In 2011, Jessica Chastain was everywhere. This is just barely hyperbole, as Chastain appeared in seven -- seven! -- movies in 2011. When she was done, they had to change the definition of "breakout year" in the dictionary. (First, they had to find an actual dictionary -- not easy these days.) Chastain is kidding when she refers to 2011 as her "reel," but not entirely: it's pretty tough to get pigeonholed in a certain role when you've starred in everything from Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated "The Tree of Life" to Tate Taylor's Oscar-nominated "The Help." No wonder director Kathryn Bigelow didn't ask her to audition for "Zero Dark Thirty" -- she'd had plenty of chances to see Chastain in action. So many that, to this day, Chastain doesn't know which role sealed the deal for her with Bigelow. (Yes, we found out the answer.)
In "Zero Dark Thirty," Chastain gives a Golden Globe–nominated performance as Maya, a character based on a real CIA operative who spent nearly a decade tracking the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. In the film, her detective work leads to the raid on Bin Laden's compound, which gets depicted in breathtaking detail. I met an animated Chastain in her Manhattan hotel room to discuss the new movie and her remarkable 2011. She told me that her first film, co-starring Al Pacino, still hasn't been released, and she responded to an offhand comment about The Rock's now famous Bin Laden tweet by acting out an entire alternate ending for "Zero Dark Thirty."
I like any movie that keeps me on the edge of my seat even though I know the end result.
It's funny, because we all think we know the ending. I was expecting, when they sent me the script, it would be like, "Yay! America!," you know? "We did it!" It's definitely not that. The last note of the film I found to be really deep and profound. And the fact that Kathryn ends the movie with a question, "Where do you want to go?" It's bigger than Maya. It's for everybody. And I found that incredible.
"I'm the motherf--ker that found this place" may be the best line in a movie this year.
[Laughs] Isn't that fantastic? A lot of people say, "Were you just so excited to say that line?" -- but for me, it was pretty easy to get there. Because in this scene, all I was doing, I was standing in the back watching them put their hands all over my stuff. You know what I mean? For close to a decade, this has been mine. Nobody wanted it. Now they're telling me that I have to go stand in a corner. I built that model with my own two hands and they're answering questions with not even the correct information. So, when he goes, "Who are you?," and he says it in almost a dismissive way, it's like, [whispers] f--k you.
Especially since it's James Gandolfini.
I think we're now trained to think, Oh! How is he going to react to that?
I know! I know. That was actually really fun to say that to Gandolfini. "The Sopranos" is one of my favorite TV shows of all time, so I was super excited. On set I was like, "Tony Soprano!"
Did you say that to his face?
No! Because I'm sure he probably gets that walking down the street and people scream out, "Tony," I'm sure.
Yeah, I assume he doesn't get a lot of "Crimson Tide" references.
Did you meet the real Maya?
No, because she's an undercover agent. I mean, I did a lot of research about her. But, the interesting thing is, this woman, who sacrificed so much for this mission -- she lost a lot of who she was. She became a stranger to herself … and she can't take credit. Do you know what I mean? Because she's undercover, she can't come out and be like, "I did it, you guys. Look what I did!"
Which is just human nature.
Right. But in a way, for me, being a part of this movie is thanking her. It's giving her credit, anonymously. It's like saying that there's this woman and she did this.
Even on a movie set, is it difficult to watch the torture scenes?
Yes. It's awful. And we were filming in an active Jordanian prison -- that's the environment we were in. It was really disturbing to film that stuff and I was very uncomfortable. I took a break one day and walked away and cried. In the middle of a scene, we finished and I said, "I'm sorry," and I walked away. I'm not as unemotional as Maya is [laughs] or as she tries to be. It's tough to watch and it's tough to be in those rooms acting it out.
Maya's arc is interesting because she goes from being disturbed by it to being a part of it, like when she's telling a guy to punch a prisoner ...
Yeah, "Hit him!"
Would that desensitization happen to any of us?
I think so. I think being in that kind of situation for close to a decade, you descend the rabbit hole and you don't know where you are at the end.
So you came on board after the drastic change in the script? After Bin Laden was killed?
I guess they had inquired about me -- I was making a movie in Toronto and I had a movie after that already scheduled. So they were told, "She's busy." And then I worked with Megan Ellison on a movie called "Lawless," and I came to L.A. for a weekend to do press for one of the many movies last year. And I got a text message [from Megan] that said, "If I ever ask you for anything, please call me right now." So I called her back and she goes, "There's this movie. They want you, but we were told you're not available and I cannot accept 'no' for an answer." She was really gung-ho about it. The next week, Kathryn Bigelow called. The second I read the script, I was on. I said, "You guys make the schedule work, I'm there."
You mentioned all of the movies that you were in last year. I mean, 2011 was a big year for you.
Huge year for me.
How important is it to pick a role that sustains, as opposed to loses, that momentum?
I didn't think about that, to be honest. I don't think about the momentum. I mostly think about, "What's a character I haven't played before?" And if you look at my seven movies that were out last year, there were none like this. I had never played a character like this. And I've always wanted to work with Kathryn Bigelow, and when I read the script and I found out I'd be making this movie about this important moment in history and -- surprise! -- there was a woman at the center of it ... Yeah, that was a no-brainer.
There was a controversy that this movie was going to be pro-Obama and sway the election. Which is interesting, because your character is often not happy with the Obama Administration in this movie.
Maya keeps badgering her supervisor about many days it's been with no action taken against the compound. It's not a love letter to the Obama Administration.
Oh, not at all! You see her there, she was like, "This has been 200 days. What is all of this red tape?" I think Maya was just frustrated. She's not used to everyone being scared of covering their asses. They were all afraid to make a move because of what happened with the weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle. No one wanted to say, "OK, 90 percent he's there." It was, "40 percent, 60 percent," no one is ever taking a stand. She's the only one who said, "100 percent." And that's all true -- and it's in the book "No Easy Day" that just came out that the Navy SEAL wrote. He talks about her as "Jen."
As you mentioned, you had seven movies come out in 2011. I know you didn't film them all knowing that, but is that overwhelming? As in, "I'm just everywhere."
Yeah, especially to kind of go from zero to everything. I went from one disappointment to another. Where I'd be so excited about having a premiere and bringing my grandmother and my mom -- and we would set it up and it would get canceled for some reason. That a studio would get sold or, you know, Terrence Malick wasn't ready to show the film yet. There were so many last-minute changes and disappointments that I felt like, Well, I'm just going to keep on trucking and we will see what happens. Then when it all came out at once, it went from being so unlucky to being very lucky.
Because, at first when "Tree of Life" came out, immediately I started getting a lot of scripts where I was the supporting wife. Immediately! It's like all I got. And then "The Help" came out and "The Debt." Then, all of a sudden, I don't think people knew really what category to put me in. Which makes it more interesting.
Two cases can be made. One that you were in a lot and you didn't want people to get sick of you. But there's also the case that people are seeing a wide range of what you can do.
[Laughs] Here's my reel! 2011!
So did that work to your advantage?
I think so. I mean, to be honest -- because I didn't audition for this -- I don't know what Kathryn Bigelow saw to think, She's perfect for Maya.
I'm talking to her next, I will ask her. [Note: I did ask Bigelow and the answer is "Coriolanus."]
Yes, because I'm very different from Maya. But, that is a great vote of confidence when Kathryn Bigelow calls and says, "OK, you're the one." But I think it must be because the films are so different.
You mentioned going from disappointment to disappointment. Was the release of "Tree of Life" the moment when you felt things were changing?
I can tell you right now, my very first movie has still not come out yet.
What movie is this?
"Salome," with Al Pacino. That was my big break. Al Pacino directing and I was playing Salome -- it's called "Wilde Salome" -- opposite Al. It has not been distributed.
Is that because someone doesn't like it or is it a studio issue?
I think it's similar to [Pacino's 1996 meditation on Shakespeare's "Richard III"] "Looking for Richard," but there's more of Oscar Wilde's play "Salome" in it. So it's not a typical film. But that was my first break. And that was seven years ago [laughs]. So we went from, "Mom, I'm acting with Al Pacino," or, "Mom, I'm playing Brad Pitt's wife" -- all these things, but it’s taken years for it to happen.
Well, at least "Tree of Life" actually came out.
Yeah. Three years later!
But when it did come out, people responded well to it.
Though your mom might have thought you were making this stuff up after a while. Al Pacino, Brad Pitt ...
"What are you doing in L.A.? You're not acting."
Will "Salome" ever come out?
I hope so. I hope if this movie goes well ... people might go, "Wait a minute, let's see Jessica'a first film." Even if it's an art-house release, I just want it to come out. I love the movie so much. Like I said, it's my first film -- I was learning so much about the camera. That would be really exciting.
Don't you have clout to do that now?
I've been asking. I go to different distributors and I'm like, "Come on, please." I mean, I was doing that last year: "Don't you want to release this film?" But maybe the more success, the more people will listen? I don't know. I'll do tons of press! Please! [Laughs]
How did you find out that Bin Laden had been killed? I learned from The Rock, strangely.
You don't know about this?
The Rock tweeted about it before anyone.
Are you kidding me?
No. Apparently he has a friend who is a Navy SEAL, but Tweeted before he was supposed to.
Wooooow! That's incredible. But he didn't say anything about UBL?
He didn't specifically mention Bin Laden.
So as soon as you read it, you knew?
That should have been the final scene of "Zero Dark Thirty."
Oh! Yes! Maya is on the phone [Chastain starts acting out the scene], "Where do you want to go?" Crying, "Hi, The Rock? ... Guess what?" … The end.
I would love to see that ending of you telling The Rock.
I was actually in New York when I found out. I was at a restaurant with friends and a waiter came over and said it.
Once new endings to the movie are made up starring The Rock, it's probably time to end the interview.
I do hope your first movie comes out.
Yeah, I hope so, too. Get on it! Help me out!
Well, I am. It will all be in this piece.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.