Chastain: Yeah, I want to play all kinds of women. But I realized that it’s something I’m not used to seeing, but I think it’s had such a great representation of this generation of women. You know, when we first screened the film, my very first day of press, and I haven’t heard it since, a lot of the journalist were asking me why I didn’t have a love interest.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Jessica Chastain: Yeah, and I was so shocked by the question, cause you know, yeah sure it would have been fun like Maya hooks up with a Navy Seal, but it wasn’t the story that Mark and Catherine had found with Maya.

The whole idea is this character becomes a nothing. That’s the point of her. I mean, to be a woman in the CIA she’s been trained to be unemotional and analytically precise.

So, she has to show up, be in these difficult circumstances, hide her emotions, and if they had added a fake love interest, it would have gotten rid of the ideal that this woman needed to have a fanatical behavior to catch a fanatic.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it’s time for me to ask our two standard questions, and the first one is, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

Jessica Chastain: Okay, this is gonna be a bit silly, but the question I get asked over and over again is, “What’s it like kissing Brad Pitt?”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So in “Tree of Life” you played his wife and you kissed Brad Pitt.

Jessica Chastain: Yeah, and it wasn’t even like that deep of a kiss, it was just like a, you know, sweet, normal husband and wife kiss at the end of the movie.

Pitt and Chastain in "Tree of Life"
Pitt and Chastain in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

And for the longest time I would be having interviews talking about the idea of nature versus grace in this beautiful film that Terrence Malick made, and everyone would ask me about kissing Brad Pitt, and I just thought “Wow, okay, I understand where your mind is.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So our second question is, tell us something we don’t know, and can be a fact about you, or it can be kind of an interesting fact about the world.

Jessica Chastain: This is really hard actually. I don’t know if this is true, but they told me that a pig is as smart at a two-year-old.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Really?

Jessica Chastain: Pigs are the smartest animals, that’s why people should have them as pets, because they’re smarter than dogs, and a pig is as smart as a two-year-old kid. I was also told that they sunburn.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Two-year-olds?

Jessica Chastain: No, well yes, and pigs.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And two-year-olds also like to wallow in mud.

Jessica Chastain: Yes they do.