Making space

Jessica Chastain on learning the rules and challenging expectations in The Martian.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jessica Chastain with Anne-Katrin Titze on The Martian: "I see how rad those costumes are - they're pretty special."
Jessica Chastain with Anne-Katrin Titze on The Martian: "I see how rad those costumes are - they're pretty special."

Ridley Scott's The Martian, screenplay by Drew Goddard, based on the book by Andy Weir, stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney with Jeff Daniels (Apple CEO in Danny Boyle's feature Steve Jobs), Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis in charge of NASA's mission to Mars.

Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain)
Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain)

At the Twentieth Century Fox 21 Club Martian tea, attended by Bob Balaban, Joe Pantoliano, Lee Daniels' Precious screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, John Dilworth and Warren Elgort, Blade Runner led to Alien and Thelma And Louise, not Robinson Crusoe On Mars. Isabel Marant, Janty Yates' costumes, Baz Luhrmann's Elsa Schiaparelli & Miuccia Prada at The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, outfitting an astronaut, spacesuit versus sweatpants and loving the soundtrack were topics I explored with Jessica Chastain.

Right from the start in The Martian, Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain) shows us a woman holding great responsibility and a deep love for Seventies disco music. A storm is brewing and her crew, during their mission on Mars, 20 years into the future, are battling their way through very heavy hail when one of them, astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Damon), is hit by a big flat flying object.

All signs tell them that he is dead and it is up to Lewis to make a quick decision. Does she leave his body behind? Does she endanger the entire crew? Down on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels) has some critical decisions of his own. Ridley Scott’s creation of the planet, as well as the spaceships, feels immediately and deeply believable. The Martian invites you, men and women alike, to indulge in your space pirate fantasies.

Jessica Chastain holding court at 21 Club
Jessica Chastain holding court at 21 Club Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jessica Chastain: I like your ring.

Anne-Katrin Titze: It's Isabel Marant.

JC: Oh, that's why I like it. I love Isabel Marant.

AKT: Actually, we could start with a fashion question. In the film, there is reference to the Schiaparelli Crater. Do you know if there is a family connection to Elsa Schiaparelli?

JC: You know, that's a question for Ridley and Andy [Weir].

AKT: Did you see the Elsa Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibit at The Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art]?

JC: No.

AKT: Let's talk about The Martian. I love how the film mixes the everyday ordinary with the alien. During the storm, you could think of lids of garbage cans flying by. Did you talk about this mix of creating something strange at the same time very common?

JC: We didn't talk about it, but when you watch Ridley's films - he's had a career that spans 38 years and he's made 36 films in those years. When you look at his filmography, you see that he is a creator of worlds. He creates these kind of alien environments and then has to create a reality within it. So for us - we just needed to know what the rules were.

Jessica Chastain on her Commander's spacesuit: "It felt like I was wearing a movie studio."
Jessica Chastain on her Commander's spacesuit: "It felt like I was wearing a movie studio."

Okay - what's the rules on Mars? I needed to know what the gravity was, what it felt like to be there, what was happening during the storm. And once you know the rules of the world that's being created, then you play it as realistically as you can.

AKT: Did you like the spacesuits that you were wearing?

JC: I will say - not as comfortable as sweatpants. I much prefer wearing sweatpants. But - when I look at the movie and I see how rad those costumes are - they're pretty special. They have their own lighting system, there were cameras, there was a whole oxygen system, a sound system - it felt like I was wearing a movie studio.

AKT: And you didn't have to be too self-aware?

JC: You don't want to over eat, though, because they're very tight. You're wearing a lot of layers. So you want to make sure you're going to be okay and fit into it.

AKT: Did you mind that the music Matt Damon's character keeps complaining about was attached to your character? Do you like the music?

Jeff Daniels as NASA director Teddy Sanders
Jeff Daniels as NASA director Teddy Sanders

JC: I love it. My favorite thing is, when I saw the film when it premiered in Toronto with the audience - every time Turn The Beat Around or those songs were coming on, the audience would break out in robust laughter. And that makes me really happy.

AKT: Some of the songs are very funny in their placement. Do you have a favorite film of Ridley's? Blade Runner? Alien, perhaps?

JC: Alien and Thelma and Louise. Alien is important to me because I remember being a little girl and watching that film. And it was the first time that I had realised that there could be more than one kind of role for an actress. And that a woman could be this fully realised, active, multi-dimensional character. She could not only be all of that but she could also be a hero.

So I knew, because that's the same man who made Alien and of course, Thelma and Louise, that working with Ridley on this film, I would not be forced to be an inactive character because of my gender. I knew that I could be a hero. And in fact, my character saves...

Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie)
Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie)

AKT: … You are a hero. Did you read Robinson Crusoe? How did you prepare?

JC: No, I read the novel The Martian and then I went to JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and then I went to NASA and met with astronauts.

Looking into the Schiaparelli Crater on Mars: It is named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who also has a crater on the Moon honoring him.

Coming up - Matt Damon, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard on The Martian.

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