In the espionage thriller The Debt , Rachel Singer is a Mossad agent in the 1960’s, who teams up with fellow agents Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), to track down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), also known as the feared Surgeon of Birkenau. For that mission, she put herself at great risk and her heart on the line, not realizing that their actions would come back to haunt them over 30 years later.
At the film’s press day, actress Jessica Chastain talked about her four months of Krav Maga training for The Debt, how she studied Helen Mirren and worked with her on the backstory for the different ages of the character that they were playing, and just how uncomfortable the gynecological scenes were. She also talked about reuniting with Sam Worthington on Texas Killing Fields, what she loves about working with director Terrence Malick, her excitement over playing a character in a punk band in the Guillermo Del Toro-produced genre film Mama, and how she chooses projects based on the script and if it’s something she’s never done before. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Question: The world is now getting to see your work, from Tree of Life to The Help and now The Debt. How has that been for you?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: What’s funny is that my life really hasn’t changed. I guess what’s most different is the premieres and the press that I’m doing. But normally, I’m very rarely recognized. Someone came up to me on the street and they loved Tree of Life, but that only happened once. I think it’s great. When someone recognizes me and they like the film, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk to them about it, especially since I haven’t really been able to talk about what I’ve doing for the past four years. But, I’m also really lucky because my goal, as an actor, is to disappear into the characters that I’m playing. I think sometimes, if everyone knows who you are, then you’re not really able to do that. I only have two movies out, but I have seven total this year, so we’ll see how long that lasts.
How are you adapting to the business side of Hollywood, with all the press and the photo shoots, and everything?
CHASTAIN: Well, the one good thing is that I love talking about acting. I’m just such a fan of actors and filmmakers, and I try to choose roles where I get to talk to great actors about acting and learn. For me, the press aspect is great because I love talking about other people’s performances and their process, and all of that. I’m not going to lie, I just got my schedule for September and it’s really a bit daunting because I have two films in every festival – at Deauville, Venice and Toronto. Then, I also have an international press tour, and I have press for Take Shelter, which is coming out at the end of September. And then, I also have to prep a movie that I start on October 4th, called Mama. So, I am starting to get a little nervous. I’ve never worked before, where I’ve been on a press situation, and then, a week later, started shooting a film. I’m trying to start prep for that film now while I’m juggling all the things. When you guys see my performance in the next film, we’ll see if it worked.
What was more difficult, wearing the boning in the costumes for The Help, or doing Krav Maga training for The Debt?
CHASTAIN: Both are uncomfortable. But, there’s something about being in the South. I loved being able to eat whatever I wanted. When you’re curvy, there’s more sensuality to you. It’s really fun to be that. The heat in Mississippi – I think we filmed that in July in Mississippi – with those girdles, was a bit tough. The clothes were so tight that they had to build a leaning board for me, in that red dress. I couldn’t sit down in it because I was so sucked in at the waist, to give me that hourglass. So, they built me a leaning board and all the girls would be sitting around, drinking their coffee or water, and people would be like, “Do you want a water?,” and I was like, “No, no, no,” because I couldn’t even use the restroom and take that dress on and off. It was actually more fun than anything because everyone was laughing about it. With Krav Maga, that was just fun because I was a dancer as a kid, and I’ve realized that fight scenes are like dance scenes. Everyone counts silently in their head, and you don’t really hit each other, if you’re lucky.
Do you feel like you could use Krav Maga, in real life?
CHASTAIN: I became kind of obsessed with it. I had four months of training, before we started shooting. Before that, I never really thought about myself as a fighter, but I would come back from training and my best friend would be home and I’d be like, “Come on, come at me with a knife.” So, she’d have a pencil in her hand and I’d pin her, just try to see if I could remember how to do it on my own, without my teacher, telling me what to do. I became a little bit of a monster, trying to always take someone down to the ground, and see how fast I could do it.
Is it simple to learn it, since it relies on what your instincts would be, in an attack?
CHASTAIN: It’s not necessarily simple to learn, but in my very first session, they said, “Krav Maga is not about self defense. It’s about killing your opponent, as quickly as possible. It’s just about taking them out.” So, it’s not simple, but it’s quick in the moves. It’s about someone coming at you with a gun, and how to twist the gun and shoot them. If they have a knife, you take the knife and bend their arm to cut their throat. We made this movie two and a half years ago, so I haven’t really been using Krav Maga a lot. However, I did just do The Wettest County with Tom Hardy, and Tom loves to fight. We’d be on set in our ‘30s clothing, and Tom would take a stance and I would just punch him back. So, I did get to work on my Krav Maga. I don’t think that he expected me to be as ruthless as I was.
What was it like to work off screen with Helen Mirren, to develop the fact that you were playing the same woman?
CHASTAIN: I knew that she was attached to play Rachel, when I first met with (director) John Madden. I looked her up and found all of her statistics, and I saw that she was 5’4″. I went to John and I was like, “Just so you know, we’re the same height. This is why it’s perfect.” Then, once I got cast, I had the fear of, “I have to play the younger version of Helen Mirren. That’s impossible.” She’s one-of-a-kind. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and is unbelievable. So, I did a lot of things. I watched all of her interviews on YouTube. I actually found one of her when she was younger, which was really beneficial for me. My idea of Helen Mirren was this grand, solid foundation, that was a force of a woman. When I saw this interview with her, when she was younger, her voice was a little bit higher and she was a little bit unsure of herself. She didn’t have the confidence that she has now. I saw that and I thought, “Okay, there’s an in. Rachel doesn’t have to be an imitation of what Helen is now. She’s the younger version of that.”
Then, we met and talked about her backstory – where Rachel came from, how she was orphaned and what happened to her family. We worked with a dialect coach together. We worked on mannerisms that we might use. We worked on a lot of little teeny, tiny elements that, if you see the film, you probably wouldn’t necessarily catch, unless you saw it more than once. I’m also a crazy researcher and read her biography. I did so much to try to get to know Helen, as much as I could. I’m definitely one of the people who is absolutely enthralled, and a huge fan of Helen Mirren’s.
You have some really interesting and difficult scenes with Jesper Christensen. How did you get into a mind-set to do those, especially the gynecological scenes?
CHASTAIN: Especially in those scenes, because Rachel is nervous about it and doesn’t know what’s going to happen, or if he’ll see something weird in her German, she knows that she can use that to her benefit. It’s uncomfortable for a woman to be in that position, so she can let him read that as, “Oh, she’s just shy and uncomfortable.” I didn’t feel, in playing Rachel, that I had to be like, “Oh, I’m okay. I’m really strong.” She got to be more honest about the situation because it helped make it believable that she was a young woman trying to have a baby. I have to say, though, that I love the scene where I stab him in the neck so much because I hated filming those scenes. Of course, I’m not really naked or anything like that, but for like a week, I was on my back, with my legs in those stupid stirrups. I love Jesper Christensen. He’s the nicest man. But, every time I talked to him, he was between my legs, and it was so uncomfortable and awful. So, I was just so ready to take him down. Right before Rachel grabs him in that scene, I told John, “It looks like I’m going to eat him.” I was just so ready to do that.
You got to work again with Sam Worthington for Texas Killing Fields. What was that experience like?
CHASTAIN: Well, our characters in Texas Killing Fields actually used to be married, but now they’re divorced. I think there’s definitely tension between the characters. It’s not like The Debt, where it’s this sweeping connection in David’s character, that’s unlike anything she’s ever felt before. I think she feels that they are the same kind of people, with what they’ve been through in their past. He lost all of his family, and I believe she also lost all of her family. There’s a connection that she feels with David that she’s never felt before, and that was a huge thing to play. In Texas Killing Fields, my character really cannot stand her ex-husband – just like the sound of his voice and everything. But then, because he is her ex-husband, there is the memory of someone that you spent so much time with. So, there are moments where she thinks, “Oh, yes, I remember this part of you,” and then goes, “Oh, no, I’m not going there again.” So, we got to play a different relationship, which was fun.
Is there any more news about the next untitled Terrence Malick film?
CHASTAIN: I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t even know if I’ll be in the film. I was just going to go visit the set because I love the crew, I love Terry, and I love everyone so much. And then, the day before I arrived, they said, “Would you play a part?” I said, “Sure!” I don’t even know what the movie is about. But, if I ever get asked the question, “Would you do a day or two, or a week of shooting, on a Terrence Malick film?,” I would always do it. For me, he’s one of the greatest teachers that I have ever known, when it comes to being in the moment and being active, but also just what it is to be a wonderful human being. He’s a wonderful human being. He’s a wonderful person. But, I don’t know anything about that film.
What brought you to the set in the first place?
CHASTAIN: Well, every once in a while, I’ll talk to Terry on the phone. I was actually on the set of The Help, and Sissy [Spacek] and I were working together. Sissy’s husband, Jack [Fisk], is Terrence Malick’s production designer. So, Jack and Terry were shooting in Oklahoma, and Sissy and I were shooting in Mississippi. I was talking to Terry on the phone, and he was hearing about the part that I was playing in The Help, that was really so different from Tree of Life, and we were laughing about that, and he said, “Why don’t you come visit?” I said, “Okay, I’d like to see everyone.” Sissy was actually there, at the same time that I was. So, that’s how it started. When you’re on a Terrence Malick film, it’s like you’re part of a family.
How did you like shooting in Oklahoma?
CHASTAIN: I love Oklahoma. I wish I had been there longer. I was only there a week, but I’d like to shoot for a more extended amount of time there.
So far, it seems like you’ve done a lot of movies that you would like to see. Has Hollywood started offering you those projects that aren’t really your own personal taste? How do you make decisions about whether you should take a paycheck because of a lot of visibility versus something that is not your style?
CHASTAIN: I never go the big paycheck route. Cherry Jones, who is a wonderful theater actress in New York, told me once, “If you make a decision on a paycheck, then you’re always going to make that decision because you’re going to spend that money. You’ll spend it, just like you spend the small paychecks. You’ll just buy more stuff, and then you’ll keep needing that paycheck to feed your house payments, or whatever it is.” So, I absolutely made the decision that that cannot be the reason why I’m doing a film or a job. For me, it’s always about the script and whether I’m doing something that I’ve never done before.
I’m about to go shoot a film that I’ve never done before. I’m shooting a genre film for Guillermo del Toro’s company, called Mama. It’s similar to The Ring and The Orphanage. I play a punk character, in a punk band. It’s so different. I do have trepidation because I think, “Am I going to be able to do this, being in the woods, looking all scared, and stuff?” But, I feel like the bigger risks that I take, the more I learn. I know that I learn more from my failures than successes, so the more that I throw myself off of a cliff and the more scary the part is for me to play, either I fail big, which I will at some point, and I’m going to learn so much about it, or I don’t fail, and I do a great film and a great job. For me, those are the things that I will always try to do.