Helen Mirren, The Prequel
by M. Faust
Jessica Chastain talks about The Debt and her six other movies appearing this year
If you’re any kind of a moviegoer, you’re unlikely to get through 2011 without seeing at least one film starring Jessica Chastain. She was the young mother in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Celia Foote in The Help. Later this year she’ll be in Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus, Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome, and the indie films Texas Killing Fields and Take Shelter.
This week, she’s on screen in The Debt, a twisty thriller in which she plays Rachel Singer, an operative for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. In the early 1960s, she and two other agents (Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) are sent to Berlin to “retrieve” Dieter Vogel, a doctor known as the Surgeon of Birkenau for his criminal research on prisoners during World War II.
The film opens in the late 1990s, when Rachel’s daughter has written a book about her mother’s exploits. Now played by Helen Mirren, Rachel is clearly uncomfortable with the attention. Even more so is her former partner, who commits suicide rather than revisit their shared past. The difference between the official story and what really happened—and whether past mistakes can be set right—are the body of the film, suspensefully directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).
When I spoke to Chastain recently at the film’s press junket in Beverly Hills, the ebullient, Juilliard-trained actress says that despite having seven films in release this year, she’s not getting more public attention than when she was working on Broadway. “I’m very rarely recognized on the street,” she laughs. “Someone came up to me on the street and they loved Tree of Life, but that only happened once. And it was wonderful to have the opportunity to talk to someone about it, because I haven’t really been able to discuss what I’ve been doing for the last four years.” (For different reasons, both Tree of Life and The Debt had a long route from the time she was in front of the cameras to their theatrical releases.)
“I just got my schedule for September and it’s a bit daunting. I have two films in every festival—Deauville, Venice, Toronto, and also an international press tour, and then Take Shelter comes out in September, and then I have to prep for a movie I’m starting on October 4. So I am starting to get a little nervous!”
Even though she and Helen Mirren don’t play any scenes together in The Debt, Chastain got to work with her in preparing for their shared role. (The two actresses are the same height, 5’4”, a fact Chastain pointed out to Madden during her audition.)
“And when I got cast I thought, I have to play Helen Mirren! She’s one of a kind, a force to be reckoned with. So I watched all of her interviews on YouTube and found one of her when she was younger that was really beneficial to me. My idea of her was this grand, solid foundation like force of a woman. But in this interview she was younger, her voice was a little higher, she was a little unsure of herself, she didn’t have the confidence that she has now. So I thought, there’s an in. Because Rachel doesn’t have to be what Helen Mirren is now, she’s a younger version.
“We met and talked about a backstory of where Rachel came from. And we worked with a dialect coach together, worked on mannerisms we might use. We worked on a lot of little tiny elements that you wouldn’t catch unless you saw the movie several times.”
The other substantial aspect of preparing for the film involved learning Krav Maga, the martial art technique developed by the Mossad.
“In my very first session the trainer said that Krav Maga is not about self-defense, it’s about killing your opponent as quickly as possible. If someone is coming at you with a gun, you think: How do I twist it around to shoot them? Or if they have a knife, how to bend their arm to cut their throat or eyes.
“It was fun. I was a dancer as a kid and fight scenes are like dance scenes. Everyone counts silently in their head, and you don’t really hit each other, if you’re lucky. I became kind of obsessed with it—I had four months of training and I’d come home and tell my best friend, ‘Come on, come at me with a knife!’ Just wanting to see if I could remember how to do things on my own without my trainer. So I became a little bit of a monster!”
Rachel’s training comes into play in dealing with the fearsome Dr. Vogel (memorably played by recent James Bond villain Jesper Christensen), who goes Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist in Marathon Man one better: When the Mossad locates him, he’s working as a gynecologist. Rachel visits him pretending to be in need of fertility advice waiting for the moment when she and her comrades can kidnap him from his office.
“We did those in chronological order, and I hated filming those scenes. I wasn’t really naked in those scenes, of course, but for a week I’m on my back with my legs in the stirrups, and I love Jesper, he’s the nicest man, but every time I talk to him I’m looking at him between my legs, it’s so uncomfortable and awful! So by the end I’m so prepared to just take him down. I told John when we were doing [post-production sound looping], in the shot of my face just before it happens, it looks like I’m ready to eat him!”
Rachel’s fate at the end of The Debt is ambiguous. Asked for her interpretation, Chastain admits that despite what seems to be a sunny attitude, “I’m always the person who thinks the worst thing will happen. I’m a fan of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, so I tend to think that bad things happen.” (She goes so far as to compare Tree of Life to Irreversible, Gasper Noe’s bleak film that starts with a horrible act of vengeance and goes backward to show where it came from.)
Chastain recently filmed some informal scenes for Terence Malick’s new work-in-progress, but admits that she has no idea if the scenes will ever be seen. She explains that she arranged to visit the set because she was fond of Malick and his crew. “And the day before I was supposed to go there they said, ‘Would you like to play a part?’ I said sure. I don’t even know what the movie’s about. But I would always, if asked to do a day of shooting on a Terence Malick film, I would do it. 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 human being.”
As far as leveraging all of the attention she’s now getting into bigger Hollywood projects, Chastain says she has vowed never to take a job based on how much she’ll get paid. “Cherry Jones, who is a wonderful New York actress, told me, once you make a decision based on a paycheck, you’re always going to make it based on that. Because you’re going to spend that money just as you would with a small paycheck. You’ll just buy more stuff, and then you’ll keep needing that paycheck to feed your house payments, or whatever. So for me, it’s always about the script and whether I’m doing something that I’ve never done before.
“But as far as doing something I’ve never done before, I’m about to start shooting Mama, a genre film for Guillermo del Toro’s company, kind of like The Ring and The Orphanage. I play a character in a punk band, and it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done before. I do have trepidations—am I going to be able to do this, being in the woods and looking all scared? But the bigger risks I take the more I learn. I know I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes.”
This interview is Part 1 of a two-part film feature this week. Click here to read Part 2, an interview with Sam Worthington, who also co-stars in "The Debt."
Watch the trailer for The Debt
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