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EXCLUSIVE: Jessica Chastain says it 'physically hurt' to play 'Crimson Peak' character

"Crimson Peak" star Jessica Chastain talks about finding sympathy for the villain, wanting to play characters very different from her and the failed "Dark Shadows" pilot she once did.
Jessica ChastainCrimson Peak

Jessica Chastain is a chameleon who’s played everything between super-giggly (“The Help”) to cold and monstrous. The latter describes her turn in “Crimson Peak,” a Gothic ghost story in which Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a young, aspiring writer, runs afoul of twins (Tom Hiddleston and Chastain), who try to hide their evil ways. Chastain’s Lucille is the more bad of the two, and though Chastain — reuniting with director Guillermo del Toro after appearing in “Mama,” which he produced — wanted to dig deep into her backstory, she also found it surprisingly un-fun to play the villain. And it was painful too.

Guillermo del Toro is a very unusual big budget filmmaker. What is it for you, in your own words, that really draws you to him as a collaborator?

His imagination is really magnificent. I remember seeing an interview he did on “Charlie Rose” probably 10 years ago. He was on with [Alejandro Gonzalez] Inarritu and [Alfonso] Cuaron. He brought a journal with all these drawings of monsters and creatures he had created. I remember thinking, “Gosh, this guy’s imagination is really spectacular.” He loves his monsters. It’s really rare for someone to do a monster story or a ghost story and really have compassion for the monsters. What made them into the way they are? And so playing Lucille, I don’t think she could be in better hands. He’s someone who’s more interested in her as a multi-dimensional character — a fully realized human being and not this one-note villain.

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What kinds of things did you do to explore her other sides?

Guillermo had written a biography, about 10 pages, from the moment she was born to where the film starts. So you know where she’s coming from. I also read things, looking for what made her do what she does. I read graveyard poetry, because Guillermo says she loves graveyard poetry.

Wait, what is “graveyard poetry”? I’ve never heard this term before.

It’s like Gothic poetry about the dead. It’s pretty intense. I guess it was titillating back in the day. When they didn’t have horror films they would read these poems to each other. [Laughs] I read a psychology book — I don’t want to say the title because the title is a spoiler for the movie. It was about women who were similar to Lucille and do the things she does. I wanted to read about it from a psychological point of view to understand how they got to that place. And then I’d seen these films before, but always when I’m playing a role I go back to my rolodex of inspirations. I watched “Misery,” “Rebecca,” What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Those three wonderful performances helped me create Lucille.

It sounds like it was a very physical performance too. You had a very intense costume, for one.

Definitely. It even started with every morning. It was 2 ½ hours of hair and make-up. Guillermo said in the biography that she loves constrictive clothing. It was really painful to be her. She had a wig that went all the way down to her feet, so it took a long time to get that into a bun. We had to change my eye coloring, change my eyebrows to make sense with the black hair. I wrote seven-inch platforms to be more like a twin to Tom. I wore those throughout the movie, even in the running stuff. I did fall down once really bad. It physically hurt to be Lucille. Wearing all that can’t help but change how your body works.

One could make the case for this as feminist.

Absolutely. Guillmero said it was important to him that the lead character had sex and it be OK. Usually in the genre the female character has to remain pure. If someone isn’t pure they’re the first to die. He didn’t want that message out there for women. And in this time period, it was a really patriarchal society. This has an emancipation for both of these women. Edith has her father and her husband, and she wants to stand on her own as a writer. Lucille is a slave to her brother. Her entire life she has lived for him. She has done whatever he wanted. When he would do things, she would take the punishment for him. She allowed herself to be scarred to protect him. There’s even a little freedom for Lucille, even though she doesn’t want it. [Laughs]

Edith is also different, in that most of the time in Gothic stories the lead woman is repressed or troubled.

In “The Innocents,” [the lead, played by Deborah Kerr] was this repressed governess. I love that movie. I’ve always wanted to do a remake of that movie, because at the end we don’t know what’s happened, if there is something there or if it’s all in her mind.

You’ve done films that are very heavy on visuals before. How do you feel comfortable delivering a full performance in a film that’s very constructed?

I’ve never done anything like this. They built this three-story house inside of a sound stage. It was insane. They had running water and fireplaces in every room which actually worked. The stove worked. There was an elevator that ran up and down. I’d never seen anything like it. Guillermo said to me early on, “Lucille is the house. They’re connected. The house is history, it’s the past, it’s her childhood, it’s everything. And she cannot separate that.” One of our costume designers made the clothes look like the house. When Lucille’s back at home, she’s wearing clothes that look like they could come out of the wall — the blues, these spikes I have on the blue dress comes from a spiked hallway. The laced leaves that she wears are in the house. He wanted to connect Lucille to the house as much as possible.

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In an interview from 2011, you said your goal was to be an actor like Tom Hardy, who always surprises with every role. Was that part of the motivation for playing Lucille?

I’ve never played a character like this. That’s why I gravitated towards Lucille. I always want to challenge myself. I think of Ceila Foote [from “The Help”] and Maya [from “Zero Dark Thirty”] and Anna from “A Most Violent Year” and Lucille — they feel very different to me. It’s because I’m interested in people other than myself. My favorite book is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Atticus says, “You never judge a person until you walk a mile in their skin.” My job is I get paid to walk around in another person’s skin. I want to understand people who are very different from me. When I first read Lucille, I thought about these terrible things she does. But now I need to understand and have compassion for why she does these things.

Was it fun playing her at her most evil?

I thought it would be, but it wasn’t. I completely underestimated how dark the character was. Tom said to me when we were on set, “It’s only fun when the character you’re playing is having fun.” Those villains that are like, “Ha ha ha ha, got you now!” Lucille is not that. She’s suffering all the time. There was no fun factor. [Laughs]

Speaking of horror, one of your first credits was for a pilot for a redo of “Dark Shadows” back in 2004. What are your memories of that?

I was super sad it didn’t get picked up. But I will say some strange things have happened. After I made the pilot, about 10 years ago, I was flying. This woman came on board and says, “Oh, Miss Chastain.” None of my movies had come out. I was like, “Why are you singling me out?” And she talks to me and eventually she said, “When is ‘Dark Shadows’ coming out?” [Laughs] There are some fans of that show that go really deep. They have a “Dark Shadows” convention, so the pilot might have found life there.

Its fanbase is very, very passionate.

People were crazy about Barnabus. People just loved him. It was the “Twilight” of that era.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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