I really believe Jessica Chastain works for the many-faced god from Game of Thrones. How else can you explain her amazing ability to morph into so many different characters that each feel so real and layered? In her upcoming Ridley Scott-directed sci-fi thriller The Martian, which is based on Andy Weir’s self-published 2012 novel of the same name, Chastain plays Commander Melissa Lewis, the person in charge of a mission to Mars that suffers a major setback.
As you have hopefully seen in the great looking trailer, The Martian revolves around an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars after he is injured and presumed dead by his team. With limited resources and a finite amount of time before his oxygen runs out, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must use the power of science to keep himself alive on the red planet and find a way to let NASA and his team know he’s still alive. The film also stars Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover.
Last year when The Martian was filming in Budapest, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. During a break in filming a very cool sequence (more about that here), I participated in a group interview with Jessica Chastain. She talked about her desire to go to space after Interstellar, the similarities between Scott and Christopher Nolan, researching at NASA, what sets Scott’s female characters apart, the film’s portrayal of the future, and a lot more.
Question: When you were doing the Interstellar press you were saying that you were jealous that a lot of the actors got to be in space, and then this came up, so you got to do it. Do you regret that decision?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: No, not at all, not at all, please. I was actually re-watching Blade Runner, I’m very, very –I’m so stoked to be here and the cool thing about doing it now is that I’m wearing a cooling suit underneath which is advice I got from Anne Hathaway, I was like, ‘Ok, I’m doing this wearing these suits’ and she was like, ‘Make sure you ask for this, this, and that’.
Did you do any research with real NASA?
CHASTAIN: Yeah. I went to JPL in Pasadena for a few days and, to be honest, I didn’t really understand the difference between JPL and Houston, I thought NASA was just once thing, which they’re very quick to tell you is not the case [Laughs]. So I learned all about the unmanned mission, the Curiosity Rover, I got to see the twin, which is a virtual reality thing where it felt like I was actually walking on Mars from pictures of the Curiosity Rover and I got to shadow people, just to understand what those journeys were, how long it takes to get to Mars, how the hours are different in the day, the sols I guess I should say instead of days. So I did all of that first and then I went to Houston and worked with this astronaut named Tracey and went through everything, I got to go on a mockup of a space shuttle which was so cool! And asking her everything I could ask, so I asked her things about food, what do you do when you’re going away, they give you special things, everyone gets their food but if your favorite are M&Ms every once in a while you’ll get your pack and it’ll have M&Ms in it, things that try to like make you feel connected to the world.
Then I asked her even silly questions like, ‘Do you wear jewelry?’ and she said, ‘Yes, actually a lot of –I decided not to do this, my character’s gonna wear a wedding ring when she’s not in the suit. But she said she was wearing a necklace and it’s always floating around. This is a different situation because this film is in the future where we create gravity mutually when we’re flying, so there will be times where we don’t have gravity but most of the living habitat will have gravity.
What Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott have in common is that they like to work with big sets, sort of real environments, is there any other thing in common between them?
CHASTAIN: Yeah. Well, you know what was really sweet? I feel strange saying this but he said this at screening the other day, someone asked Chris his favorite directors, his inspirations, and of course he said [Stanley] Kubrick and all that but then he said Ridley Scott’s his favorite director, and I was like, ‘What!?’ [Laughs] how cool to work with Chris Nolan and the work with…I mean, it’s just so rad. They’re both guys that are making up their own rules in the way that they’re shooting and the visuals that they’re using, they’re always pushing the bar and challenging something and also the similarity I see is that they’re making things on an epic scale, this is my first experience this past year with doing films like that. This is definitely gonna be my first year –I mean, in Interstellar I was more on Earth, this is definitely the first time I’m in a space suit, attached to wires, doing that whole shebang. But yeah, I see a lot of similarities between them.
Previous Mars-set movies haven’t connected with audiences so much, for one reason or another. What is it about The Martian that’s different?
CHASTAIN: Well the book is great, I read the book and it created amazing character who is such a problem solver and he has such a great sense of humor that you root for him. Also, what’s fantastic about the book is when I was talking to all the folks at JPL they were shocked that he did not have a background and a career working in that because he knew so much about Pathfinder and Curiosity and Spirit and all the rovers, that I guess he learned online [Laughs] you can find anything online now, And once he started writing the book people were contributing to help him with the facts. I think also there’s a similar story to films that we’ve all kind loved, when you think of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, there’s the character that is lost at sea somewhere and is trying to find their way back home, I think all of us in some part of our imagination we can imagine being lost somewhere and trying to get back and I think everyone can relate to that.
Can you tell us how the film’s portrayal of the future?
CHASTAIN: I mean, I like this view of the future because right now a little less than 10% of astronaut are women and on our crew there’s six of us and two are women, so already the odds are better for women in the future in this film and in this book. She’s the commander of the mission which already is pretty extraordinary, she has a military background, they’re the first mission to be on Mars collecting the samples, having to leave early is a decision she doesn’t wanna make but she makes it because she’s in charge of everyone’s life and they try to get her to stay. It’s weird because it’s all spoilers but [Laughs] anyone would have made this mistake but she calls the decision that has them leave Mars thinking that Watney is dead, so –I mean, it’s my second day of shooting so we haven’t shot a lot and this could change but I image it’s a huge sense of guilt there and Ridley has changed some aspects of the screenplay from the novel to give her more of an arc which I’m very appreciative of, which I don’t know if I should tell you guys, you’ll have to wait and see.
Besides just being comrades, what the relationship between your character and Matt Damon’s character?
CHASTAIN: I think he’s much more of a jokester, which definitely is in line with the character in the novel, and for her to have been in this position, she has so much responsibility on her shoulders that she’s much more by the book. But I think they both have the strongest respect for each other, and when I was talking to Tracey she was telling me about living on a space shuttle with the crew, you go through a lot of training and like auditions in a way, many meeting to makes sure that you have the kind of personality that can survive in a small space with other people, and these people would do anything for their crew. So I think there’s a bond between this entire crew that’s more than just she’s commander, he’s the botanist, it’s like family, she literally would give her life for any person on her crew and on her team.
Talk a little bit about how you got the script, what it something where Ridley called you, was it an agent thing? Just talk about how you got involved and was it an immediate ‘yes’?
CHASTAIN: I had just seen Interstellar and I thought it was very cool watching Annie and Matthew [McConaughey] and them all float around and I thought, ‘That looks like so much fun’ and as soon as I had said this I get a call from my agent who said that Ridley Scott was gearing up his next film about this book named The Martian –I hadn’t read it yet– and if I would be interested in reading it, and so I read it, loved it, great. And then at a meeting with Ridley, it was pretty great to be honest, I not sure if you guys have talked to him yet I’m sure a lot of you have already, he’s so warm and I’m a fan of his work but I also don’t wanna put myself in a situation where I’m on a set where someone’s a nightmare and a terrible person. But when I first sat down after the first few minutes I was like, ‘Yeah, this is something I wanna do’ because immediately I would ask him questions about what Matt would look like and would draw it out for me, he’s really quick and an amazing artist. So yeah that’s it, I mean, this is Day 2 for me, he’s very sweet he brings us over he lets us watch playback, we’re getting the microphones down so once in a while we hear him, Matt calls him ‘The voice of God’ when we’re in the middle of Mars, so it’s been really fun do far.
You mentioned that you recently re-watched Blade Runner and obviously you’re a fan of is work. To what extent do you think Ridley has been instrumental in the construction of the modern female action hero? I guess by that the general is Ellen Ripley, as an artist can you talk about what he’s done in the extension of that image?
CHASTAIN: That’s interesting because, and I don’t know if this could all be fake because when you sit down with people you hear, ‘I heard this’ and ‘I heard this’, someone told me that character originally in the script was written as a man and he changed it to a woman, and Chris Nolan changed Murph to a woman. What I think is so great about that is that there are some female characters I do not like, and sometimes in some superhero movies of the past now –I love superhero movies– where a female characters that’s supposed to be a badass, her main attribute is her sexiness, usually that fails like Catwoman or whatever, it’s a disaster, but when a female superhero –to me she is a superhero– her sexiness is not the most important thing about her, it’s her mind, her spirit, and when I look at that character that to me is an example of characters that I like to play and I think it does a great thing for women. I mean, I think because of that character we have Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games and all these incredible, really strong warriors that are women that their main appeal isn’t their sex appeal.
What insight does that give you into Ridley himself?
CHASTAIN: Well I don’t know him very well, but I mean, if anyone can create a character like that it tells me that they’re not a sexist person and they believe in equality.
I know that you’re a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, how did you feel when you looked at the script because there are some similarities there? Is it exciting to be working on a movie like this?
CHASTAIN: You mean from this one to that? Well partly because I have only been here for a few days, the only things –I haven’t really looked at a lot of the storyboards– that I have seen are like the HAV and the MAV and the suits of course, and then Matt had said something because he wore this similar suit also in Interstellar, and he said how similar they were and I don’t know if that’s because of 2001: A Space Odyssey or it’s because of NASA, because even being there when I was in Houston I got to go into the room where they make all the space foods, and try all the gloves on, and see how all of that works. I think everything they’re creating, whether it be environments or the clothes that they’re wearing, is because it’s based on fact, of course I can’t wear this on Mars but it has a feeling of what NASA will be wearing.
You think Kubrick was super ahead of his time?
CHASTAIN: I imagine so. I mean, I always think that –I’m sorry I just love HAL, HAL’s my favorite character in the science fiction movies. But I think it was so pristine and that red light, yeah Kubrick was very ahead of his time.
In real life these characters have been training together for years, and to go on the mission it takes a tear to get there. How hard is it as an actor to come in and only be here a few days but immediately simulate a bond between the crew?
CHASTAIN: That’s a good question, actually. I mean, I tried to when I was going to JPL and NASA, I asked if the other could join me but I think because of schedules I think Michael Peña was shooting something until the day before and Kate [Mara] was shooting something so I did alone, but I definitely think it’s always important to bond with people especially when you have that relationship on screen, when I arrived Kate and I went and had dinner. I mean we’ve only worked together for two days, all of us, and we’re already like [smacks hands together], there’s so many sex jokes going around, anytime anyone says something. We’re having a really fun time.
For more on The Martian:
- Matt Damon on THE MARTIAN, Drew Goddard, Why He Took a Break from Acting, and More
- Over 30 Things to Know About Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN from our Budapest Set Visit