"Do you know what I love about Kathryn Bigelow?" Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain asked me on her way to the Walter Kerr Theatre to play "The Heiress" on Broadway. "Kathryn makes me feel like John Wayne in a John Ford movie. We're not used to seeing women in film in that way."
Nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, "Zero Dark Thirty" follows Chastain's CIA agent Maya as she doggedly pursues Osama bin Laden to ground following 9/11. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, produced by Megan Ellison, and distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal, the political action thriller is, to quote Chastain, "a woman telling a story about a woman."
And Maya is no ordinary woman. "Kathryn directed Jessica to be fearless," said Pascal.
Work defines Maya
It's rare to see a female film character defined entirely by her work -- not her relationships -- in the way that Maya is in "Zero Dark Thirty." For example, Chastain's fellow best actress nominees include a widow (Jennifer Lawrence, "Silver Linings Playbook"), a wife (Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"), a mother (Naomi Watts, "The Impossible"), and a daughter (Quvenzhané Wallis, "The Beasts of the Southern Wild"). Even last year, when Meryl Streep won the Oscar for "The Iron Lady," she played Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a politician foremost, but at a cost to her relationships with her husband and children.
"For me, what's radical," said Chastain, "is that, usually, female characters are defined by their male counterparts. Maya is searching for bin Laden, but he's not seen in the story. What defines her is her work."
Chastain has repeatedly been asked why Maya doesn't have a boyfriend. Where's her backstory? "She's based on a real person," said Chastain. "Bigelow and [screenwriter Mark] Boal wanted to make the film as accurate as possible. They didn't want to add a love interest.
"The wonderful thing about Maya throughout the film," she continued, "is that she becomes a servant of her work. It's a slow erasing of who she is over the course of the movie. If she'd had a love interest, it would have made it easier for her. In reality, she sacrificed everything. We didn't want to underplay the commitment to her job and the mission by creating a made-up relationship."
During one defining scene, a co-worker (Jennifer Ehle) asks Maya if she's sleeping with a colleague. Maya shuts her down. "I'm not that girl that f----," she says. "It's unbecoming." In our age of oversharing, it's a bracing relief. It's also an insight into Maya's commitment to catching bin Laden at great personal cost.
Maya, single and singular, remains as tough and external as John Wayne. (She doesn't even get a horse to kiss!) The filmmakers refused to artificially soften her character: She's not rebounding from a bad affair, or seeking daddy's approval, or avenging a fallen brother or son. She acts tough because she's the chief crusader on a mission to fell bin Laden, and the job demands that kind of single-mindedness.
"The big takeaway here is that Maya is allowed to be the hero without having some problem with her," said Chastain. "She's not trying to sleep with her boss. She's not crazy. She crosses gray lines, which people do all the time, which men do all the time. We're not used to seeing a female take control and not ask a man for advice. Even in 'Silence of the Lambs,' Clarice Starling had Hannibal Lecter as a mentor."
Director Bigelow parallels Maya as a woman excelling on male turf
In Bigelow's 30-year directing career, she's been a model of just those virtues Maya possesses: competence, willpower, and commitment. And like Maya, she's triumphed in a male-dominated field. But it hasn't been easy. It was a major milestone when Bigelow became the first woman to win a best director Oscar in 2010.
But three years after "The Hurt Locker" won best picture, the Academy snubbed Bigelow, nominating five men for this year's director honors.
"I never made the connection to Kathryn Bigelow and Maya until after I saw the film," Chastain said. "Kathryn Bigelow doesn't complain on set that there's a glass ceiling in Hollywood. What she does is focus her energy on creating brilliant work."
And Maya doesn't waste time expressing her frustration when she's thwarted in her efforts by bureaucracy and conflicting agendas. "Maya never has a scene telling her superior Joseph Bradley [Kyle Chandler] that he's sexist. All of her energy is focused on the task at hand, same as Kathryn."
The birth of a catchphrase -- and why it's so memorable
Heads snap around in the scene at Agency headquarters where CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) asks who this girl is, staring at the petite redhead in a conference room full of male colleagues and a mock-up of bin Laden's fortress in Pakistan. "I'm the motherf----- that found this place," Maya tells the big boss.
"One line like that encapsulates everything you need to know about that character," said Sony's Pascal.
"It's the most quoted line of anything I've ever done," said Chastain. "It's an empowering moment. It's the first time Maya steps forward. In the scene before, an agent told her that everyone will try to take this from you. She's been shot at. All of these people are taking ownership. When Panetta shows up asking questions, and asks who are you, she answers, "I'm the motherf----- that found this place.' Panetta, in real life, has quite a mouth on him. It's a guarantee that Panetta will remember who she is. That line is so important because it changes the course of the rest of the film.
"Maya sees the world in absolutes. If someone's taking credit for her work, she's going to tell them," said Chastain, who learned a few life lessons from playing this role. Maya doesn't seem to care if she's liked. "I don't like fighting or anything uncomfortable, but I have found that playing that role, when something is not right, it's OK to say no. Playing that woman and walking in those shoes gave me the confidence to do that."
Would the film have worked if Maya had been male rather than female? Definitely. "Kathryn still would have made the film if it were about a man," said Chastain. ("The Hurt Locker" is a case in point.) "But for Kathryn it felt like a royal flush. She challenges ideas about gender roles in Hollywood when she allows her female character to be defined by her work."
But the empowerment of a female character is only one part of Bigelow's hunt to make a movie about the search for Osama bin Laden. "It's a political film," said Chastain. "The second it came out it pushed buttons. Torture was used. It's in Panetta's letter to John McCain. The film turns a mirror on our society. Bigelow forces you to look at our history and its moral implications and confront it and decide. You can't move on from anything until you confront it."
Sony's Pascal agreed: "I don't believe the movie strikes a raw nerve because of the women behind the scenes or in front of the camera. I think you hit a raw nerve any time you are dealing with controversial subject matter."
Watch Jessica Chastain speak to Yahoo! Movies about 'Zero Dark Thirty':