Propelled by Oscar-nominated roles in Zero Dark Thirty and The Help, Jessica Chastain has fast become one of our most prolific actresses, but even she’s outdone herself with Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a relationship drama elided over three separate films: one told from the point of view of Chastain’s troubled wife, another from the perspective of her estranged husband (James McAvoy), and a third combining the previous two. That’d be enough for most movie stars, but Chastain also has pivotal parts this fall in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar and J.C. Chandor’s crime drama A Most Violent Year. This month, she rang up Vulture to discuss them all.
Eleanor Rigby debuted at film festivals in two separate installments — Him and Her — and wasn’t combined into a Them until Harvey Weinstein picked up the project. Were you wary of the recut?
In the beginning, I was very nervous. We never intended for the film to be seen like that, but I had a long talk with Ned, the writer-director, and I talked with Harvey. To me, the most important thing was that Him and Her would not disappear. We have a combined version, and then we have Him and Her, which is the three-hour version. It reminds me of the great film Carlos, made by Olivier Assayas, which has a five-hour version and a two-hour version. I’m a cinephile and I’ve seen the five-hour version, but not everyone wants to dedicate that much time. So we’re giving the audience two options.
Although more and more, audiences will give that much time over to TV. If you saw Him and Her at home, it’s the equivalent of a multi-episode binge-watch.
I’m definitely someone who binge-watches shows like House of Cards, which I’ll watch in a weekend. If movies end up being a home experience, there’s definitely an argument for that, but I’m also very passionate about having movies shown in the theater. But what you said is interesting because it does give you the opportunity to choose how you want to watch Eleanor Rigby. You can go see Them in the theater and then see Him and Her at home if you prefer — or go back to the theater for a second experience.
You nudged Ned Benson to write Eleanor Rigby: Her after his initial screenplay skimped on the female character’s point of view. Is that something you pick up on a lot in the scripts that you read?
It’s absolutely something I pick up on. As a viewer, I want to see more films with Viola Davis — and I want to see her in leading roles! I think there is a huge problem in American cinema where stories about women aren’t nurtured and celebrated and brought to the screen as often as stories about men. But I do feel like times are changing because money means everything, and audiences are flocking to movies like the one Scarlett Johansson did, Lucy, which had a wonderful opening weekend.
Or The Fault in Our Stars, which starred Shailene Woodley and was one of this summer’s most profitable movies.
That’s exciting, especially when you have someone like Shai, who’s not only a great actress, but also a warm and wonderful person. There are so many incredible talents out there, and I want to see them in film, so it’s exciting to hear that Fault in Our Stars is that profitable. I’ve been seeing that pattern over the past few years, and I think it’s slowly, hopefully changing so that we have more equality in the cinema.
In Interstellar, you’re playing Matthew McConaughey’s grown-up daughter, and it seems as though you have your own story line on Earth while he’s up in space. With the parallel narratives, is it almost like Interstellar: Her and Interstellar: Him?
That’s a very creative question, because by answering it, I’m telling you spoilers! [Laughs.] I can’t really say whether or not my character appears in space, but with the cast as big as it is, I’m really curious to see how Chris pieces everything together. What I loved so much about this script is that I felt like it was much more than a movie about outer space. For me, it was so much about the human heart, and very Tree of Life–esque in that way.
Christopher Nolan is so composed and serious … do you ever catch him, like, bopping out to Miley Cyrus when he thinks no one is looking?
No, never, never, never! [Laughs.] But I will say that he’s super funny, and that’s what’s so disarming about him. When you meet him at first, he’s someone you just don’t want to disappoint: He believes so much in you, and you believe in him, and you don’t want to be the one to make a mistake. So it’s really surprising on set, where everything is so organized and on schedule and professional, when every so often he’ll say something that’s hysterical. It completely comes out of nowhere, and that was my favorite thing about him — that, and the fact that he keeps his family around him. I love that, I love that he works closely with his wife and that she’s a huge part of why he’s such an incredible filmmaker, because of the support he gets from her. And the fact that he keeps his children nearby is really important. I like the idea that you can continue your life as you’re making a film. For me, films are supposed to be about life, so we shouldn’t stop it to go into some deep, dark professional place.
I’m living for your blunt blonde bob in A Most Violent Year. It’s giving me Michelle Pfeiffer–in-Scarface realness.
Oh my God, I’m living for my hair in that movie, too! Every day since, I’m like, Should I just cut my hair off and dye it blonde? because I loved it so much.
What can you tell me about that film? I feel like we actually know much more about Interstellar than we do A Most Violent Year.
I don’t know how much I can say because I know that J.C. is keeping a lot private, but I will say that what’s so exciting about it is that it’s another take on the early-1980s New York crime film. This is a moral tale about a man who’s trying to be honorable and good in one of the most violent years in New York history, 1981. In the past, we’ve seen crime films where people fully and willingly participate in crime to further their business or their prospects, but this is about a man who’s wholeheartedly against that.
Who do you play?
My character’s name is Anna, and she comes from a family who’s well versed in criminal activity. She’s fun and unlike anything I’ve ever played before. She’s super supportive of her husband, and her man is her king. Sometimes you wonder, though, if she should be the king.
And your man is played by Oscar Isaac ….
I love Oscar. Oscar and I went to school together at Juilliard, and this is the first time we’ve ever gotten to act together. For over ten years, we’ve watched each other’s work, thinking, When are we going to be able to do something with each other? Originally, there was another actor [Javier Bardem] who was going to do that film, and then, when he fell through, J.C. and I were talking and Oscar was really the right fit, so that was an exciting prospect for me.
Let’s discuss Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, which is about to play the Toronto Film Festival. In the trailer, you make it look like fun to torment Colin Farrell. Was it?
No, it’s terrible to torment Colin Farrell, because he’s so lovely! [Giggles.] He and James McAvoy are both so incredibly nice that you can’t believe it. Every day on set is a joy because they’re making jokes all the time. Miss Julie is a very dark play — one of my favorites from Strindberg — and I’m a huge fan of Liv Ullmann, and I wanted to be around her. I knew, signing up for it, that I was signing up for a very tormented character, but it was completely worth it to me. It’s exactly the film Liv said she was going to make, very Bergman-esque, very theatrical.
This is the first movie Liv Ullmann has directed in almost 15 years. That’s crazy!
I don’t know what it is about this one, but I do know it’s a character she’s never played before, which I found shocking because she would have been so good as Miss Julie. I kind of feel like Liv and I played this character together — even thought it was my body and my voice, it felt like there was this combined sisterhood.
You’ve become a fixture at Cannes, where you often show up in the audience of other people’s movies.
The reason I’m an actor is because of my love affair with cinema — I was the kid who would spend all afternoon in the movie theater after school. The idea that I get to be in movies now is great, but I still want to get to see them. I was excited a few years ago when I had Tree of Life and Take Shelter at Cannes: “Oh, I get to go to Cannes and see everything!” And I didn’t get to see one thing! Now I have to really demand it from the studio — I say, “Okay, I’m going to do all this press, but you’re going to give me two hours off on these days so I can go see Mommy and Foxcatcher at Cannes.”
So were you at the theater last week seeing Get On Up and Guardians of the Galaxy?
Ugh, it’s so humiliating to say this out loud, but last weekend, I was in Ibiza. [Laughs.] But it was my friend’s birthday! I flew out there for a very quick trip to go to this birthday party. But tonight I’m going to the movies, and I really go to the movies any chance I can. I like really, really silly movies, too! I saw The Other Woman recently and I loved it: Leslie Mann is a comic genius in that film, she’s amazing. And when I was at the theater, people looked at me really strangely, like, “What are you doing here?” because my films are so different. But I’ll totally see a movie like that! I love ‘em all.