Interview: Jessica Chastain wanted 'Eleanor Rigby' to have more of the female side

"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" star Jessica Chastain talks about encouraging director Ned Benson to split the film into two.

Jessica Chastain stars in the three-film drama saga "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." Credit: Getty Images Jessica Chastain stars in the three-film drama saga "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."
Credit: Getty Images

 

When Jessica Chastain had her major breakthrough in 2011 (the year of "The Tree of Life," "The Help" and more), one of the projects she was able to get realized was “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” which has become a three-film drama about a young woman named after a Beatles song who leaves her husband (James McAvoy) after the death of their child. The films are split up: one on her (“Her”) and on him (“Him”), while a third that mashes them up (“Them”) hits theaters first. ("Her" and "Him" come in October.)

 

How she first met “Rigby” filmmaker Ned Benson when she was starting out: “I won tickets to the Malibu film festival when I first moved to L.A. I thought, “This is a sign! I’ve never won tickets to anything and I won tickets to a film festival! I’m going to make it!” I went there and saw a beautiful short Ned wrote, directed and acted in. I saw him in the lobby. I went up to him and said, ‘I think you’re incredible. Could I send you my reel?’ He jokes that I was his first fan.”

 

She encouraged it being split into two films: “I told him that I loved [her character] and I loved the script — I just wished there was more of the female perspective. It felt like she was there to serve the story. Then he decided to write about her, from the female perspective. I never had someone write me a movie.”

 

Her performance is different in each film: “I felt I had to play two different characters. I play Eleanor Rigby in ‘Her’ and I play his perspective of Eleanor Rigby in ‘Him.’ Most of the time as actresses we’re asked to play the perception of a female character, rather than a full-blooded human being. This film challenges the status quo.”

In fact, Eleanor is more cold in “Him”: “I never thought I was going to be cold. I though she needed to completely sever the tie. James says ‘Him’ is like a mystery; his character has no idea what he did, why she left. I tried to make her more inaccessible, more mysterious, more like the title: ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.’”

Staying open: “I’m not an actor who plans what I’m going to do before I get to the set. I know who the character is, I know what they want, and in each scene I know what they’re trying to get. But it isn’t until I’m there with the other person that I know what the scene’s going to be.”

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain play a couple that splits in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." Credit: The Weinstein Company James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain play a couple that splits in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."
Credit: The Weinstein Company

Her main contribution: “Every day as he was writing we would be talking about scenes, talking about mother-daughter relationships, feminine things. Eleanor cutting her hair off [after leaving tk], that’s one thing I will say I suggested to Ned. It’s intrinsically female. Everyone says if you get pregnant or you lose your job or you break up, don’t cut your hair. For some reason women want to lop off all their hair when something happens in their lives, and they always regret it. I thought this is definitely female, we should do it.”

“Her” is a very feminine film: “There’s a bunch of women onscreen together, caring for each other and not spending their time together talking about a male protagonist. That’s what makes me happy about this film — it’s not just my incredible character I get to play, it’s Viola Davis and Jess Weixler and Isabelle Huppert. It passes with flying colors.”

On some people finding her character unlikeable: “I think we’re not so different from animals. We are animals. I thought of her like a wounded animal. There’s something about a wounded animal, if they’re hurt, sometimes if you go near the wound they’ll snap at you and try to bite you. It’s not anything except instinct. Eleanor wound is huge — it’s life and death to her. If someone reminds her of this thing that happened in her past, she’s going to kill herself. The only way she can move forward is to move forward. Anytime someone tried to get near her wound she’ll bite them. I didn’t see it as a selfish thing. I saw it as self-protection. As Bill Hader’s character says, anytime anyone is flirting with the idea of extinction, you need to be selfless with them and give them the space they’re asking for.”

Learning to act on stage vs. screen: “My first film, ‘Salome,’ with Al Pacino, we did the play first then we made the film. I got to watch him go from a performance in a theater to doing it on camera. Not only was I acting with him, I was seeing him make these changes to his performance. He said to me that with film it has to be real. Theater it doesn’t have to be real. That’s what I struggle with, because for me acting is always real. When I was on Broadway recently, I was doing this scene where I’m crying. There’s snot. Judith Ivey says to me, ‘Oh, honey, you break my heart every day. You don’t have to do all that. No one can see it!’ With film, if you lie, the camera sees it. As soon as you accept that you’ll be a great film actor. You try to make it real in your head.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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