Jessica Chastain: Under siege in the Middle East

Jessica Chastain stars as an undercover government agent in “Zero Dark Thirty,” in theaters now.

Don’t let her impressive work in “Zero Dark Thirty” fool you. Golden Globe-nominated actress Jessica Chastain would make a horrible CIA agent. It’s something she learned not while filming the real-life drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but when the film became one of the most scrutinized projects in recent history — even before a frame had been shot. It got so bad that all cast members would tell the press was that director Kathryn Bigelow had made them sign confidentiality agreements.

“I am the worst at keeping secrets. I’m the kind of person who, the second that I buy someone a Christmas present, I tell them what I bought them,” Chastain explains. Luckily, there were those confidentiality agreements. “When I was cast in this, I was so excited about this character of Maya. I found her to be really inspiring and the script was incredible, it was so eye-opening. But I had to keep it a secret,” she says. “There was a lot of press coming out and people were speculating that I was [playing] a Navy SEAL wife and all this stuff, and I had to just really hold my tongue for a year. So I’m very excited that people are now seeing the film and they’re realizing it’s not a propaganda film and it doesn’t have an agenda. It just tries to show this moment in history as accurately as possible.”

One obstacle in tackling the role of Maya was that, while she’s based on a real person, there was no way Chastain could actually meet her. So she took a different approach to her research. “I had three months before we started shooting that I went to school for it, I guess. I nicknamed [screenwriter] Mark [Boal] ‘The Professor.’ And I would sit with him and go through the screenplay and ask a lot of questions about the character I was playing, about the CIA,” she says. “I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions.”

In character

Key to tapping into her character was Chastain’s experience in the Middle East. She remembers   visiting a restaurant with co-star Jason Clarke and some male colleagues that gave her insight to the right mind-set of an out-of-place westerner.

   

“We went to a hotel restaurant in Oman, which is a pretty liberal city, I think. The waiter wouldn’t give me a menu. He gave the men menus at my table. So Jason ordered for me that day,” she says. “For me it’s difficult being in that kind of a situation. I felt invisible as a woman. I don’t like that. Any time anything like that happened, it was just another log to the Maya fire of her feeling invisible.”


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