Dialogue: 'Tree of Life' Star Jessica Chastain Talks Being the Embodiment of Grace, Terrence Malick, and the Trajectory of Her Exploding Career

Dialogue: 'Tree of Life' Star Jessica Chastain Talks Being the Embodiment of Grace, Terrence Malick, and the Trajectory of Her Exploding Career

Oct 17, 2011

The Tree of LifeIf you don’t know who Jessica Chastain is, then you haven’t been to the movies in 2011: thus far she’s already been in four, and at least two more are scheduled for release by the end of the year. But for most people, her breakthrough came in May when she starred opposite Vrad Pitt in Terrence Malick’s highly-anticipated film Tree of Life, in which she not only played Pitt’s wife and mother to his kids, but a physical embodiment of “grace” in the film’s examination of the dueling sides of existence. Tree of Life arrived on Blu-ray last week, and Movies.com caught up with Chastain via telephone for a conversation about her work in the film. Additionally, she talked about her experiences with director Terrence Malick, and discussed the ongoing challenges of finding interesting work as she find increasing success in Hollywood.

Movies.com: What was it like meeting Terrence Malick for the first time? What were your preconceptions about him given his “reclusiveness,” and how much did or didn’t he live up to them?

Jessica Chastain: Well, I was a huge Terrence Malick fan; in fact, before my very first audition, I watched all of his films in chronological order. I feel like every filmmaker has a style, they have a story that they tell; they see the world from a particular place, and even if they’re telling different stories, they always tell it from that same place. And definitely I was doing that in the case of Terrence Malick, but you see it with David Fincher, you see it with Kubrick, you see it with Michael Haneke, and they all have their perception of a story. So I was very excited to meet him. I had heard the myths about Terrence Malick and heard that he was very kind of closed-off, like he had cloistered himself off from society (laughs). There were all of these rumors of what that is, but when I met him, that could not have been further from the truth.

He is the most beautiful – he may be one of the most amazing people I have ever and will ever meet in my life. He’s such a kind person, he’s more interested in you than in wanting to talk about himself, and the reason I think that reputation of him being a bit of a hermit is out there is because he’s only like that where press is concerned. I’m speaking for him, which is probably not right, but in my opinion, if he were to be in the press and saying, oh look – I am the man who created this, there is a bit of like, okay, then he’s singled out, and he can’t create a film from an honest, untouched viewpoint because now the spotlight has turned on him. So I think that is the reason he shies away from press, but in real life, on set, he knows everybody’s name – everyone. Every person on the crew, he knows about your family, he has an amazing sense of humor, has a wonderful laugh, and is really like part of the ensemble. He’s not a painfully shy person who can’t function in the world, he just doesn’t want to I think be a part of a Hollywood [publicity machine]. So that was what struck me when I first met him, how amazing he is.

Jessica Chastain

Movies.com: When you’re in a film that’s as impressionistic as Tree of Life, how tough is it to grasp what you have to do with your character, since you won’t necessarily be working in a concrete narrative?

Chastain: Well, there was a script, and it was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. It was incredibly moving and very similar to what the movie is, so I knew the story that Terrence wanted to tell, and what it was, and how I fit into that. But for me, I thought the challenge was, okay, how do I not fall into the trap of just playing “grace.” You know, it’s a big feat to be like, “I am the representation of the spirit world and what that means and what grace is,” and that’s a huge thing to try to represent. And I wanted to cultivate that energy within my character, but I wanted to ground her also, and make her active. So what I did was I found that what really drives her in her life are her children, and so every scene is about inspiring them or protecting them or loving them or guiding them – everything became about the boys. And that really helped me ground her.

Movies.com: As an actor, how much do you have to think about a film’s themes, as opposed to its story?

Chastain: I guess I did think about both. Like for this one, I couldn’t help but think about the theme of the film because I represented more than just what the woman was. So yes I did, but in general, it’s interesting; it’s like, in real life, there is a big of, I don’t want to say selfishness in humanity because I don’t believe that, but there is the quintessential ego. So in mankind there is a sense of ego, so when I approach a character like in The Wettest County In The World, which I just did earlier this year, I don’t look at the theme of the film, I look at the theme for my character. What does she want? Why is she here? Everything is about her. So for me it’s the opposite of how a director would approach it, because I need to fully embody this woman and make her real, and the way to do that is treat her like she is real. And in real life, we ask ourselves these questions – we know what we’re doing, we know why we are at a certain place, wherever we are. We are very aware that way. So I try to do that with my characters.

Movies.com: Earlier this year Sean Penn said he was surprised by Tree of Life when he saw the finished film, but you say it was close to the way it was written. Was it maybe easier for you to have a sense of what the whole would be like since you were the one, for example, floating in a harness, or doing those sorts of things?

Chastain: Absolutely. There were no surprises. Like all of the characters were very clearly defined in the script, even like the amount of time we shot. The boys and I were there and we shot the longest, and then of course Brad was there for a while. Sean came in very briefly. So it was very similar to what the script was. Now, there wasn’t a scene that said I’m floating in the air, but the way it’s written, it’s almost like prose, the way he wrote some of it. Like maybe there might be a section where he talks about the son’s vision of their mom, and this other life she had before he was around, and how he sees her as almost more than human.

And then when we’re filming, we find this accident, which we were never planning on, where we have me dancing in a harness. It was supposed to be a different shot that didn’t work, and I just started dancing (laughs). And then Terry encouraged it. So that now, he could take that, and go, now that represents what I wrote, and put that in there. So for me, it’s very, very faithful to what he wrote in his screenplay. But the wonderful thing about Terry is that he doesn’t write something and then say, okay, at this moment she looks at him, and he does this, and then you match that. He’s only concerned with being in the moment; he has a story he wants to tell, and it’s definitely clear in the script, but now that we’re in the moment of what that is, what appears?

Jessica Chastain

Movies.com: After having successfully played these maternal roles – even ones as different as in Tree of Life and Take Shelter – how tough it is to assess each new opportunity and make sure it’s different enough from what you’ve previously done?

Chastain: I never think in terms of career, which is why it’s bizarre that it seems like this is the year of Chastain (laughs). Because I never thought this would be good for my career, and I never think about that. It’s like, who do I get to work with, who is my teacher, what am I going to learn from this. And of course when Tree of Life came out, immediately I was getting a lot of scripts where it was like, the very sweet, stand-by-your-man woman. But even if they may be filmmakers I want to work with, I think it’s just not right for me, because I’ve already done it. And I know that within myself, if I think, oh, I’ve done that before, and people tend to like it, journalists like it, I’m going to do it again, then what’s the point? I should just quit acting (laughs).

There’s no point any more, because now I’m just locked and that’s as good as it gets – and that’s boring to me. So I’ll always look at a role and say how is this different than what I’ve done. And even in Take Shelter, she’s so different from the character in Tree of Life, because she’s more of nature; I guess if you would say that XXY is grace, Samantha definitely has more nature in her than grace. So even though the characters are like mothers and wives, it’s okay to me, because I feel like they both have different stories that they’re telling. But I think also after The Help came out, and then The Debt, Hollywood probably right now is like ‘we have no idea what to do with her’ (laughs). Because those characters, I mean, XXY in The Help, I’ve never been like a sexpot, and that is crazy, to have blonde hair and gain a bunch of weight and do comedy, which I love. And then in The Debt, I got to play this action girl and do all of this krav maga and all of this action and speak different languages. So for me, it’s all about how is this different, and how and I going to learn something?

Movies.com: You bring so much authenticity to each character no matter how different it is from the others you’ve played. When you came into to Mama and the Joe Kosinski project, both of which are genre films, how tough is it to bring the same sort of authenticity to scenarios that are elevated or more fantastical?

Chastain: I just finished my first week on Mama – I’m in Canada working on that – and I think, to answer your question, I hope, because this is all new territory to me, I think it’s about the director. I think it’s about talking to the director and seeing how collaborative they are, and are they going to make me do something – and I actually asked them like full-on, I realized that I’ve got to speak up when I’m meeting someone about a project. Are they going to force me to do something that isn’t authentic, that isn’t right? I know I’ve made a good bet with Mama because I really enjoy working with this director, and sometimes when there’s something that doesn’t feel right, I can go talk to him about it and we’ll brainstorm and we can figure out a better, more realistic solution for it.

But you know, I’ve never done a science fiction film, just like I’ve never done a horror film like I’m shooting now, but I think it’s ten times the budget of any film I think I’ve done so far, so it’s a huge difference for me. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know now when I show up, am I going to be acting with green screen? I don’t know what any of that is, and that scares me. But I feel like I learn more from my failures than my successes, and those are the two things that could happen. I could do it and go, oh, this isn’t for me – I’m off of this, but I learned a lot. Or I can do it and I learn and I’m fine with it. So I guess I just try to stay on that path of, oh, I’ve never done that before – let me see what this is like. But I am interested in the whole science fiction green screen thing.

I went to Julliard and we did a lot of crazy stuff, with nothing. We did things like this thing called “Save The Children,” and we had to pretend we were Red Cross people who were going through barbed wire and swamps and all of this stuff, where there’s absolutely nothing around. So I do have experience acting and trying to create a reality around me, but we’ll see. I don’t know; hopefully it’s not a massive mistake (laughs). But I’m really excited about the script, and about Joe. I think he’s great. So I think it’s going to be okay.

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