Interview: Jessica Chastain Talks Her Great New Movie "Take Shelter" And Pimp-Slapping Michael Shannon

Interview: Jessica Chastain Talks Her Great New Movie "Take Shelter" And Pimp-Slapping Michael Shannon

What’s cool about your character is that she stays by Michael Shannon’s side throughout, even as his sanity disintegrates more and more. She has a moment of “I can’t take this anymore,” but she ultimately rides it out with him.
What I love so much about her is that she’s not the usual stand-by-your-man, loyal, supporting, sweet wife. The most dangerous animals in the wild kingdom are the mother tiger and the mother grizzly, when it comes to protecting their families, and I think my character is comparable to that. I mean, she hits him in the face!

When she finds out that they’ve possibly lost their health insurance and realizes how that affects their daughter, she reacts with violence. And when she decides to stand by her man, it’s not a loving and super-sweet thing—she finds him in the backyard, stands next to him, and says, “OK, this is what we’re going to do. This is the plan, and you will follow it. We’re not having a debate about this. This is what’s going to happen.” She’s very proactive, and strong; she’s not soft, you know? She’s loving but strong.

If you found yourself in a similar situation in real life, is that how you’d handle your man?
No, I would never hit someone. [Laughs.] I had so much trouble even doing that scene. Because I adore Mike so much, and the idea is that I’m supposed to hit him goes against how much I hate violence. And that slap is like a real slap, so we’re talking about it and we’re talking about it in rehearsal, and I said to Jeff, “You need to promise me that you’re only going to ask me to do this three times. If you make this promise, I will promise you that, every single time, I will hit him very hard.” [Laughs.] That way, I knew I’d only have to do it three times, and I can do it three times. The fourth time, though, would be pretty rough.

I knew that if we did the scene more times than that, I’d end up holding back after a certain point because I’d want to protect Mike. The more you hit someone, it’s just awful. So I said, with all seriousness, “If you promise me we can get this shot in three takes, I swear that I’ll hit him really hard.”

And it only took three takes?
Yeah! We did it in exactly three takes. Jeff kept his word.

Michael Shannon always plays super-intense characters, which makes it seem like he’d be that way in real life, so I’d think filming a scene like that, where you have to hit him, could be intimidating.
The cool thing about Mike is that he’s very respectful of the process, and he absolutely stays in the energy of what the character is supposed to be, even, like, when a mistake is made in a scene, he might be able to turn it into something interesting, so he never really breaks character. He’ll never say, “Oh, I messed up!” [Laughs.] He doesn’t do anything like that. He is always how the character is, and that’s wonderful as an actor working with him, because I think that’s so generous.

One of his best strengths as an actor is how he’s able to internalize so much emotion and intensity, and that’s on prominent display throughout Take Shelter. As an actor working with him, is it extra challenging to play off of a guy who’s emoting so much through his eyes and subtle mannerisms?
It’s easier, actually. Well, it’s not a matter of “easier or harder,” because if you’re with an actor who is in the moment, and is truthful, and is a good scene partner, meaning that they’re in the scene with and not acting by themselves—that makes life just so much easier. Then, you’re on the same team. You don’t know where the scene is going to take you, you don’t know which turns you’re heading down; you’re just there together. You rise to the occasion of what that is, then, and that’s what I live for as an actor.

I live for working with people who are spontaneous, who don’t kind of repeat something over and over again. There’s no, like, expected thing that they’re going to do. Mike is so inventive and exciting to work with, and I just absolutely adore him as an actor, and I absolutely adore him as a person. He’s phenomenal.

You two have such great and believable chemistry in the film; without that connection as actors, Take Shelter could have been a totally different, much campier movie. It has some of the creepiest scenes I’ve seen all year, with its really dark dream sequences. So the film needs the quieter scenes between you and him to really work on an emotional level, and they do.
Yeah, that’s what I think, too. The great thing about Jeff Nichols, I think, is that, through him, we’ve really shown what’s most important about his script, and that’s the bond of the family. The bond between these two people needs to be very strong, and you need to feel like, “OK, I like this couple together. These two people are so good together.” Because when things start to unravel, you have to know why they’re trying so hard to fix things. You have to know and understand what he’s so afraid he’ll lose, and that has to be this beautiful family.

A fair amount of the Take Shelter’s press has been selling it as an “apocalyptic” film, so people might go into it expecting something that’s more concerned with genre scares than character-driven emotion.
And I don’t think it’s an “apocalyptic thriller” at all. I think it’s a film about…. Really, you don’t know if it’s an apocalyptic movie, and you don’t know if it’s a movie about a man struggling through a mental illness, but one where, at the end, these two people are finally on the same page. The great thing about the film is a combination of what makes it so creepy, meaning the dream sequences and the birds in the sky, and the fact that there is this normalcy and stability of everyday life. It’s really something special.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Tags: jessica-chastain, michael-shannon, jeff-nichols, take-shelter, natural-disasters, end-of-the-world, apocalypse
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