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Jessica Chastain on Zero Dark Thirty’s Torture Scenes, Shooting in Jordan, and Full Burkas

HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 10: Actress Jessica Chastain arrives at the premiere of Columbia Pictures'
Jessica Chastain. Photo: Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images

In Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a powerhouse CIA tracker so focused on her goal of finding Osama bin Laden that she angrily keeps track on her boss’s glass door just how many days have passed since they found his probable location. (Nothing says “do something” like dry-erase marker.) The actress wasn’t able to meet her real-life counterpart — she’s still undercover — but she found ways inside the character’s mindset, such as plastering her hotel room with photocopies of terrorist faces, “the way Maya would have done.” Now that she’s gotten it out of her system, Chastain was happy to chat with Vulture about all the swearing, crying, and soul-searching that went into what she calls her toughest part to date.

So I ran into your co-star Mark Duplass at the Gotham Awards, and he thinks he could out-cuss you.
[Laughs] Did you see what I wrote on my Facebook about that? Here’s the thing: Mark may be more subtle, but I save mine up, so when it hits, you won’t mistake it. I think we need a cuss-off, face-to-face. You need to see the whole body involved, you know what I mean? I think that would be hysterical.

And it fits for your character, because she has the best line in the film: “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.”
Exactly. This is based on a real woman, and that’s what she’s like. I mean, and thank God that she does it to [then-director of the CIA Leon] Panetta [who is played by James Gandolfini], because if you’re going to talk like that, Panetta’s the one to talk like that to. But she gets heard, and I’ll tell ya what — after that scene, she’s not sitting at the back of the room anymore.

Was this the toughest shoot you ever had to do?
I didn’t know the personal toll it was going to take on me until I went there. I went to the Oscars this year — I was in my Alexander McQueen, drinking Champagne with my grandma, “This is the best day ever!” — and then the next day, noon, I was on a plane to India, 25-hour flight. I landed, went straight to set, didn’t even go to hair and makeup, put on a robe, and they started filming me in the market. And that’s how it worked every day. And all the torture scenes — not fun to shoot. We filmed them in an active Jordanian prison, and kind of in the middle of nowhere [on the outskirts of Amman]. There’s a very strange relationship they have with women over there. One time, I went to lunch with three other guys, we sat down at a table at the restaurant of a really nice hotel in Jordan, and the waiter brought menus for the men, but not for me.

Because they expect the men to order for you.
Yeah. So Jason Clarke ordered for me. Another time, we went to a mosque, and it was completely empty, and we were going to look at the building and stuff. It was Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison, myself, and a lot of men, including the cinematographer [Greig Fraser], Mark, and Jason, and they pulled Kathryn, Megan, and myself aside and made us put black robes on. And there was a cameraman filming the whole thing, and every time he turned to me, I kept turning away, and I finally went up to him and said, “Don’t film me like this!” I was shocked, and it really made me feel invisible. I’ve seen pictures where you see a couple, and the man is wearing swim trunks, and the woman is wearing a full burka. I’ve seen that many times, and it’s like, “Are you kidding me?” I find the covering up to be a very strange thing. It’s like saying, “We’re all animals,” and I don’t agree. I think men are strong enough and capable enough to control themselves and not attack a woman if she’s not wearing a robe, you know?

They should be, but they use that as an excuse — if you’re not covered up, then you’re fair game.
It’s a scary thing to be looked at in that way, because you think, If anything happens, I don’t know what, I don’t feel necessarily protected. And I’m a redhead. I’m not going to disappear [in that environment]. At the prison, they had a barricade, where you would stop and check in with the guard. One day, the car stopped at the barricade, and the guard said something to my driver. They started saying something back and forth in a very heated discussion, and I couldn’t tell what they’re saying because I didn’t speak the language. But they started yelling at each other. And then my driver turns to me and he goes, “I’m really sorry, Jessica, but you have to walk.” And I said, “It’s okay, I don’t mind, I don’t need any special treatment.” “No, it’s not right, it’s not right. It’s because they haven’t seen a woman [in a while] and they want to watch you.” And at that moment, I was so angry. I wanted to be like, “Screw you! I’m not going to play. I’m leaving.” But I can’t do that, because then I’m losing. I’ve got to make the film. So I get out of the car, and I had to walk this road, so all the guards can watch me, all the way up to the prison, get searched, go in where prisoners would be looking at me, and then go up to the shed and film those [torture] scenes. I mean, it was not a fun experience — at all.

You have a ritual where you cry on set when you’re done filming. Was there a lot of crying on this one?
Yeah, there was a lot of crying on this one, because it was tough, too, because it was our thought that Maya would not shed a tear until the end of the movie. It was a brave stance to take as a filmmaker, because as an actor, you’re like, Let me show off! You want to do all that: Oh, my friend dies? Let me show you my crying! But that’s not who she was. Her first moment of vulnerability and absolute openness is at the end of the film. So when doing the torture scenes, I had to constantly check myself. There was a lot of me going home and having a good cry by myself in my hotel room. There were so many times that I thought, This is hard. This is destroying me. I was very happy after that section was done, when we went to London to film all the CIA stuff, and finally, we were in an area where I didn’t have to worry about someone staring at me in not a great way!

You promised me last year around this time that you were going to take a vacation. Did you? 
I did take a vacation! I took one week and I went on a boat all over the south of France and Italy. It was incredible. But to be honest, next year, I’m taking longer than a week, especially after doing this play. I’m doing The Heiress on Broadway, and it’s a three-hour play, plus it takes me an hour to put on a prosthetic and all this stuff, so four hours, plus I sign at the door afterwards for half an hour, so four and a half hours for every show I have. At a certain point, I need to go into a room by myself, and be like, What do I like to do with my spare time? [Laughs]. Like Maya does at the end of the movie. They ask her, “Where do you want to go?” and I don’t have an answer for that. I’ve had the best year of my life, and I’m so happy, but I need to get in a room and figure that out. That’s what I found so moving. What a brave choice to end the film like that, the ambiguous ending — where does she go? Also where do we go now as a country? As a society? It’s so epic, the ending. It’s beyond who she is. I love it.

Jessica Chastain on Shooting ZDT in Jordan