Eager shoppers strut through the SoHo streets, a chic neighborhood that once accommodated poor New York artists, a place in which they could afford to make work. In passing by an old brick building or a former warehouse, one is reminded that the city’s artistry may have shifted, but has never stopped.
In contrast to my obvious lack of grace, Chastain speaks to me in an alluring and formidable Mid-Atlantic accent (a product of her years at Juilliard). Like the characters she plays, she speaks with an empathetic friendliness and intimacy: “I’m very open with my friends and family; I’m a terrible person with secrets. I don’t think there is anything going on in my life that I haven’t discussed with someone; if I’m going through something, I share it.”
When acting, Chastain goes through a similar process: “That is another moment where there is no guard. I believe that the camera connects to your soul. If you open that valve, you’re having a profound and intimate relationship with the audience.”
We turn onto W 58th St., close by is the Paris Theater, a single-screen cinema that opened on September 13, 1948. Marlene Dietrich cut the inaugural ribbon in the company of the U.S. Ambassador to France.
It is, perhaps, this that has allowed Chastain to excel in such a range of performances. Her process necessitates introspection: “For each character, you have to let a different part of you come through, especially when you are playing different women. If you look at Celia Foote from The Help (2011) and Lucille from Crimson Peak (2015), you have very, very different women. Lucille couldn’t be further from me as a person, but I have to think, how can I relate to this woman? Most people can understand wanting to be loved, of having a fear of being hurt that is so terrifyingly big that you hurt others before they hurt you.” We pause in the traffic in Columbus Circle and are dwarfed momentarily by the Time Warner building and Trump Tower, “That’s not how I live my life,” she tells me, “but we have all felt that way before, so I always think, with every character, what can I understand about them?”
Each film is, for Chastain, a unique journey of self-exploration and a simultaneous quest to find the truth of someone quite separate from herself. “I try to be open and put myself out there.” She notes, “If I get hurt, then I get hurt, and it really hurts, but life is so much more rewarding when you have experienced great love, rather than closing yourself off to it. When you are playing different people, you have to search through all your past experiences and emotions and find those little seeds that connect to you.”
Chastain’s hair is still pristine from the shoot, and reminiscent of the 18th century master painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s self-portraits that currently reside 23 blocks up from here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chastain is foremost an artist, and a self-reflective one at that: “I’ve gotten to collaborate with the most talented, generous artists that one could ever hope to meet. I always make sure that the most interesting thing about me is my work.” In a relatively short time, she has made a name for herself with a wide-ranging set of award-winning performances in films such as The Help, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Crimson Peak. However, in contrast to what the sexism in our society often leads us to believe, she did not fall into success because of her beauty. Her influences include Anna Karenina, The Awakening, and Madame Bovary, which she considers: “Incredible novels about women who are never really free to be an individual or to find out who they were before they were thrust into marriage.” We discuss the ramifications of being a happy person who is tasked with a depressing role, as with Crimson Peak: “It’s like Mozart, while you listen to him, you always think the music sounds so joyful and light and happy, and then there’s something underneath. All of the arts feed off each other, when I’m working on a film, I do a playlist for a character that will inspire me. I look to other movies and television shows as well.”
As horns blare and cabbies yell at each other, the car makes its way through the gloriously busy, but tranquil streets that surround Central Park. Essayist Robert Benchley once referred to the park as the “grandiose symbol of the front yard each child in New York hasn’t got.”
Chastain combines her wide-ranging knowledge with a commitment to the historical and intellectual mandates of her roles: “I was just in Washington, D.C. for four days because I am about to play a lobbyist in the upcoming film Ms. Sloane. The only thing I knew about lobbyists was the Jack Abramoff scandal. He—along with Tom Delay—was embezzling funds from Native American casinos. So, I met with over ten lobbyists, and went to the Hill and did as much research as I could. I’m reading books now about the subject, and have learned so much more about lobbyists than I ever thought I would. Now, I’m ready to go shoot, but how could I do that without doing that research? I also have a film coming out next year called The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is about a Polish woman named Antonina Zabinski who ran a zoo that she used to hide people during the Nazi invasion. It’s about the animals healing the people, and the people healing the animals. I went to Warsaw and visited the zoo, which is still there. I wanted to understand what it may have felt like.”
Next on Chastain’s plate is The Huntsman, which will be released in April of this year. A prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), the film gave Chastain the opportunity to work with an idol of hers: “I loved Snow White and the Huntsman. I mean, Charlize Theron? Come on! So fabulous. Such a badass. Then, Chris Hemsworth [“He’s so hot,” I interject, and she heartily agrees] came up to me and was so nice and said, ‘We’re going to send you a script for this film I’m doing!’ When I got the script, I was reminded of the movie Willow (1988) with Val Kilmer. There’s an incredible redheaded warrior named Sorsha [in Willow], and I remember being this little, ugly, awkward redheaded girl and wishing I was her. When I read the script for The Huntsman, I thought, ‘this is my Willow!’ I did my own stunts— I used to be a dancer—and stunt fighting is similar because it’s all done to a beat.”
As our interview comes to a close, Chastain invites me up for tea. I decline—not because of my unfortunate pants situation, but because I need some time to think about all the evocative subjects we’ve discussed. We get out of the car and Chastain points me toward the museum of modern art, and as I walk in that direction—away from one artist, and closer to the de Koonings, the Klimts—I think I pass Joan Didion on the street. It is an auspicious day, to be sure.
Photographer: ioulex at ioulex.com.
Stylist: Zoe Costello for jedroot.com.
Hair: Renato Campora for thewallgroup.com using Kérastase Paris Elixir Ultime.
Makeup: Jeanine Lobell for timhowardmanagement.com using Nars.
Manicure: Angel Williams for opusbeauty.com using Chanel Le Vernis.
Makeup Assistant: Caitlin Wooters at caitlinwooters.com.
See the film
Location: The Gordon Bar at the Sixty SoHo at sixtyhotels.com.
Follow William J. Simmons on Twitter (@WJ_Simmons). When not engaging leading artists, here and abroad, he's also working towards his PhD in Art History.