Agent provocateur

Sacramento native Jessica Chastain talks Zero Dark Thirty, propaganda and the politics of film

Sacramento native Jessica Chastain plays a young, obsessively determined CIA officer tracking down Osama bin Laden in the film <i>Zero Dark Thirty</i>.

Sacramento native Jessica Chastain plays a young, obsessively determined CIA officer tracking down Osama bin Laden in the film Zero Dark Thirty.

Since making her film debut just two years ago, the Sacramento native has wowed critics and audiences alike with an array of characters, including an effervescent housewife in The Help and a weary former prostitute in Lawless.

But Zero Dark Thirty, the saga of a CIA agent’s 10-year mission to capture Osama bin Laden, required an almost minimalistic performance from Chastain, who received a Best Actress Drama Golden Globe as well as her first Academy Award nomination for Actress in a Leading Role for the part.

“I’m playing a character who’s trained to be unemotional and analytically precise,” said the 35-year-old actress. “As an actor, you spend your whole life trying to be emotional and keeping yourself emotionally open. So, to find the humanity within that, in that arc, was a great [challenge].”

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (the same team behind the 2008 Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty begins on 9/11 and ends with the shooting of bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In between, the film encompasses scores of events in multiple countries around the globe. Since Boal and Bigelow’s intention was to “capture the on-the-ground reality of this mission as truthfully and viscerally as possible,” they opted to document the moral lines—including torture—that were crossed.

The saga pivots on a little-known participant in the intel hunt: Maya (depicted by Chastain), a young, obsessively determined CIA officer who proved central in tracking down bin Laden’s whereabouts. The character is based on an actual CIA agent.

“When I was reading the script, every page that I turned was a shock to me, especially about Maya and the role she took in [the capture of bin Laden],” said Chastain.

“Then, I got upset that it was such a shock to me. Why would I assume a woman wouldn’t be involved in this kind of research? Historically, in movies, lead characters are played by women who are defined by men, whether as a love interest or as a victim of a man. Maya’s not like that.”

Buoyed by outstanding reviews, Zero Dark Thirty has emerged as a frontrunner to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar—The New York Times called it a “wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs.”

Still, some critics are uncomfortable with the film’s refusal to condemn interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding and the forcing of detainees into stress positions.

Zero Dark Thirty (the title is military jargon for “the dark of night,” as well as the moment—12:30 a.m.—when the Navy SEALs first stepped foot on the compound) has proven so contentious, in fact, that three senators, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), wrote a letter to Sony Pictures decrying the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location” of bin Laden.

In response, Sony released a statement in which the filmmakers’ argue that they depicted “a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt, nor can any single scene taken in isolation fairly capture the totality of efforts the film dramatizes.”

In some sense, Maya’s development from innocence to determination reflects the evolution of America as it attempts to deal with what the filmmakers call “the ruthless calculus of terrorism.”

For Chastain, the interrogation scenes, which comprise a very small portion of the film, were among the hardest to shoot.

“Those scenes, they were tough,” she said. “We filmed that section of the movie in a Jordanian prison, so we weren’t on a soundstage in Los Angeles.”

“But, it’s like Kathryn [Bigelow] has said, it’s a part of the history of the characters. So instead of looking at it and making my own judgments on what I personally believe is right and wrong, I try to look at it in terms of the character.”

While Zero Dark Thirty celebrates the efforts of hundreds of hard-working CIA agents, Chastain insists that politics are kept out of the equation.

“It’s not a propaganda movie,” she said. “It’s not, ’Go, America!’ It’s [a movie told] through the eyes of this woman who became such a servant to her work that she lost herself along the way.

Ultimately, it’s both a personal and a global journey.

“[After bin Laden is killed], there’s the question: Where does she go now? But then, also you have to ask: Where do we go as a country?” Chastain said. “Where do we go as a society? I find that ending the film on that question is far more interesting than providing an answer.”

Filming primarily in Jordan and India allowed the actors to feel as if they were, in Chastain’s words, “immersed in the story.”

Chastain was particularly determined to take her job home with her, reading books on the subject and studying her character in depth.

“I had the props person print out all the pictures of the terrorists that Maya looks at, and I actually hung them in my hotel room. So even when I would come home from set, it was always around me.”

She said she would have loved to meet the real-life Maya, but that option was never on the table, since the woman upon whom she’s based remains an active intelligence officer.

“I had to approach her like any other character I was playing. Any questions I could answer through the research, I did. But questions that I couldn’t answer through research, I had to use my imagination.”

Born and raised in Sacramento where she attended El Camino Fundamental High School and Sacramento City College (where she acted and was a member of the school’s debate team), Chastain said she can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be an actor. She studied at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City before scoring in a handful of Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including Rodney’s Wife, opposite David Strathairn.

She made her film debut in the little-seen 2010 release Jolene but quickly earned accolades for films such as The Help and The Tree of Life.

Her latest film, Mama, in theaters Friday, January 18, takes the actress in a different direction: It’s a horror flick about a couple tasked with the care of young nieces who grew up in the forest. Chastain is also currently starring in a Broadway revival of The Heiress, the 1947 adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square.

The back and forth between film and theater can be overwhelming, Chastain admitted.

“It’s a very strange thing to be talking about Maya and then think, ’OK, at 6:30 p.m. I’m going to start putting my hair in pin curls and go onstage … in The Heiress.’”

Still, she adds, such chaos is “a great gift,” especially when she manages to connect with a character on a deeper level.

“The character of Maya is very different from me, because I am a very emotional girl and very sensitive. I like to have a good time,” she said. “[But] … there is something that is similar, and that’s [that we’re both] in love with our work.”