Jessica Chastain on Her Salomé Revival, Negotiating Nudity, and Being Empowered to Speak Up

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There’s a new Jessica Chastain double feature hitting theaters this weekend, but this one isn’t a revival of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby or some ambitious two-parter she squeezed in after filming Molly’s Game. Instead, it’s a unique theatrical experience beamed in from 2006, before Chastain was an Oscar-nominated A-lister: That year, Al Pacino cast the then-relatively unknown actress opposite him as the titular character in the Oscar Wilde play Salomé, and as they performed it in Los Angeles, he also shot a feature version of the production and put together a documentary about staging it.

The result, now finally making its way into theaters, starts with Pacino’s behind-the-scenes documentary Wilde Salomé and then shows us their production of Salomé itself, and both are a spectacular showcase for Chastain, not just as an actress, but as someone who thinks and feels deeply about what her role represents. Chastain recently hopped on the phone with Vulture to reminisce about the project that served as her big break and discuss how she found her character, who starts in a place of shy reserve but eventually commands the stage with a famous dance of sexual expression.

Take me back to where you were in your life when this opportunity came along.
Gosh, well, I was auditioning, I was doing a lot of guest spots on television, living in Los Angeles and just dreaming for a great film script to come my way that I could audition for. And then, funnily enough, I was visiting Michelle Williams in Australia because we’d been in a play together, and while I was there I got a call from my agent that said, “Al Pacino wants you to audition for Salomé.” I was shocked. I’d never met Al Pacino! Come to find out that I’d done a play off Broadway called Rodney’s Wife, and Marthe Keller — who had worked with Al on Bobby Deerfield — saw it and she recommended me to Al. So this literally was the most random phone call to get from my agent to say, “Al Pacino wants you to audition for this play.”

That must have put some wind in your sails!
It gave me more confidence. It was an interesting thing because when I got out of college, it felt like you needed to start in television and film before you became financially viable to do theater, because that’s what I was learning from the shows I was seeing: It was very rare to see a non-famous actor in a lead on Broadway. So I moved to Los Angeles, and then to be told that a play that I had been in Off Broadway had helped me to have the opportunity to meet Al Pacino, it was kind of wonderful because that’s where my heart lies. My first love in this industry was the theater.

So what was that first audition like?
I read the play because I was unfamiliar with it and my first thought was that I was shocked how great the part of Salomé was, and I was really surprised that I would have the chance to audition for it. I just assumed that they would take Keira Knightley or someone with more recognizable work, so when I showed up I was prepared, but I really wasn’t expecting to get anything.

For the first audition, I met with the play’s director, Estelle Parsons, and we sat and talked for a while. She helped me so much because I used to be very, very shy and very self-conscious, and as we were talking, she just said, “Why should I know you?” I went, “Oh my gosh! I don’t know.” And she goes “No, tell me, why do I need to know who you are?” So I had to tell her the work I’d done. And before I’d even read one work from the play for her, she pointed to the stage and said, “Let me see you dance. I wanna see how you move.” I was like, “What?” But I could see this little twinkle in her eye and I could tell it was like a bit of a dare to see if I could play the role and go through a transformation like the character does, to do this dance. So I got up and I was like, You’re not gonna scare me away, lady, and I just danced. There was no music or anything, I just was in this empty room dancing, and she goes, “Okay, great.” And then I was told that I was gonna come back to audition again, and this time Al would be there.

And what was it like for you to meet him in person?
In all fairness, I was surprised by his generosity because he’d always played such aggressive, dynamic characters onscreen — not necessarily the most empathetic or compassionate people. And yet, when I met him, I went into the room very nervous and started acting and then I could hear him in the audience saying, like, “Wow! That’s amazing!” I think at one point he said, “What am I seeing? Is that Brando?” Saying the most crazy things! I had never had anyone in an audition look at me as an actor like that, who really valued my work and could see beyond my shyness and my self-consciousness and my insecurities. He was a great cheerleader. He saw in some way that I needed someone in my corner and he became my greatest acting teacher. Everything I am on film and theater — even who I am as a person, I’m sure — it’s because of the time that I got to spend with Al.

I was impressed to see that in the documentary, you’re really fighting for the things you want out of your performance. I feel like there is a straight line I can draw from that version of you to the Jessica Chastain in 2018 who is not afraid to speak her mind.
But you know what that is? It’s because Al set the stage for it. You can be in an environment where it’s very clear people aren’t interested in your opinion, but from the moment I arrived at that audition, he made sure I understood that I was contributing something. Even if I wasn’t going to play the part, I still felt that my opinion and my talent were valued. When someone creates that space for me, it helps me blossom as a performer because then, as I’m discovering who Salomé is and the transformation that she’s making, I can really fight for her. And when I do, I’m not being shushed or overlooked like sometimes I have been in situations, especially in the beginning of my career where people weren’t interested in what I wanted to bring to a character. With Al, you can’t just show up and be a prop. You’re not there to be moved around by a director, you’re there to contribute. Even in a film, with every part I play, it’s not me separate from the director — my character is created from my conversations with the director. We’re discovering it together, and I learned that from Al.

One of the thing we see you negotiating is the nudity in Salomé’s famous dance.
I have no issues with nudity, especially in a lot of European cinema that I adore, but I find that in American cinema, the idea of nudity has always bothered me. I realized why: For me, I’m uncomfortable with nudity when it feels like it’s not the person’s decision to be naked, when it’s something that has been put upon them. In a way, I see that as like a victimization. It trains an audience that exploiting someone in their body should be normal for nudity, when I think the opposite. When people are completely in control of their decisions, that is a really exciting thing. I love the human form — male nudity, female nudity, I’m all about it. I had to get to that place where, for me, it was my decision.

How did that happen?
From the very beginning, like when I first came on to the play, I was never told it was something I had to do. The more I researched and read about the other versions of the play, I learned about how scandalous it was, I read about Sarah Bernhardt, and I read a book called Sisters of Salomé which talked about what it meant to dance naked. What is that power? What is that freedom? Even the idea of the Salem witch trials, when you think of the young girls dancing naked … what is so scary to society about that kind of female sexual freedom. I realized that there’s power in that to harness, so learning all of that stuff actually made me feel it was important for the character that there was nudity.

The crazy thing I learned in the documentary is that you essentially improvised the dance every night. 
I was terrified. I just started working with a lot of dance experts. I studied dance when I was younger but with Western dance, it’s very still — there’s not very much movement in the pelvis. With a lot of Eastern dancing, there is, so I worked with people on that. For the dance, the music would change every night, so the music would start a certain way and I would do a certain move where everyone would realize, “Okay, the dance is starting,” and then, depending on what I was doing and depending on what the musician was doing, we would kind of find it together. So I had a beginning and an end but I didn’t know what was going to happen in between.

Was that exciting, too?
In an Actor’s Studio way, it forced me to completely be in the moment. Sometimes the dance would be really long, and sometimes it would be really short. I would just have to find her journey each night and it’s terrifying to think that there’s 1,400 people sitting in the audience and I don’t know what I’m going to do. How am I gonna get there? It’s a very vulnerable thing, but it’s so important because through that dance, Salomé becomes a woman. It’s the first time that she’s taking control over her life and taking control of other people. The audience doesn’t know what to expect, but then when they sense my uncertainty, my nervousness, or maybe even my stumbling or not knowing what move I’m going to make next, that’s Salomé.

Is it fair to say that in some ways, Salomé’s character arc — from shy girl to empowered woman — was not unlike where you were as an actress at that point?
I never thought about it that way, but absolutely. The moment we meet Salomé, we see that she just wants to live this life of purity separate from her mother and the court, but then at the end of the play, our last image of Salomé is her kissing a severed head. We go from chastity to necrophilia — you can’t have a bigger arc than that! I can’t say that I have that specific arc, but I can say that in terms of going from girlhood to womanhood, absolutely I did. It was about this idea that I didn’t have to be a little girl anymore. I could step away and be a full person, and I could have my own voice and not be in the shadow of anything.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jessica Chastain on Her Salomé Revival, Negotiating Nudity