Adams on Reel Women: Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain does John Wayne in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain in 'Zero Dark Thirty' (Photo: Columbia Pictures)
"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."