Jessica Chastain: 'In Lawless, my character Maggie is always moving forward'

Jessica Chastain plays a burlesque dancer in Lawless

Born in California, Jessica Chastain trained at the Juilliard school in New York and made her name in theatre before her film career. In 2011, her performance in The Tree of Life brought widespread attention and since then she has been a striking presence in The Help, Take Shelter, The Debt and Coriolanus.

In Lawless, you play Maggie, a femme fatale, with a mysterious past. What attracted you to the role?

I love the relationship between Maggie and Forrest. Maggie is a woman who is very used to being around men – she was a burlesque dancer – and she's probably been hurt by a lot of men, physically and emotionally. When she shows up at this little town, she's an oddity for the brothers and especially Forrest. He's used to violence but not being around women. So she becomes almost the aggressor in the relationship, in the way she pursues him.

Director John Hillcoat suggested that Maggie was the strongest character in the film. Is that how you saw her?

I did see her as very strong. Nick Cave [who wrote the screenplay] suggested that I watch Once Upon a Time in the West to understand her better. There's a great line that Claudia Cardinale's character says after she sleeps with the man who killed her husband: "It's nothing that a hot bath won't wash away." And there's something of that attitude in Maggie. She doesn't drown in her sorrows. She's always moving forward. When she meets Forrest it's the first time she's not able to pick up her bag and walk away.

I've heard you do a lot of research into each role you take on. How did you research Maggie?

I read a lot about 1930s Chicago and watched films like Angels with Dirty Faces. I was lucky because I'd just worked on Texas Killing Fields, which Michael Mann produced. I knew he had just made Public Enemies so I sent him an email asking if he could recommend any books about the period. Within an hour I got a call saying: "We'd like to schedule an appointment for you to sit down with Michael Mann tomorrow," and when I showed up, he had binders of stuff from Public Enemies for me. That was helpful.

Your character walks into a very male environment in the film, and you must have had a similar experience when you arrived on set. How did you cope?

At first I was like, "This is amazing!" I love being around men – I love fake fighting and all that rough-house stuff – but after a while I really missed my girlfriends. The day [Lawless co-star] Mia Wasikowska arrived, I ran into the make-up trailer and yelled out: "It's a girl!" And I threw my arms around her, like, "Thank God you're here!"

At Cannes, people were comparing Tom Hardy to Marlon Brando and he seemed slightly embarrassed. What did you make of the comparison?

It is actually really embarrassing when those comparisons start to come forward. I think Tom will always be plagued by that. But I actually hope he's not the next Marlon Brando, because even though Brando was brilliant, he had a troubled life and I'm hoping that Tom won't. He has a beautiful fiancee and they're really happy together. He's able to play these troubled characters now and have a stable life.

You've worked with some huge stars, including Brad Pitt on The Tree of Life. Are you easily starstruck?

Yes. I love being around great actors and film-makers, and I try to hide the fact that I'm in awe of them. I try to pretend with Al Pacino or Helen Mirren that, you know, we're just part of the same team, we're all in this together, but really, secretly, the whole time my heart is beating very fast.

A couple of years ago you were unknown, and now you seem to be in every second film that comes out…

Last year was incredible. I had two films at most of the festivals, and then I had six movies released, and I made two more films. Yeah, I'm still in shock.

Has your life changed? Is it hard to walk down the street without being noticed?

It hasn't changed much and I think that's because I've been working. I was rehearsing Kathryn Bigelow's film [Zero Dark Thirty] in Jordan before the Oscars and then went straight back and filmed it. Now I'm filming in New York and I do notice the difference a bit: when I'm shooting a scene, outside there's paparazzi, which I've never experienced. For the most part, though, people don't know and don't care.


Interview by Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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