Stop! She has decided to put her feet up for a while. “I’m going to take a very long break. I won’t likely be making any new ﬁlms before the end of next summer so I can devote time to my family.” It gives her just about enough to ﬁnish shooting Woman Walks Ahead, the story of a painter from Brooklyn who, in the 19th century, decides to go to Dakota to make a portrait of Sitting Bull, and who ﬁnds herself being drawn into the territorial struggles of the Lakota people. Just so they are reassured, fans of one of Hollywood’s most famous redheads will still be able to sit back in their movie seats and discover one of the ﬁve ﬁlms she has coming out in 2018. There’ll be some blockbuster action with The Division alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, and the next X-Men: Dark Phoenix with Jennifer Lawrence, but also a bit of tenderness with The Death and Life of John F. Donovan by Xavier Dolan. Dropping the weapon is not an option: in Painkiller Jane, the shape-shifting actress will play a cop who inherits superpowers after being irradiated by an atomic attack.
Finally, Jessica Chastain will successively portray two famous women, actress Ingrid Bergman in Seducing Ingrid Bergman and country music singer Tammy Wynette in George and Tammy. Phew! Making up for lost time is an art in itself. Because before she made headlines with The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d’or at Cannes Film Festival in 2011, this sublime dedicated artist was more like a character out of La La Land, an actress chasing her big break without much success. A middle-class American (her stepfather was a ﬁreﬁghter), she had already passed a certain age: 34. Others would have already been retired at that age. But the Sacramento native seemed determined to twist the neck of fate. It’s not for nothing she’s a fan of Brigitte Macron!
For all her ﬁve feet three inches, she’s determined to let nothing pass her by, knowing life is long and full of detours. It is therefore easy to understand why she wanted to produce the series Mercury 13 about the ﬁrst women sent into space. Where no one can hear you scream? No, keeping quiet is certainly not what deﬁnes this naturally tenacious feminist. It shouldn’t be forgotten that she was one of the ﬁrst actresses to denounce Hollywood’s silence following the accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein. Silence, in her world, is for one’s private life, which she scrupulously guards. This year, during her marriage to Italian businessman Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, the absence of show-business celebrities was glaringly obvious. So, what questions can you ask her? We certainly won’t talk about her father, a rock musician whose name isn’t even listed on her birth certiﬁcate. Nor will we bring up the memory of her younger sister, Juliet, who took her life in 2003 after years of struggling with addiction. We would prefer to discuss Shakespeare’s Juliet, a character in whom she found her calling. It was a long time ago in a sleepy California city. A grandmother named Marilyn took her sad granddaughter to the theatre.
Your grandmother was the driving force behind your choice of career. Has she been there on set with you ever since?
Yes, I was a very shy child, without many outlets for my emotions. At the same time, I felt this great creativity inside me. She showed me that it was possible. I signed up for a theatre class. My grandmother knew me well. I was so gloomy, always questioning everything. She told me to smile and wear colours. It’s something that has always stuck with me. I still have this smile on my face, even when I have to pick out something to wear. I’m always thinking about my grandmother.
So which actor inspired you back then?
As a teenager, I was in awe of Ralph Fiennes, who played two diametrically opposed roles in succession, Schindler’s List and The English Patient. I found it all the more remarkable in that he went beyond Hollywood conventions. A character doesn’t need to be nice or likeable to be interesting, on the contrary. Villainous and twisted characters are often much richer. In Schindler’s List, Ralph Fiennes plays a monster whom he instils with a touch of humanity. Great performance! I’ve since had the chance to congratulate him. I played his wife in the ﬁlm version of Coriolanus (2011) that he directed.
Is this how you choose your roles?
In some ways. The further away a character is from who I am, the more it interests me. It’s my job to explore feelings that are strange to me. The ﬁlm industry has betrayed women so much by reducing them to a stereotype. They are many more multiplicities or pluralities than what Hollywood wants to show us. For example, a woman who uses her sexuality to access power, that interests me. I want her truth to be told, even if it’s not mine.
Like carrying a weapon, as you did in another big success, Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow, one of the rare female directors in Hollywood?
Oh, I had already carried one in Texas Killing Fields (2011). But it’s true, each time, I have to force myself to do it. Even when playing around with plastic guns as a child, I’ve always hated weapons.
Still, is there a character who reflects your true nature?
Yes, Celia Foote in Help (2011). I had a ridiculous amount of fun playing her. And of course, the role of Mrs O’Brien in The Tree of Life (2011). It is perhaps one of the best memories I have of making a ﬁlm. All of the actors lived in one place, in a house. A real family atmosphere settled in. To access the set, we had to walk through ﬁelds. I grew up in California, so it was perfect for me. Nature, that’s what I’m looking for in New York, while walking among the trees in Central Park.
Back then, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, we discovered a new red-haired siren of the screen. It seems obvious today, but at the time did this particular feature work against you?
Society makes us feel like we have to conform to ideals. Starting from childhood, everyone wants to be the same. The colour of my hair, my skin, this actually had a profound effect on me. But today, it is my strength. Only people who are different interest me now.
Do you feel as though you belong to a "club?"
Many of the actresses that I admire have red hair, like Julianne Moore or Cate Blanchett.
Not to mention Isabelle Huppert. When I was in college in New York, there was a movie theatre across the street. I went in and her ﬁlm The Piano Teacher was showing. Isabelle Huppert blew me away, not only by her performance but also by her capacity to express her feelings: she doesn’t show them, she lives them. In any event, I’d never seen such a ﬁlm where I grew up in the middle of nowhere! Back then, movie theatres in Sacramento didn’t show those kinds of movies. I’ve since expanded my cultural horizons. I saw A Man and a Woman (Claude Lelouch, 1966). I prefer foreign ﬁlms, even if my favourite ﬁlm is still The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is pure magic. Colour suddenly appears, after she’s carried away inside this tornado. The wicked witch, the lion and the scarecrow, I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. The ﬁlm had a profound effect on me as a child.
Has fame changed your life?
I’ve been able to go to the Cannes Festival and meet amazing artists, and I’m just this girl from Sacramento! The downside is, I no longer have the option of disappearing. In New York, when I’m not working, I put on simple clothes and hardly wear any make up. I’ve noticed that people don’t recognise me when I’m dressed casually, I have to be all done up! I can then walk around without feeling like people are watching me before I get home. My dog is waiting for me. My husband, my family. That’s where I feel myself. I love cooking for friends, organising dinners, going to the theatre. Actually, for me, an ordinary day has become something extraordinary.
If you had to choose between your two lives?
Undoubtedly and without hesitation, my family life. I could even sacriﬁce my career as an actress.
Is being a mother your next role?
I don’t know, we’ll see.
Or perhaps being president of the United States?
No way! That’s the opposite of what being an artist is all about, someone who isn’t afraid of failure. A politician, in contrast, is for me someone who is ruled by caution. Luckily: that one person is responsible for so many lives.
Is there a woman whom you particularly admire these days?
No question, Gloria Steinem, journalist, feminist and unbelievable public speaker. And also Oprah Winfrey. I ﬁnd her compassion impressive. And Hillary Clinton. Despite everything she still endures on a daily basis, being insulted in the media, she continues to move forward. She’s not afraid of her beliefs.
And Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady ?
I love her. She’s changed all the rules. Look, here, we have a president married to a much younger woman. That doesn’t shock anyone: it’s the norm in patriarchal society. Your president adds something else. Take a look at what’s happening in Canada as well. Their prime minister brought a lot of women into his cabinet: 50/50. Yes, a woman can go far with her intelligence! We have to remember that the Women’s March was the largest demonstration in the entire history of the United States. It was as important as the Vietnam War protests.
You were one of the first to speak out about the Weinstein issue. Why?
The women who spoke up impressed me with their courage. It’s really difficult to do, you know. They didn’t do it to be more famous, but to save lives. It seemed unacceptable to ignore their bravery. I was also shocked by the reaction of the industry, with everyone who claimed to be taken by surprise! Of course. I for one didn’t want the public to believe such a thing. It’s how Hollywood has operated since its very beginnings, with people like Jack Warner.
Have you ever felt in danger?
Sure, sometimes when walking to my car in a deserted parking lot. One day I was leaving a movie theatre in San Francisco and I had a really strong sense of that. It seemed like danger was all around me.
It’s almost Christmas. What gift could someone get you?
The most beautiful gift I’ve ever received was one Christmas morning when I was with my family and we all decided to go to Disney World in Florida. It was so beautiful watching my father and brother play together, all these adults laughing. I think that’s something that we too often forget, how to see life through the eyes of a child. I would love to be able to keep that innocence forever. So the best gift for me would be a trip to an unknown destination, to take off on an adventure, not necessarily far away. No need to take a plane or a car, just somewhere I’ve never been before. I love surprises.
Molly’s Game by Aaron Sorkin
X-Men: Dark Phoenix by Simon Kinberg