With three months left in 2011, it’s already clear who this year’s most prolific breakthrough talent is in Hollywood, and, no, it’s not your boy Ryan Gosling. The correct answer is Jessica Chastain, an actress who started the year totally unknown but has since gone on to star in three major releases: The Tree Of Life (alongside Brad Pitt), the action-drama The Debt, and the latest chart-topping white savior flick, The Help. By the end of December, the 30-year-old California native will have three more projects in theaters, including the serial killer thriller Texas Killing Fields and Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus. Now’s the time to ask yourself, “What the hell have I done this year?”
Earning critical praise for her performances in each of those films, Chastain is currently at the top of every Hollywood casting director’s wish list, a newfound in-demand stature that will only increase once her latest movie, Take Shelter, hits theaters this weekend. Part psychological horror and part domestic drama, Take Shelter is a paranoia-drenched knockout about a mentally disturbed husband and father (Michael Shannon) who interprets a string of realistic nightmares as signs of an impending apocalypse. Chastain plays the wife struggling to keep her family together, and it’s a superlative performance, one made all the more impressive alongside what’s arguably the always impressive Shannon’s best acting to date.
Take Shelter, a lock for our year-end “Best Movies” list, is a must-see, and Chastain is a huge reason. Complex hopped on the phone with the ascending star to discuss the film’s emotional center, what makes Michael Shannon such a generous co-star, and how she psyched herself up to rock his face with a five-finger slap.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: In the past two months alone, you’ve starred in two No. 1 movies, The Help and The Debt, adding onto a year that already includes Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life and now Take Shelter. In all, it’s been a pretty so-so year for you, huh?
Jessica Chastain: [Laughs.] Yeah, just an average one so far. No, it’s so surreal. As an actor, you’re just happy when you’re working; if someone wants to hire me, that’s great! So to have this wonderful feedback for all of the films that I did, it’s really great. I’m so lucky.
Were all of these movies shot back-to-back over the years and they’re all coincidentally hitting theaters at the same time? It’s pretty crazy how they’re all being released with a certain domino effect.
I know, it’s really interesting for me, too. I didn’t plan it this way—I didn’t expect it to be this way. I’m really surprised that they’ve all been set for release within the same six months, because I’ve been working for four years now, making these films. That, to me, is very surprising, but you know what? It’s all good! It’s a great problem to have—in fact, it’s not a problem at all. [Laughs.]
Compared to The Help and The Debt, Take Shelter is a much smaller and more intimate film. In the midst of working on all these projects, what drew you to Take Shelter?
Well, first of all, I was really excited about the prospect of working with Michael Shannon. I’ve been such a fan of his; I love his work in film, and I love his work in theater. He’s a really dynamic actor, really spontaneous and very intense. I knew that if I were to get the role and do scenes with him, he’d force me to be on my toes and really step my game up. I knew it’d be a great learning experience. So, for me, that was absolutely a huge draw.
I’m just such a fan of actors and filmmakers, so, also, with Jeff Nichols, I saw his first film, Shotgun Stories, and I thought it was brilliant. I was really excited to see his next film and see what he could do with it.
At the time of auditioning for Take Shelter, as well as all of the projects we’ve seen you in recently, you were much lesser-known than you are now. Were these roles tough to get, being that you were untested?
Yeah, a lot of these films were very tough for me to get at first. The great thing about Take Shelter, though, is that the executive producer, Sarah Green, is also Terrence Malick’s producer, so she contacted Jeff Nichols directly to tell him about me, because she had just worked with me on The Tree Of Life. So she brought me to the attention of Jeff Nichols, and then she arranged for a meeting between Terrence Malick and Jeff. And from there, I had a coffee with Jeff, and we talked about this script and Shotgun Stories. We hit it off instantly.
Take Shelter is really dense and haunting, particularly in how Jeff Nichols shoots it and establishes this really strong feeling of dread, but also unstable optimism. Did the film’s sense of unease translate in the script when you first read it?
Well, what I loved so much about this script was that, at first glance, you read it and it has all of these intersecting ideas in it: Is it schizophrenia, or is it about these legitimate visions of the apocalypse? And that is huge. So I thought, “OK, that’s a really interesting idea,” but the expected Hollywood version of this kind of film is really flashy, with a lot of bells and whistles; when I sat down with Jeff, though, he said, “This film is not about the apocalypse, and it’s not about schizophrenia—it’s about marriage and faith.” And I was like, “What?” [Laughs.]
When he said that to me, that was great, and so unexpected. I love films that focus more on the unexpected ideas of a story or genre, instead of taking the obvious way into a story. I love when an actor can play a character with a lot of duality to it; to me, the subtext is sometimes way more interesting than what’s happening on the page. After talking with Jeff at that meeting, I realized that this was an opportunity to make a film that’s very interesting and really a fascinating way to comment on where we are right now in America.
When I spoke to Jeff Nichols, he talked about how Take Shelter’s origins were steeped in a lot of his own anxieties. Were you able to relate to Michael Shannon’s character’s fears and anxieties at all?
Yeah, I related to the idea of “If you take your eye off the ball for one minute, you can lose everything.” I do relate to that. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money; my family’s constraints and resources were tight, and even being an actor I genuinely risked being destitute and eating hot Ramen for the rest of my life. [Laughs.]
So I absolutely connected to the family’s scarcity in Take Shelter. At the beginning of the film, everything’s going alright, we’re doing OK; we’re getting by and we’re happy about it. But someone takes their eye off of the ball, and then things really start to unravel.
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)