Editor’s note: Taking a moment from her vigilant defense of depicting scenes of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow here addresses something else close to her heart about the film: The power, strength and vulnerability that lead actress Jessica Chastain brings to the work.
Talent comes in many guises, but all original talents share the same quality: They’re unique, one of a kind. Totally unlike the rest of the crowd.
Jessica Chastain, at least to my mind, is one of our original talents, a rare and gifted actress.
I’d first heard of Jessica when Ralph Fiennes showed me a rough cut of his film “Coriolanus.” I was immediately drawn to the actress playing Virgilia, who held her own opposite Ralph — no easy task. Of course, in the year after that, Jessica broke through as an actress — with her roles in “Take Shelter,” “Tree of Life” and “The Help,” she was introduced to audiences and the industry. Suddenly, she was an actress that many filmmakers wanted to work with because she has real range and she gets lost in her characters, and also because she is an overall easygoing person.
The other side of Jessica that not as many people know is that she is an utter slave to her craft and one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, let alone directed in a film. Jessica strives in everything she does. She works and works, tirelessly, on a range of quality projects — large films, independent films, Broadway — she does it all. To put it mildly, she has a busy schedule. So, although I considered her early on, I held out little hope of actually getting her in my movie.
At the center of Mark Boal’s script for “Zero Dark Thirty” was a challenging role for an actress to play a complex, progressive female lead. At the heart of the story was Maya, a young, female CIA targeter, whose obsession with the world’s most dangerous man unfolds in a long nuanced arc, from innocent newcomer to fanatical warrior. With its intricate dialogue and layers of meaning in every scene, I knew it would take a trained, veteran actress to pull off the story in a way that was authentic and emotionally moving.
When it came time to cast “Zero Dark,” I asked about Jessica and got word back that the schedules wouldn’t align. Looking back on it, I count as one of the luckier moments in “Zero Dark Thirty” development when, ignoring her schedule, we were able to slip Jessica the script through our producing partner, Megan Ellison. Jessica and I spoke soon after. She said there might be some opportunity for movement with the other project. I couldn’t believe it. She’d later tell me she made that decision after getting to page 20 of the script. She’s like that. Very quick on her feet, quick to decide. And once committed, she’s committed to the end.
Once we were on the set, Jessica dove into the work. “Zero Dark Thirty” is an ensemble piece, with more than 100 speaking roles, but this is in many ways Jessica’s film. It wasn’t easy for her, I’m sure, to keep up with the rapid pace of a production trying to cram a lot of movie into a relatively contained budget. We filmed the movie halfway around the world, in some of the most remote and tricky corners of the globe, away from friends and family for an extended period. And the screenplay required Jessica to carry so many of the scenes with emotion burbling beneath the surface of CIA briefings.
She had to portray a woman we rarely see in motion pictures, one who is professional and dedicated, obsessive but not neurotic or sexually dysfunctional, a woman capable of mistakes in judgment and capable of crossing moral lines in the line of duty and yet utterly self-sacrificing and dutiful in the name of protecting the nation — in short, a fully human rendition of a civil servant, and a bundle of contradictions. That’s not an easy feat to embody, scene after scene, day after day, even on a sound stage, let alone in a movie filmed in the dusty deserts of Jordan and the teeming streets of India. But no film is ever easy. Not one. And, of course, she did it.
When I got to the cutting room and started to knit the performance together, I knew the hardest part was over and that she’d done something she could be proud of. And I feel blessed to have this moving and powerful performance in my film. I called her up to say so. She was gracious and thankful.
I said I hoped she was taking some well-deserved time off.
She was, of course, busy, back at work.