Though the summer season is in full force this weekend with The Hangover Part II and Kung Fu Panda 2 poised to make over $100 million each, it is Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life that will leave viewers the most awed. With spectacle ranging from sumptuous images of the beginning and end of the universe to brief glimpses of evolution on earth and even dinosaurs as well as touches of magical realism, this film is an epic tonal poem that left me speechless. My eyes ached because I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing even one moment. After the film, I stumbled out into the streets of Los Angeles and walked for eight miles, contemplating what I had just seen.
Earlier this week I was lucky enough to sit down with actress Jessica Chastain to discuss the Palme d’Or Winning film, which also stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In our interview we discuss her proclivity toward period pieces, rubbing pepper in Pitt’s eyes, how this film inspired her maternal instincts, the dangers of Motocross and much more. Read on for the full interview.
In case you don’t have time to read the full transcript, here are a few highlights.
- Chastain injured her leg Monday afternoon while riding Motocross, so she plans on balancing on one foot for her red carpet glamour shots.
- Her favorite scene in the movie is the moment where she magically floats in the air.
- The fight with Pitt was totally unscripted.
- Malick never yelled, “Action,” or, “Cut,” on the set.
- Malick taught her to, “Always be in the moment and always be open to the thing that you didn’t expect because it’s probably going to be better than what you did expect.”
Question: So I suppose the first question is, what happened?
Jessica Chastain: This is going to sound so idiotic…I got in a Motocross accident yesterday.
Is that going to effect Wettest County in the World?
Chastain: No. I finished that one a few weeks ago. I thought it would be fun. And I really liked it and I went way too fast. My friend, who I went with, stayed in first gear and I was in like third gear on the course. I shouldn’t have done it, especially having a premiere today. I ended up spending the afternoon in the emergency room yesterday because the bike fell on me and twisted my leg. Those things are heavy! It’s funny because I was lying there and my knee like snapped…I heard this popping noise and I was like, “Okay…” and my hand kind of like, “Errr.” So the wheels kept going and I’m pinned underneath it and I thought someone would come get me and it just felt like forever so I finally just went, like, “Help! Help!” It was really, really silly.
So now you have crutches for the red carpet tonight?
Chastain: Yes, but not for the photos. I can’t walk without the crutches but I balance really well, so I’m going to stand still and cast off my crutches.
In one heel?
Chastain: Yes! In very high heels! Look! [She pulls up her leg to reveal that she is already wearing very steep high heels.] And I’ll take my pictures. There won’t be any taking any walking, none of that fancy red carpet stuff because then we’ll have pictures of me on the carpet. So, yes, that will be tonight…I hope I don’t fall…oh my god! I was worried about falling down the stairs at Cannes and now I’m like, “Oh, I hope I don’t fall on this red carpet.”
So can you talk about what the Cannes experience was like?
Chastain: It was great. I realize that it’s never going to be matched. And it’s, realistically, it’s my first time there and it’s probably not a good example of, “Oh typical time at Cannes” because I brought two films, they both won the top prize in their category: Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or and Take Shelter won the grand prize and Critic’s Week, and I also had a film there, The Wettest County in the World, which there was a bidding war and Harvey bought it. So it was like, all this great stuff was happening and I don’t think that’s a typical Cannes. But it’s okay because I’m enjoying every second knowing that it will never be repeated.
Does all of this feel like a delayed reaction because you’ve been working steadily for several years now?
Chastain: I’d say it’s worth the wait. To be honest, it’s not so bad. I mean, if I had to wait four years for my films to come out and then I get this kind of reaction to the films, I’ll wait four years. No problem. It is a bit of a delayed reaction for me, but for me the most important part is I love acting so much and I love great filmmakers and doing scenes with other actors that I really admire. That’s the exciting part of my life. So for me, even though it took a long time for the films to come out it was okay because I had made eleven films so I was constantly working with people who were really inspiring.
I suppose the complete opposite of crutches is, there’s a scene in the film where you’re weightless in a dream sequence around a tree. Can you talk about that because it was fascinating to see.
Chastain: Yeah. You know it’s funny. That’s probably my favorite part of the film because it really describes what it’s like to be on a Terrance Malick set. It was the day when they had all of the harnesses and machines for the boys, they were having the boys climb up the trees. And then I heard, “Okay, Jessica. We want you to hang around because we want a shot of your feet walking along the ground and then lifting off the ground and then just walking back.” And so I say, “Okay.” And the other stuff took so long and they’re like, “We only have a couple minutes to get it!” So I was in the harness and I’m there and we kind of start shooting and it just didn’t look right. It just looked like my feet were just swinging, which is not the thing that they wanted. And I was just so happy to be in the harness – and I used to be a ballerina when I was a little girl – that I just start swinging back and forth. And I kind of start doing little pirouettes in the air and immediately Terry was like, “That’s it!” you know? “Do that! Do that! Dance!” And they have the camera and I’m just pushing myself off the tree to get momentum and I was just laughing a lot and it was just so much fun to film. And now when I see it, I actually, I just feel like it’s great and we didn’t try to create that moment, it just happened.
A number of the scenes flash by like snapshots, they’re very small takes. Was there such a thing as a short take on the set or were those just small cuts of much longer sequences?
Chastain: There’s no, “Action,” or, “Cut,” on Tree of Life. So it’s all the four-minute roll that just runs out. So it’s just, what I love about those little snippets in the film is, it’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen because it’s like capturing someone’s memory of their life. When I think about myself when I was Five years old, I don’t think in, if I can remember, or like seven years old, I don’t remember long, beginning, middle, end scenes. I think of perhaps the way my mom looked at me, or my grandmother dancing. You know, those little tiny moments that add up to create my life so far. And I feel like [Malick] is the first person who’s captured that. I don’t think I’ve seen that before in film.
There was a lot of discussion in the press notes about different people not being allowed to see the entire script. Did you get to see the entire script and know the full scope?
Chastain: Yes. I think it was just the boys and also some people who were just coming in for a day or so because [Malick] wanted to keep the story pretty private. But yeah, I got the script after Terry asked me if I’d like to pay the role and I was like, “I don’t even know what the role is, but sure.” And he said, “Please read the script first because I want to make sure it’s something you want to do.” I think it took me four hours to read it and I think it’s such a brilliant piece of writing. It’s not written like a screenplay, it’s written like a novel in a way, with some bits of dialogue. I hope it’s published some day because I think it should be. And I’m with the boys because they had a long audition process. They went through so many, so many boys. And then, toward the end they brought me out to interact and improv with the kids and see who could really like, think quick. And I remember Tye [Sheridan] and Laramie [Eppler] and Hunter [McCracken] were just phenomenal. There was something with Hunter. When I was first talking to him he was kind of a bit surly, you know. He had this thing where he was like, “Oh, I don’t care about this. I don’t care about Hollywood. I don’t care, I want I dirt bike.” I think that’s… “I only wanna do it so I can have a dirt bike.” So he had this thing of just not trying to impress anyone. And so we started improving and he was really quick which was really exciting for me because it meant that he would give me things to act off of. And then there were also moments of, there were really sweet moments where we were wondering, “Can he be soft?” We know he can be that kind of, you know, contrary character, but there was a moment where we’re all together and I thought well, I’m going to see now how he is. And we’re sitting together, me and the other kids and I kind of just put my arm around him and started just, like, touching his hair and you could see in the video that he’s this tough guy and then all of the sudden he just went, his face, his eyes opened up and he just kind of leaned into me like I guess an animal would do, a little dog. It was so sweet. I have great love for those boys and I think – I’m sorry, I’m going off on a tangent – and they weren’t given the script because it was always about creating for them. [Malick] didn’t want to see child actors, he wanted to see them be the boys that they really were.
You’re in a fascinating position where you’re in two Terrance Malick films. Does he change at all between project as a director?
Chastain: Yeah. It’s funny, I feel weird saying I’m in two films because I can say I was on two sets. I’m in one film and I was on another set because I don’t know that I’m going to be in that film because I have such a small…I was only there for two days. But he does. He constantly changes and that was really exciting for me to see because it wasn’t that same exact way of working because on that one I did with Ben Affleck, I did hear, “Cut.” And I remember the first time I was there when the stopped it, I looked at him and I was like, “That’s a first! What’s going on?” You know? So it is exciting to know that him as an artist is constantly evolving and questioning himself and trying new things and he’s never set in his ways like, “This is the way to make a movie.” He’s always growing. And so I bet you the one after this there will be even another thing that will be different. I’d hope, actually.
You discussed how the film feels like a series of snapshots and memories.
And you’re a very, very strong character in the film but you’re also seen almost exclusively from the perspective of sort of naïve masculinity from the boys minds. When you’re acting, did you think about yourself as a projection of the mind? Or did you think about yourself outside of that?
Chastain: I was thinking of myself as, when I read the script I realized that she basically is the embodiment of grace and the spirit world. So I knew that that was like what I was representing, I guess, in the grand scheme of things. So I thought, “Okay, I also have to make her a real person.” So what I did was, I had to kind of try to cultivate that kind of quality in myself. So, you know, meditating and, you know, studying paintings of the Madonna and all these many, many things. I read this Thomas Aquinas poem about nature and grace that Terrance gave me. So I was, I definitely had to create that, but I never thought, I never tried to play the character as their idea of her. But I had to ground her and the only way I could think of how to ground her was her love for her children because I felt like, even though I created an absolute back-story for her, her main thing she believes in her life is her family and this bond she has with her children is very important. So I had to make that incredibly real and it actually was very real. The boys and I, still to this very day, we’re very close. This is actually going to be the first time, actually, that we’re together in three years. And I’ve gotten a mother’s day gift from Hunter last year. I get phone calls. Yeah, we’re very, very close. And when the film ended I was more heartbroken than anything because they went back to their mothers and I was, “I want to have kids!” But yeah, I had to create that, so mostly it was about me creating that relationship.
How was it different with Brad? What kind of conversations did you have about building that familial closeness between those characters?
Chastain: Well, I mean, we didn’t really have those conversations a lot because the one thing about the two, Brad and my character’s is that there is this distance that she’s constantly trying to reach out to him, to have him open up to the family, to love. And he’s got this, “No, I’ve always got to stay on guard and it’s always survival of the fittest and I’ve got to be the strong one.” So, in a way, if we had had these bonding experiences like I had with the children, it would have made our jobs harder. But on set, the great thing about him is, he could play that character and then as soon as the role was out, he was like fun, nice, sweet Brad and he was like, throwing the football with the boys out in the yard and asking me, “What kind of music do you like? I don’t really…that’s one thing I’m out of touch with right now is music.” He’s really, he’s like a normal guy.
What about that emotional tussle that you have with him in the house? did you prepare for that at all?
Chastain: We didn’t even know that that was going to happen. It happened after we’d filmed the scene where he attacks the boys. So we came back and we both showed up with our own, like, “Okay, what just happened?” We both showed up with it. And I know that my character is, my character, she had to clean up the house, right? But she’s still kind of vibrating from what just happened and trying to contain it. So I’ve got to clean up the mess that he’s made. And then I had a couple of lines that I could say if I felt like it, he had a couple of lines he could say if he felt like it, but we shot for four minutes, back and forth, slamming dishes, doing all this stuff, talking to each other. And at one point, I don’t know why, what on earth possessed me, but I grabbed the pepper and rubbed it on his face and said, “How do you like it!” And then he grabbed me and all of the sudden we’re like fighting and struggling and when you see, you can see that we both look shocked because it was absolutely real. It wasn’t like Terry said, “I want to create a physical violence between the two.” It’s not even in the script that anything like that happens. There are these two warring ideas of grace and nature and how they react with each other but he never tried to create that or block that. He just sets the scene for something to happen. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And so working with an actor who is open to being spontaneous and emotional and inventive and really listens to the other person, you can have moments like that. When you have someone who comes in and they plan what they’re gonna do…I mean, you don’t get those accidents.
Chastain: The main thing I learned was absolutely that the most interesting choice is the accident. Like, so, for me, I can do as much preparation as I want. You know, in The Debt, I play a Mossad agent and I learned Krav Maga and German and Israeli accents and I studied medical experiments and I did all of this preparation. But if I go in and I go, “I know how this scene’s going to happen, I’ve already planned it in my mind,” it means that I’m not open to seeing what my scene partner is doing and reading what kind of the energy in the room’s like. And I’ve worked with actors who do both things and I’ll say it’s way more exciting to work with someone who, it’s like, you’re absolute partners. And I what I do affects them and what they do affects me. It’s like working with Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I just worked with Tom Hardy in Wettest County. These great…like Al Pacino. And they all are like that. And that’s the great lesson from Terry for me; just always be in the moment and always be open to the thing that you didn’t expect because it’s probably going to be better than what you did expect.
What do you think the reaction is going to be like to this film?
Chastain: Whose reaction?
The audience going to see it.
Chastain: You know, I think there probably will be a lot of mixed reaction and I hope that it’s going to cause a lot of discussion, because a lot of my favorite films do. A lot of my favorite films are the kind that I go, “Oh, I love that film!” And someone else goes, “Really?” You know? I love those movies and I really hope that’s the case. I feel like this film really asks more questions than it answers. A lot of us are used to being given the answers. And we just want to be entertained. And this film really isn’t that. It’s not the kind that, “Okay, I just want to turn off. I’ve had a hard day at work, I’m just going to turn off and watch The Tree of Life.” It’s not that. So, I think you absolutely have to be in the mindset to be open and then to examine your life. I have a great story; Bill Pohlad told me that a friend, you know, someone in the industry saw the film and at first was like, before we showed it at Cannes, was like, “You know, it’s never going to work. I don’t know how you guys are going to release this film.” And then, an hour later he was in the car and his father called him and in the call he started crying. So I think it’s that kind of film where you think you know what it is and then an hour late you think, “Maybe it means something else,” and then maybe a week later and then a year later it’s constantly…it’s ever changing depending on where you are when you see it.
You have a lot of films coming up and a huge number of them are period pieces. Are you seeking those out? Are producers coming to you for those? And how do you approach a period piece differently from something set in modern day.
Chastain: You know, I’m not especially seeking out period pieces. I mean, I love doing them because I have this romantic idea of history and I actually really love doing accents and I love costumes so much. So I think maybe I’m drawn to them. But I would like to do a modern film. But sometimes I feel like a lot of the great parts are in period films for some reason that I’ve been offered or asked to read for. I mostly want to do something that is a stretch for me or is a challenge. And playing a character where I’m going to have to study the world or the history of what was happening in that time, or what she would wear, or how she would carry herself in that time is more interesting than playing a kind of woman like me in 2011. I would absolutely play a character in 2011 if she was really dynamic and fantastic.
You said that you feel like a lot of the better roles are period pieces. Do you think there is a reason for that? Do you think that it’s just that the approach is different from the filmmakers?
Chastain: I wonder if, when I say that the roles are better it’s just that there’s more to work on because…even for Take Shelter – that’s a modern film – that was one, where I just kind of showed up and I talked to Jeff [Nichols] and I said, “I really understand this woman and I don’t feel like it’s much of a transformation for me.” And I like transforming a lot too. So, I don’t mind playing characters that are closer to me if they’re good characters like in Take Shelter and I’m working with Michael Shannon. But I prefer to do something that feels like I’m exploring an absolute different culture, time period woman.
What kind of films did you watch to prepare for this time period in Tree of Life?
Chastain: Well, it’s funny, Terry actually asked me to watch a lot of Lauren Bacall films because he said, and I think it’s absolutely true, he said, “Modern day,” and especially me, I do this a lot when I’m in a group, “Talk really, really fast. We have this kind of frenetic energy about us because it’s as though we’re all afraid we’re going to get interrupted.” So we really want to say what we have to say, so wetalkreallyfastbeforesomeoneinteruptsme and we do interrupt each other a lot. And in watching the Lauren Bacall films there really is this quality of this sort of slow and easy and almost from another, well it is from another, time. So I watched a lot of that to soak into my head, especially for the voiceovers. It was kind of this even, slow, salt of the earth tone that she has.