In “Miss Sloane,” Jessica Chastain plays a no-frills Washington lobbyist who’d sooner burn everyone in her path than fail. A fan of black power suits and pill-popping, Elizabeth Sloane is brash and intimidating ― the exact opposite of Chastain, whose 12-year career has lent her a reputation as one of the nice ones in Hollywood.
Opening in limited release this weekend, “Miss Sloane” once again places Chastain in the middle of a congested Best Actress race. It would mark her third Oscar nomination, after “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” I sat down with Chastain last month to discuss the movie, women’s roles in the lobbying world, preparing to play Tammy Wynette and why she can’t watch “The Tree of Life.”
Elizabeth Sloane is like Olivia Pope from “Scandal” meets Carrie Mathieson from “Homeland.”
[Laughs] That’s a really interesting parallel to make. For me, “Sloane” is a story about addiction because she’s addicted to the win. I think Carrie is like that in “Homeland.” But also, too, it’s the example of the woman who is over-prepared, one step ahead of everyone else, which probably is the “Scandal” parallel. In our society, we sometimes have difficulty relating to women that are over-prepared and ambitious. I was really excited to explore playing a character like that.
It’s easy to determine that her urge to succeed stems from needing to work harder than her male counterparts to prove herself.
Exactly. Less than 10 percent of lobbyists in D.C. are women.
What did this role make you think of lobbyists who go against their own political interests in the name of big money?
It’s interesting because the film surrounds the gun debate, right? But actually, it could be around any issue. It could be about climate change or immigration right now because it’s an example of, “When you have a public majority that wants something, why is it so difficult to get a bill passed?”
I didn’t realize until I went to D.C. and did research on what was going on there. I had not realized that senators and congressmen, in many cases, go to three fundraisers a day. And then how can your priority be representing the people when your focus is on raising money to keep your seat in office? That means you’re being bought by whoever is giving you money. I think that is the situation we need to look at.
You’ve played a few characters with ties to political issues of the moment, particularly Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Do you ever feel the need to assess what that does for you as a public figure, knowing performers are sometimes inextricably identified by their characters?
My goal is to create a discussion. I’m not here to tell people how to live their lives. I’m not here to lecture. I am nowhere near a perfect person and I don’t want to judge anyone else and I don’t want anyone to judge me. I’m very “live and let live.” But a few years ago I had this moment where I just thought, “What am I doing? How am I contributing in this world? I have the best job. I’m so lucky, I’m so grateful. But it’s like eating cake every day. I want to share the cake.” Now I’m trying to participate in projects that I’m acting in, and also the ones with my production company that I’m making but not even going to act in. What an incredible industry where we can inspire conversation.
What led you to that moment?
Well, I’ve had the moment before, but I can tell you what created action in me. I was at the Critics’ Choice Awards and I gave a speech about diversity. I’d won an award that was for a body of work instead of just one film, so I was like, “What do I talk about?” It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, so I thought, “I’m going to talk about diversity and the fact that we need it in the industry.” This was a few years ago, and then the next week I went to England to do some press on “A Most Violent Year,” and they said, “We loved your speech, but what are you going to do now?” And you’re like, “Oh, god, what am I going to do now? You’re right!”
It’s not enough to talk. We have to be accountable. If you are part of the industry, you’re part of the problem. If you’re part of society and there are people who are disenfranchised, you’re part of the problem because we’re all connected. I just looked at that and I said, “OK, I’m starting a production company.” I just started being active with more than just the roles I choose. I started asking what opportunities I could create for others.
Does ambition make you feel like you must always keep going, like Elizabeth?
Yeah, except I guess the difference that I don’t relate to at all in Sloane is about the kill, the win, the competition. I am the least competitive. I don’t play sports games. I like motocross and jet-skiing, but that’s when you’re by yourself. Even when we’re all together on Christmas and people say “let’s play a board game,” they make me very uncomfortable because I find that people’s feeling get hurt. I’m not like, “I won! I’m kicking your butt!” That’s not interesting to me. Even when I watch the World Series or the World Cup, I feel terrible for the team at the end that’s crying on the field. Oh god, my heart is breaking.
Another watershed for “Miss Sloane” is that you get to make a bad boy out of Jake Lacy, who plays an escort.
Fine with me!
After “Obvious Child” and “Carol,” he was the eternal nice guy.
And “Girls.” I remember walking into that first scene, with him lying there with his shirt off, like, “Really? Are you kidding me?” My job is so funny. And he’s great in the movie. Thank God for those scenes because that’s when you really get to see her when she’s not working. It’s her only form of a relationship.
Tell me about developing Elizabeth’s look with John Madden, who also directed you in another political thriller, “The Debt.”
When I first read the script, I always assumed she’d look a certain way. I assumed she’d hardly have any makeup on and she’d be looking tired all the time. And then I went to D.C. and I met with all these lobbyists with black nail polish. I couldn’t believe what I saw and how they, working in an industry that’s all men, used their outfits as their uniform.
She can’t afford to look tired or checked out.
No, exactly. And when I came back and I was telling John about it and we did the camera test, it was so different from how we had discussed the character. It was this hair that looks like a shark’s tooth, and it’s a red that’s stronger than my natural color and eye makeup with suits was such a strong, aggressive look. I know to John it was like, “What is going on here?” But I said, “Please trust me. You just gotta trust me. I really feel like this is the way in.” And he did.
What’s been the movie where your character most came to life after slipping on the costume?
Celia Foote [from “The Help”].
I knew that would be your answer. There’s so much in the essence of how she presents herself.
Right, and also people would relate to me differently. It changes your energy completely. I’ve never experienced this, but the entire crew ― you know, 100 people, mostly men, in films ― the way they would look at me when I was dressed as Celia Foote, and the energy that I would feel from them, and then I would go into the makeup trailer and take off the wig and take off the makeup and put on my sweats and walk out, and immediately there was this, “Huh.”
Were they more sympathetic to you as Celia?
As Celia, they were just more interested. More people were looking at me. They weren’t being mean to me when I wasn’t dressed, but you could see the power in that sexuality.
That’s interesting, considering Celia is someone who just wants to be liked by the other women in town.
Think of all of my characters. Think of Lucille from “Crimson Peak.” There’s definitely something about the way she dresses. You put it on and you go, [snaps her fingers] “OK.” The exterior is informed by what’s going on in the interior.
Celia Foote, her favorite actress is Marilyn Monroe. It says it in the book. I think someone, when she was a little girl, told her she looked like Marilyn Monroe, so she then wanted to project this. And Lucille, there’s a restraint to her. It’s almost like she’s in a straitjacket. She’s got this rage inside and this loneliness and this fear. You can see her being held back, but then at the end of the movie when she’s wearing her nightgown and there’s this freedom, she is batshit crazy. To me, it all goes hand in hand.
You’re good at playing people who have odd disconnects from others, either by choice or by an inability to see themselves for who they are. I’m picturing you unravelling in “Miss Julie.”
Yeah, it’s a long night for Miss Julie. That’s interesting. Recently someone asked me how many movies I’ve been in and I didn’t know, so I went to IMDb and I counted, just feature films in the cinema. It’s 27 films that I’ve done, which is shocking. If you think of Lucille, or Maya from “Zero Dark Thirty,” there are definitely characters who have difficulty being vulnerable with another person or connecting emotionally. But then I also have the characters that are the opposite. If you think of Celia Foote, she is just one ginormous beating heart.
She wants to connect with everyone, but she can’t quite figure out how.
But she just throws herself in. Minnie, Octavia Spencer’s character, is just like, “Girl, you need to play hard to get. You’re just throwing yourself right out there.” Or “Tree of Life,” where the character is just this angel of love. I think, for me, I want to play all different kinds of women. Or “Take Shelter.”
Oh yes, in “Take Shelter,” she’s desperate to connect with her husband.
And she’s all about love and compassion. Wait till you see “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” I love this movie so much. She has a huge heart too. She’s so loving, so gentle. She’s someone who works with animals. It’s a true story. You have to be very calm and grounded to be able to work with animals.
Have you gotten to see “Voyage of Time,” Terrence Malick’s documentary that was shot around the same time as “The Tree of Life”?
I would be really happy to. From the very beginning, Terry had said “Voyage of Time” was supposed to come out at the same time as “Tree of Life,” so we were all prepared for that movie. I’ve been shooting in Santa Fe and I haven’t had an opportunity to see that movie, but “Tree of Life” is one of my favorite films. I haven’t been able to watch it since it came out because it’s so emotional for me. It was the high point of my life.
Because you were so young in your career?
That, and also I was playing a character who was the embodiment of love, so every day was just filled with so much joy. I was meditating on expanding my heart space and living with an open heart. Of course it affects you and how you treat other people. I loved those little boys so much, and I loved Terry so much. Watching the movie and seeing Mrs. O’Brien running through the streets with those little boys, I remember how wonderful it was. I’m heartsick for it.
You’re playing Tammy Wynette in a biopic soon. How are you preparing?
Oh, my god, I love Tammy Wynette. Well, there’s going to be some preparation in terms of music.
Are you singing?
Have we seen you sing before?
In “Crimson Peak,” I sing a really disturbing lullaby. But that’s not very earthy. Listen, I’m an actor who sings. I’m never going to go and open a band. I’m terrified about it. We’ll see how it goes when I go and start prep. Who knows? I may not sing. I’m leaving every option open. I read the daughter’s book, The Three of Us, which I found so interesting, and of course I’m watching a lot of videos. I’m just super excited to work with Josh Brolin. I can’t imagine anyone else playing George Jones. He’s so right for that. I don’t know if you’ve read the script, but it’s so dynamic and so exciting and sexy. They’re like the Sid and Nancy of the country scene.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. “Miss Sloane” expands to wide release Dec. 9.
CLARIFICATION: The wording of the question about “Voyage of Time” was changed to indicate the footage used in that documentary and “The Tree of Life” are not identical. Malick shot some material simultaneously, but the movies don’t contain overlapping images.