Jessica Chastain honoured at Deauville Festival of American Film

Star on Isabelle Huppert, internet exposure, equality... and why she likes talking about clothes.

by Richard Mowe

Scene is set for festival honour.
Scene is set for festival honour. Photo: Richard Mowe
She has joined a female roll call of honour that ranges from Julianne Moore to Susan Sarandon. Jessica Chastain, 37, is the latest recipient of a tribute at the Deauville Festival of American Film where she graced the opening soirée (last night, September 5, 2014) before heading to Toronto Film Festival. Her career has featured high-profile performances in Take Shelter, The Tree Of Life, Zero Dark Thirty and the upcoming The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby and Interstellar. Talking in the sumptuous surroundings of the Cartier Villa on the Normandy resort's sea front, she reveals an affinity with Isabelle Huppert and Liv Ullmann, concerns about internet exposure, and equality for women in Hollywood.

Q: When you look back at all the different characters you have played across all your films do you see any connections between them?

JC: I definitely see links between them as strong women but I wonder if that is just a general term because all my characters are very different. I wonder if it is not that just yes she is a strong woman but may be it is just a really well-written female role. It is hard for me to understand a connection between the characters because they are so different. But perhaps it is something to do with. Even in a film like Zero Dark Thirty my character lacked intimacy but her way of feeling connected was through revenge. The idea of women some how trying to connect is perhaps what is all about.

Q: How do you feel about having an homage at the Deauville Film Festival?

Jessica Chastain on stage at the opening of the Deauville Film Festival
Jessica Chastain on stage at the opening of the Deauville Film Festival Photo: Richard Mowe
JC: I am really surprised. I was super-shocked when it was first mentioned. I am incredibly honoured. The Festival has been very supportive of me when my career began and in 2011 they gave me the New Hollywood Award. I was so devastated because my friends were here with The Help and I was also in Take Shelter but I could not be here to accept the award in person. I did a speech on tape in French, which was a lot of work! And to be here now is a big honour, especially looking at the list of women who have received awards, such as Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Annette Bening, Naomi Watt, and Robin Wright. It is incredible to be included among them.

Q: What does Europe mean for an actress like you?

JC: I was saying earlier that may be I should have been born in Europe. I think it would have been a lot easier for me at the beginning of my career. It was not until I was in college that I began seeing European films because I grew up in Sacramento, California, which does not have a theatre where you can see foreign-language films and there is not all that much culture. I apologise for saying that. And it was not until I was in New York and I walked in to see The Piano Teacher [Haneke, 2001] and as a result my idea of what cinema could be was expanded. Now I am trying hungrily to devour as much as I can. My interests lie in European cinema as much as American independent cinema. I hope to expand my range of directors such as Michael Haneke – and who knows some day I might be able to work with him? May be if I keep saying it it will happen.

Q: You have also worked on many plays by European writers … so did you ever think of just concentrating on stage work?

JC: I was OK with doing anything. I was an actress and for me even if I was doing a play off-off-Broadway with hardly any money I still would have been extremely happy. That is why everything that has happened is kind of shocking and especially as it has all been so quick. My time at the Juilliard School where I was acting in plays by Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov was one of the happiest times of my life. I am hoping to return to the theatre again. It is interesting because I have done three films that were based on plays so I definitely see a bridge in my life between theatre and film.

Q: What is your style of acting?

JC: I think it has to depend on the director. Sometimes the character is really different from me and I have to really try hard to put myself in the character and surround myself with things that help that process. But I am not a Method actor in the sense I want people to call me by my character’s name. That would make me uncomfortable. But in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, in which I have the title role, this woman has dirt under her nails, actually generally she was very dirty which meant I was dirty a lot, which is so depressing. In Tree Of Life I got to meditate every morning … so I do things while I am shooting that will create the energy of the character that I am playing.

Q: With which of your catalogue of characters do you feel most affinity?

JC: I can tell you the one I had most fun playing – that was Celia Foote in The Help, and I just got Southern. And I was laughing all the time with Octavia Spencer and all the other women on the film. We were in Mississippi in the summer and it was unbelievably hot and we all had to gain weight because we were characters from the Sixties. So we were gorging on fried food and drinking moonshine and having dance parties. I would not say that any of my characters are definitely me. The character I play in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was written for me. Ned Benson, the writer/director had written the film from the male point of view first and before I had agreed to do it. After we had talked about it, he decided to write the character with me in mind and it is strange feeling to have someone who knows you really well to write a part for you. Perhaps I would not say the character was me but perhaps she is one of the closest.

Jessica Chastain meets the fans at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema
Jessica Chastain meets the fans at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema Photo: Richard Mowe
Q: It is often said that women in Hollywood do not generally have the same opportunities or exposure as men. Do you some times feel frustrated by this state of affairs?

JC: I feel very lucky. Sometimes when an actress gets success, there is this feeling that she should just be quiet if she wants to keep on getting roles. But we all support and champion each other and men support women too. We all want the same thing – equal opportunity. I am not complaining about my state but I am just a small percentage of the actresses in that position. I seem to get great scripts and characters but many actresses who are far better than me are not in such a fortunate position. It is important to keep up that conversation.

Q: Nobody seems to talk about acting skills any more – it is all about getting on magazine covers, and what shoes you are wearing. Do you feel pressure about keeping up appearances?

JC: Most people prefer to talk to me about acting, and I feel bad about this but I really like also talking about clothes. I see fashion as an art form just like painting or sculpting. It would be a problem if that was all people wanted to talk about. I used to be wary of social media but now I have embraced it, and I feel that through that medium you can lay the boundaries of what you want to talk about. I have come in to the business where, for independent cinema, you have to seek publicity. Al Pacino once told me that when he was working the Seventies it was never a requirement for him to do publicity. Normally paparazzi never wait outside my home. Sometimes they try to take pictures of me and my boyfriend and that is uncomfortable for him. If I know the photographers are going to be waiting for me outside a theatre where I am playing, then of course I am going to brush my hair. I want to make sure I look nice but it has never been that invasive.

Q: Do you have any advice for younger actresses in the light of the nude photographs that have appeared on the internet?

JC: I see those actresses as victims and I was disturbed about what happened. They are not leaked, but stolen. It is such an invasion of privacy. I was disturbed because they were successful women and they were some how trying to shame them. I think that those people who stole the pictures should be considered as sex offenders. I hope the FBI catches up with them and these things are sorted. The internet has changed a lot of attitudes to privacy issues. Why are women in particular being targeted? That concerns me.

Q: You are in talks to appear in Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian – can you tell us anything about it?

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in Ned Benson's Eleanor Rigby
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in Ned Benson's Eleanor Rigby
JC: I cannot really say much because it is not yet a done deal but I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott. How good was Alien after all, with Sigourney Weaver? I remember watching it again and again. He is such a great filmmaker and creates such wonderful roles for women. Coming out shortly is The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby from last year’s Toronto Film Festival in which I got to work with Isabelle Huppert playing my mother. She is the best actress in the world – and, after I saw her in The Piano Teacher, I have been a fan ever since. She is such a cool person and she is inspiration for me because she exhibits this curiosity that I have never seen in anyone before. She will try anything. I just saw her in New York doing Jean Genet’s The Maids in English. Then I have Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, which is really my first foray in to a huge studio film. Then I have another film A Most Violent Year directed by JC Chandor, with Oscar Isaacs with whom I went to Juilliard all those years ago.

Q: What was it like working with Liv Ullmann on Miss Julie?

JC: It was another amazing experience because she is just the most sensitive and open actor and director I have ever met. I knew that I love Strindberg and she is such an interesting and dynamic character. When I was working on Tree Of Life, Terrence Mallick after one particular take told me, "Jessica, you were just like a young Liv Ullmann in that scene" and I was like, "My God, I am?" I could never be but it is so great to be surrounded by actors who inspire me. I am like a sponge so the more I am around someone significant the more I am learning through osmosis.

Read more coverage from Deauville here.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is released on September 12, in New York and Los Angeles. UK release date to be announced.

Interstellar is released on November 7 in the UK and US

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