Flick through Jessica Chastain’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, and her constant activism can feel exhausting. One minute she’s waging a war against airlines who don’t pay air hostesses enough, the next she’s shaming department stores selling gender-specific baby clothes.
She is a supporter of the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and supports a charity that helps with depression at American high schools. Naturally she’s vegan, and an animal lover.
But a few hours before our meeting, the 41-year-old launched a rather less earnest campaign: a search for a “Bond boy” (as opposed to a “Bond girl”) to star in her new espionage thriller 355.
“If you were going to make an ensemble female action movie and you needed a #BondBoy who would you cast? Asking for a friend. #eyecandyneeded,” she tweeted, along with a GIF of Daniel Craig emerging from the ocean in the film ‘Casino Royale’.
“I want to give the opportunity for men to step forward,” she says playfully as we sit down to talk in a hotel lounge near Manhattan’s Central Park. “The funny thing is that there’s so many men that I’ve worked with, and also a lot of men that I know [who] would love to be in a film where they just show up and get to be cute, you know?”
Judging from the 3,000 exuberant suggestions beneath her tweet, including an offer from Pedro Pascal (DEA agent Javier Pena in ‘Narcos’ and Oberyn Martell in ‘Game of Thrones’) she won’t be short of hunks in trunks.
“I’m all about eye candy,” she says, with a smile. “But for so long, only women have been cast as the eye candy in action films. So let’s just be equal.”
Equality is a running thread in Chastain’s career. Since exploding on to the scene in 2011, when she starred in no fewer than six films, including Take Shelter (directed by Jeff Nichols), Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ and Tate Taylor’s ‘The Help’, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, the actress has gained a reputation for playing tough women who are not just, in her words, “plot devices or props to push the male story forward”.
In recent years, this has included real-life ski-prodigy-turned-underground-poker-impresario Molly Brown in ‘Molly’s Game’, and a hard-nosed Washington lobbyist who takes on defenders of the Second Amendment in Miss Sloane. She also specialises in women — like Maya, the CIA analyst who tracks down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty (her second Oscar nomination) — who try to change the world, often at tremendous personal cost.
She pauses for a moment when I bring this up.
“There’s a lot of martyrdom, isn’t there?” she says, pondering the theme. “These women, in some sense, sacrificing a life for someone else, or for something bigger than themselves. That’s interesting. I never thought of that.”
She has, however, been open about the strong women in her own life. Her mother, a chef, had to bring up Chastain and her two siblings on a shoestring after her biological father, a rock musician, walked out on the family, and there were days, the actress has said, when there was “no food on the table”. There were also frequent evictions, and, on one occasion, a slap in the face by her mother’s then violent boyfriend.
“I just kicked him in the genitals, and he fell to the ground immediately. It was me, my sister and my brother — and I remember looking at my sister’s face, and we were both like, ‘Oh, my God, what did I just do?’ And then I ran out of the house. But I always look back on that moment as knowing that, OK, if anything happens to me, I’m capable of fighting back.”
The other strong woman was her mother’s mother, Marilyn. It was she who inspired Chastain to act, taking her to a local production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat near Sacramento in northern California, where she saw a young girl who had been cast as the narrator. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is this little girl’s job. She gets paid for this?’ And I knew: this is what my job is,” she has said.
After high school, Chastain won a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York and embarked on a career in theatre, appearing in Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ with Michelle Williams. Initial success, however, was overshadowed by the death of her sister, who took her own life in 2003. Chastain has said her sister “struggled a long time with drug abuse, and she had a lot of attempted suicides, but you never really think this is going to happen, even though, in your mind, you know it can happen. And when you get the call, it’s... shocking.”
Chastain has attributed this tragedy to bringing her family together. And in 2006, she finally got her big break: a starring role opposite Al Pacino in his adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tragedy ‘Salome’ at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles.
Six years later, she took her grandmother as her date to the Oscars. Chastain believes it is her childhood that explains her passionate feelings towards the poor, the marginalised and anyone who has run into barriers because of their gender or race.
This year she is playing another wilful, complicated woman. In ‘Woman Walks Ahead’, Chastain takes the role of Catherine Weldon, an activist and painter from Brooklyn who travelled to the Dakota territory in the 1880s to paint Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief famous for defeating General George Custer’s army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Weldon, who became Sitting Bull’s personal secretary and translator, was hated by civilians and the military, who viewed her as a traitor. Yet, in the summer of 1890, Weldon denounced the Ghost Dance — a traditional American Indian ritual to rouse dead spirits in a fight against white colonialists that was sweeping the Western reservations — fearing it would give the government an excuse to send in troops and destroy the Sioux Nation.
Sitting Bull turned against her, and Weldon left the tribe. In 1921, she died, alone, in her Brooklyn apartment, aged 83.
There are quite a few differences between the film and real events, including a decision by the director, Susanna White, not to include any hint of romance between Weldon and Sitting Bull.
“We didn’t want to do any love scenes, or kisses or anything,” explains Chastain, “but actually we know that Sitting Bull proposed to Weldon.” Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeously shot bit of pop-history anchored by the performances of Chastain and Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull. And the fact that it has been made — after 15 years of indifference from investors — is testament to the new climate in Hollywood.
“If Catherine Weldon [had been] a Caucasian man, the movie would’ve been made 15 years ago,” Chastain says.
The film is also testament to Chastain’s campaigning spirit. “Jessica has an important function inside the economy of film production,” says Greyeyes. “Her star power, her reputation as a pre-eminent actress of her generation, triggers financing. So when somebody like Jessica says, ‘I want to do a film,’ those films get made.”
This is where the story of Woman Walks Ahead intersects with the story of Chastain in 2019.
“When you look at Jessica and how publicly outspoken she is about things she believes, there are obvious parallels with Catherine Weldon, who was a remarkable woman way ahead of her time,” says Susanna White. “[Chastain] lives her politics.”
While the actress may be outspoken politically, when it comes to her private life, she is fiercely protective — only doling out details a little at a time. Like, say, when she saw Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ and tweeted about how the film reflected her “adolescence in Sacramento” and how she lost her virginity to the album ‘Crash’ by the Dave Matthews Band.
It is Chastain’s reticence to overshare that, last January, led her to marry outside of Hollywood — to Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, a PR director at Italian fashion house Moncler, and born to one of Italy’s most noble families.
In November, the couple welcomed their first child by surrogate, a process Chastain refuses to discuss publicly (although she is openly pro-choice and recently donated $2,000 to a woman’s fertility fund online).
Ever leading by example, Chastain hasn’t let motherhood cramp her style. Three months since the birth, and she’s back to work, with several blockbusters on the go: a villainous turn in ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’, and a bloody role as a female assassin in the thriller ‘Eve’, opposite John Malkovich.
And then there’s ‘355’, which is where the Bond Boys come in. Chastain will produce and star in the independent female-led spy film, alongside Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and Lupita Nyong’o. Hopefully, it will land closer to Widows, Steve McQueen’s brilliant female-led heist film starring Viola Davis, than Gary Ross’s Sandra Bullock-fronted ‘Ocean’s 8’, which flopped.
One thing we can be sure of is that, under Chastain’s careful watch, the eye candy will have no reason to complain.
“Let me tell you, there have been films I’m not necessarily producing, where the male actor doesn’t have the same [salary] as me, and his lawyer has come to me and said, ‘Will you do equal pay with him?’,” she says. “And absolutely I will. And in some instances, I’ve gotten paid less because of it. That’s fine.” with me.”