Jessica Chastain: ‘I will never be angry at a woman for doing what she has to do to survive’
There is a scene in George & Tammy, a new six-part biopic series on the country singer Tammy Wynette, in which Jessica Chastain has to perform on stage before a crowd of young extras. The song is Run, Woman, Run, a standard from 1970 in which Wynette, in customary style, exhorts women to stop being so demanding and knuckle down to life with any man who will have them. Or, as Chastain puts it: “Basically, you’re not going to find someone else, so go back to your man.”
On the day of filming, this presented the 45-year-old actor with a problem. Chastain, who took on the role partly to rescue Wynette from what she saw as decades of unfair feminist dismissal, is drawn to characters with room for ambivalence. But even she had to admit that lyrics such as “Run, woman, run / Go back to him and fix things up the very best you can” were a tough sell for a modern audience. They also offended her, personally. Standing on stage, she felt obliged to issue a quick public health warning before shooting the scene. “I looked out at all these sweet, young faces staring up at me and said, ‘Girls: I do not want you to listen to the lyrics of this song. Please. I love Tammy, but she did not believe this. She was married five times, so do not take any of this as gospel.’”
Chastain and I are in a private members’ club on the 100th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, looking out over Central Park. She is all in pink: pink bomber jacket, pink shirt, pink glasses, her sheet of red hair like a shampoo ad against her paper-white face. Chastain lives in New York with her husband, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an Italian aristocrat who works in fashion, and their two children, a decision she relates to her need for “stimulus. I have a place in the country, too, because I have to break free sometimes. But the museums, the theatre, I take the subway, I –”
“– you take the subway?”
“All the time. I put on a mask. People recognise me sometimes, it’s the red hair, but …” In LA, her life would be “comfortable and cosy”, but as her work “isn’t cosy” – as every project, with the exception of X-Men, demands that she be “awakened in a new way, and find new things inside of me” – New York it is.
There is a buoyant friendliness to Chastain that makes her easy company. She also maintains a hard boundary around her privacy that registers, during our conversation, with a small but perceptible withdrawal as one approaches the line. Chastain was raised in California by her grandmother in conjunction with her very young mother, in a household disrupted by occasional poverty and, according to remarks she made to a magazine in 2016, the death of her younger sister when Chastain was in her late 20s, things she rarely discusses in public. On the strength of our interview, the word I would use for her – and I mean this as a compliment – is flinty. It takes a certain toughness to utter the words, “I had always thought that I wasn’t an intelligent person” – as she does in relation to her adolescence – or study reviews to see why certain films have underperformed. Earlier this year, she won the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker; she is brilliant alongside Eddie Redmayne in the current Netflix true crime hit The Good Nurse; and she is gearing up to appear next year on Broadway in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Yet you sense in her an elemental drive consistent with earlier, less secure parts of her life when she was on a “mission” – to become an actor, for sure, but more broadly to escape a difficult start hampered by sadness and a lack of privilege.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the improbability of her own journey, Chastain is interested in heroism: in what stories fall into that category and who gets to be called a hero, and why. It was Josh Brolin who first suggested she play Tammy Wynette, more than 10 years ago when she was just starting to become famous (Brolin was originally slated to play George Jones and is now an executive producer). In a 12-month period, Chastain had appeared in six movies, including The Help and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (the movie that made her name, Zero Dark Thirty, was still a year off being released) and Wynette didn’t interest her. On a superficial read, the country singer seemed like an uninspiring figure whose image had never fully recovered from being likened to a doormat by Hillary Clinton. Over the years, however, as Chastain sought out more complicated roles than the ones she was being offered, her opinion changed. The fact is, she realised, doormats don’t tend to sell 30m records. “You look at someone like Loretta Lynn, who I love – I love Coal Miner’s Daughter – and she was married to the same man her whole life and was what people really needed women to be at the time, so she got to sing about all these progressive things. Like ‘Don’t come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind,’ which is a really strong message – ”
“ – against marital rape – ”
“Exactly! Holy crap! And she could do that because she was accepted for who she was: a nice woman married to her husband for a long time. But Tammy Wynette was from a broken home, had multiple marriages, and there was something so unsavoury about that, that she had to sing about stand-by-your-man.”
I was an obnoxious kid – I’d eat banana peels in the lunch rooms so kids would notice me
Wynette had been institutionalised as a young woman and briefly had her children taken from her. She was, at any given moment, a few false moves away from falling through the cracks, a situation for which Chastain has enormous sympathy. The rush to judgment hasn’t exactly subsided over the last 40 years and Chastain remains stubbornly unwilling to criticise other women for choices that, in retrospect, seem politically dubious. “It’s complicated,” she says. “Even now, with #MeToo, people will say, ‘Are you angry with this actress, who spoke in support of this person?’” This is a coded reference to women in Hollywood who are regarded as having collaborated with men subsequently exposed as abusers. Chastain will not judge them. “I will never be angry at a woman for having to do what she had to do to support herself and survive, because she’s playing by different rules than the men.”
To rescue Wynette from her one-dimensional image, Chastain did what she loves to do: she dug into the data, discovering, among other things, a discrepancy between the first draft of the lyrics to Stand By Your Man, written by Billy Sherrill, and the final version, which – after Wynette’s edit – centred the woman’s over the man’s experience. Her approach here was typical. Chastain is borderline method in her preparation for a role. It was revealing, earlier this year, when she jumped in to defend her friend, the actor Jeremy Strong, after he appeared in a profile in the New Yorker and was derided for being eye-rollingly pretentious. Chastain clapped back on Twitter, sharing an article headlined “Why attack him for taking his job so seriously?” Female actors are not, perhaps, encouraged to consider themselves artists in quite the same way as men, but Chastain takes herself every bit as seriously as Strong – albeit with slightly more charm.
It’s her belief, for example, that any role worth playing “has to cost something. Not, like, X-Men. If I do something like that, it doesn’t feel like there’s a cost. But if I’m doing something else, it takes something from me. It’s not a free thing. And it’s complicated because usually things that cost the most are the ones you get celebrated for, the ones that are most painful.” By contrast, she says, “the ones where you’re like, I need a break, can I do something easy and fun?” are the projects where “the audience is like, mmmm, we’re not buying it”. (An example of this would be the comedy spy movie The 355, starring Chastain, Penélope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o, which tanked earlier this year.)
One of Chastain’s most psychologically costly movies was Zero Dark Thirty, directed in 2012 by Kathryn Bigelow and which, after Chastain won an Oscar nomination for her role as the CIA analyst chasing Osama Bin Laden, bumped her from successful working actor to movie star. “I really dive into things,” she says. “I put pictures up of all the terrorists on the hotel room walls. I don’t know if I could make Zero Dark Thirty now. You know – peace out, I’m going to be gone for two months in Chandigarh, India and Jordan, and I was … crazy in that movie.” If she catches a frame of it now, it shocks her. “I’ll see a clip and think: I’m having a mental breakdown.” She laughs, but it was tough and she felt very lonely during the shoot. “I was really by myself.”
* * *
The biggest imaginative leap taken by Jessica Chastain wasn’t in connection with a role. It was the decision she made in her late teens to apply for a place at Juilliard, the fiercely competitive acting school in New York. Her childhood home in Sacramento, northern California, wasn’t one in which fancy performing arts colleges featured. Neither her mother nor grandmother – both of whom had their first children at 17 – had been to college. Her father wasn’t in the picture. The question of how Chastain envisaged a future for herself unsupported by evidence from the people around her remains profoundly impressive. It was, she says, a case of “when you see it, you can be it”. Chastain took the single example of a friend applying to Juilliard – looking at him and thinking, “I don’t think we’re that different in skill level” – and ran with it all the way to New York.
Still, the odds weren’t in her favour. “I had always thought that I wasn’t an intelligent person because I did badly at school,” she says. This was partly a matter of temperament: “I was an obnoxious kid because I wasn’t getting appropriate attention. I would do things like eat banana peels in the lunch rooms so kids would notice me.” There was also a lack of parental engagement. “I wasn’t good with homework because I’d watch TV – soap operas – all day when I got home.”
Her home life was further complicated by what she has referred to as the drug addiction of a younger sister who, the actor said in an interview in 2014, took her own life when Chastain was in her 20s. Chastain started bunking off school. But it was here that an idiosyncrasy surfaced. While other dropouts hung around “smoking or sleeping in”, Chastain – this story would sound gilded, but she is so sincere that towards the end she starts crying – sat in her car reading Shakespeare.
She laughs. “I was in high school, and there was a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare festival and I saw Marco Barricelli play Richard III. And … something opened up inside me. It was the strangest thing, that I could be so moved. I had the hugest crush on that actor.”
How old were you?
“Maybe 15? I became obsessed with Shakespeare. My grandma had just bought these ornamental books – she liked design, and these books weren’t meant to be read. They just sat on the shelf to look good. And one was the complete works of Shakespeare. I still have it. To me it’s very sentimental.”
What did it do for you? Was it the poetry?
“Yes – it was something about the rhythm and how it fed into the emotion.” She loved the characters, too. Later, when she joined a local theatre group, “I got to play Juliet twice; it’s my favourite part. Romeo’s a bit weak, but Juliet tells the friar, you married us, it’s your fault, and if you don’t fix it I’m going to kill myself and that’s going to be your fault, too. Do something! And Romeo’s just a wet noodle. Something just opened up in me; I wanted to do that.” It was the first time she had considered the possibility of acting and it rapidly became an obsession.
It was also a refuge. Chastain will allow that those afternoons spent in the car park reading Shakespeare were an escape from a chaotic situation at home. The words soothed her. “It felt like someone understood me in a different way.” To our mutual surprise, she starts to cry. “I can get emotional talking about it. It’s like a ... ” She looks away, eyes bright with tears, and her voice wobbles. “It’s like you’re not being seen. Then all of a sudden, someone who was alive years ago sees you.” In fact, it would be the boy who played Romeo to her Juliet who got into Juilliard, inspiring Chastain to apply. The funny thing is that, looked at in the context of competitive Manhattan parenting, having a child who loves Shakespeare is the dream.
“Well, it’s funny because I was that child, but I also dropped out of high school. In my family, no one stopped me, no one was like, you can’t be an actor. But I’m sure they’d rather I’d fallen in love with being a dentist.”
Did it seem very whimsical to them?
“Yeah. But my sister was having a lot of difficulties, and everyone was very stressed. So the focus was on that. When I didn’t graduate, no one even noticed.”
“Yeah. It wasn’t even a conversation of, ‘Uh, are we going to your graduation?’ Nothing.” She laughs.
In part because of her background, Chastain is emphatic about a woman’s right to choose when or if to have children. “The problem is that my mom, my grandmother and all the women in my family were pregnant when they were 17, because they were never given that choice,” she says. “Birth control is expensive. And they couldn’t rely on men to do their part, to be responsible. So it’s very important to me that women have access to contraceptives and freedom over that. Because I know a lot of people are freaked out when women decide not to have children. But I think that’s great!” Her mother later had two more children with Chastain’s stepfather: “There’s almost 20 years between me and my youngest sibling.” Chastain, meanwhile, waited until she was over 40 to have her children, a son and a daughter who are both still under five.
We’ve all been fed the man’s story since we were kids. It makes it really important to put out more stories about women
Her outlook and determination are clearly influenced by these early experiences. But it took Chastain a while to find her feet after moving to New York. The joy of getting into Juilliard was undercut almost immediately by a constant anxiety that she would get kicked out. It was a tough environment: any student considered not up to scratch would be put on probation and risk losing their place. Regular conferences were held with the tutors, she says, “in which you would go in and they would basically tell you what’s wrong with you”.
What was wrong with you?
“I was told in my first year I had to stop trying to please everybody,” Chastain says. “I was told, ‘You smile too much. That’s your crutch. When you’re acting, you’re smiling too much, you’re trying to be charming.’ Isn’t that interesting? I think it’s a woman thing. My voice also was pitched higher, it was like up here so as not to be intimidating. It’s so different now.” The tutors advised her to cut all this out. “They almost want you – sorry, I’m going to cuss for a second – but they almost want you to not give a fuck. Because then you’re free.”
There would be other hurdles, though not any connected to her red hair, which is less commented on in the US than in England. (The first time Chastain was in England, before she was famous, she says, “People screamed ‘Ginger!’ at me in the street.” Men, presumably? “Yes! ‘Ginger!’ Holy crap!”)
After graduating, she worked her way up through walk-on parts in ER and Law and Order. As she started to win larger roles, in particular in The Tree of Life and the thriller Take Shelter, so the limitations of her industry became more apparent. Hollywood is, she believes, not only unimaginative but “anti-imaginative”, particularly when it comes to female actors. “I started getting all of these offers for, like, the wife. Or the woman who says, ‘I’m afraid for you, stay home with me! Don’t go do that brave thing!’” Given the struggles she had been through to get there, Chastain was inclined to do the brave thing. She made a movie called Mama – “This horror film, this anti-mother thing” – and “Then I did Zero Dark Thirty, and there was no man in her life except Bin Laden.” She laughs. She was in her mid-30s when that film came out, a relatively late break for an actor, which also widened her perspective. “I’d watched the industry for a long time. Getting success later means I’d gotten to study it, particularly what they do with actresses, and I didn’t want them to do that to me.”
Since then, Chastain has appeared in movies across the spectrum, from goofball comedy to a superhero franchise and the role she plays in The Good Nurse, a quiet, stunning depiction of a woman trying to protect her patients from a serial killer. She has developed interests outside showbusiness, investing, alongside Natalie Portman, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Garner, in Angel FC, the LA-based women’s football team, and a commitment that Chastain sees as a sisterly gesture as well as sound business. (Audience numbers for women’s football in the US are rising every year.)
When projects don’t land, she tends to be curious rather than defensive. In 2017, Chastain appeared in The Zookeeper’s Wife as a Polish zookeeper hiding Jewish refugees during the second world war. When it failed to fly, she undertook an informal research project, wading through every review on Rotten Tomatoes and tabulating the responses into male and female reviewers. “I like research. And so I made two charts on paper, and I realised the women all rated the film, like, 90%. And the men rated the film, like, 60% or below. Which is a huge difference. And then I thought, well, how many women and how many men are reviewing the film? And it was something like 85% of the reviewers were men. So if women love the film, and men are so-so, and the majority of the critics are men, who do we have to tell the world that the story is important?” She wanted to expand the understanding of what it is to be a hero. “We’ve all been fed with the importance of the man’s story, the male journey, since we were kids. Women are open to that point of view. But it makes it really important to put out more stories about women. I spend my working life trying to put the female heroic out there, even if she’s not – I mean, Miss Sloane [a movie she made in 2016 about a ruthless political lobbyist] was not a nice person. But I want people to see women in a way they don’t usually.”
Tammy Faye Bakker was, strictly speaking, not a “nice” person, nor was Tammy Wynette. For Chastain, the interesting role is the one that lies beyond the realm of what’s considered respectable, the character as likely to be attacked by other women as by men. She never did figure out how to lessen the cost. “It’s painful,” she says. But if the alternative is to let your voice drift too high, smile too much and miss all the good stuff, she knows which mode she prefers. “With anything, music, painting, it can’t be easy, because then it’s boring. What are you doing? It’s stagnant water.”
• George & Tammy is available to stream now exclusively on Paramount+.