All too often, society dictates that a woman’s strength must come from an entity outside herself, be it her man, children or faith. Men, on the other hand, can be emotionally strapping just by the mere fact of their existence. Women, while always having to be prepared for whatever may come, must also not be too prepared, lest they be called try-hards or stiff. For men, just showing up is all too often enough.
These assumptions, about both women and men, are challenged in the film “Miss Sloane,” in theaters Thanksgiving weekend. Its stars, Jessica Chastain and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, consider the picture a cinematic opportunity for Hollywood to alter the way women are seen in real life.
“I've really been looking at the role women have in our society and we, for some reason, attack women for being prepared and ambitious,” Chastain said, noting criticisms Hillary Clinton received following the first presidential debate. “You hear that being said about actresses or musicians or people who really work hard at their profession that are women, but you don't say that about men. We need to change the perception of women, of what a woman is supposed to be.”
Mbatha-Raw added: “People talk about the idea of a strong [female character] and say it could have been [written for] a man… But that almost takes away from the fact that women have their own strengths as women, and different strengths. [This movie shows] you don't have to try to be a man to be complex and strong.”
In the film, Chastain plays the title character, one of the most respected and sought-after lobbyists in Washington. When asked to represent a National Rifle Assn.-esque company opposing a bill on gun control, she quits, joining a smaller firm that’s supporting the backers of the law. There she meets Esme (Mbatha-Raw), a more timid lobbyist who prefers to stay behind the scenes. Though the two develop a friendship, Sloane’s drive to out-think her opponents and win by any means necessary sets the two at odds.
Ahead of the film’s release, Chastain and Mbatha-Raw spoke with The Times about strong female roles, the gun control debate and how this movie might be received in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president.
What were your initial impressions when you read Jonathan Perera’s script?
Chastain: I was excited by the role because I was really interested in the gun debate, and why we have so much gun violence in the United States. I was very interested in how our political system works, and why it feels like there's a lot of money, but nothing's getting done. Most of all, though, I was really excited by the character because she really confronts all gender stereotypes we have. She’s a fantastic role ... it's complicated, because she's a flawed character. But we can still root for her because she's human, and it's OK to see female characters be human.
Mbatha-Raw: I was so bowled over by not just the complexity of the [gun debate] issue, but how dynamically it was presented. I’ve been exasperated by seeing a lot of the shootings on the news and I just thought, if I'm able to be a part of something that contributes to the conversation, that'd really be interesting. I also loved the fact that it was from a female perspective.
What type of research did you do to tap into your characters, but also to this gun lobby conversation?
Chastain: Less than 10% of lobbyists in D.C. are women — politics in D.C. can be very much a boys club. So, for me, it was important to meet with female lobbyists because I wanted to know what they go through day-to-day in that town, and in that political system, to get where they are. But first I read Jack Abramoff's book, [“Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist”] — the lobbyist that ended up in jail — because I wanted to understand even what a lobbyist was. Then I Googled and found all these lists of the most successful female lobbyists and just started calling their offices. I got 11 women to agree to meet with me.
Mbatha-Raw: As well as us meeting in D.C. and getting to go to Capitol Hill, I got to visit the lobbying firm that were the consultants for the movie. I also got to meet with leading members of the Brady Campaign [to Prevent Gun Violence] and also a young woman whose mother survived [the] Sandy Hook [shooting], and talk to her about how that had motivated her to become involved in politics and in gun violence prevention.
How does “Miss Sloane” fit into the diversity and representation conversation going on in the industry?
Mbatha-Raw: I think it's great to see a Bechdel test on screen, and we’re passing with flying colors. And it’s a group of women that are not competing with each other, or over a man. I recognize these women, which is so nice to see. They feel very real to me. I want to be involved in more work that presents women, not just as strong women, but as real, multidimensional women.
What has stuck with you from this movie?
Chastain: It's like what [my character] says in the film, something about [politicians] trying to maintain their seat in office... the priority isn't representing the people, it's being reelected. When being reelected is based on raising finances, I think the vote really ... it becomes, I mean, I don't want to say it's not important, because of course it is very important, but it's not the priority of the representatives.
Considering Donald Trump is now president-elect, and Congress will have a conservative majority come January, what is “Miss Sloane” trying to say to the world that perhaps it was just hinting at prior to the election?
Chastain: That the system is rotten, and it needs to be overhauled. Yes, we talk about the gun debate, but the whole movie could take — it could be about climate change, immigration, controversial subject, because it leads us to the system is broken. The priorities are in the wrong place. Of course, we cannot ignore what's happened this past week, but also we cannot ignore what's happened the months before. When you have really prominent journalists, open thinking journalists, saying things about whether or not [Clinton’s] smiling too much, it's shocking to me that in 2016 it's still happening. This film's very important for women to see, and for young girls to see, to know that they should take their space.
Mbatha-Raw: Gugu: You initially look at this film and think it's about the gun debate, but it provokes a lot of different conversations, about our relationship to power and women in positions of power, and fear and ambition. Who do we celebrate for being ambitious? Who do we not? I think it's hopefully going to provoke a lot of conversation.
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