Reporting Eric Henderson
cin·e·phile (sɪn-əˌ-faɪl) n. A film or movie enthusiast.
I realize I’ve used the word above often enough on this blog without ever defining it that I should probably redress the oversight. A slightly more fanatical definition of the word would say something like:
cin·e·phile (sɪn-əˌ-faɪl) n. Someone who flat out lives inside The Movies.
And, if that’s accepted as a secondary definition, then actress Jessica Chastain certainly qualifies for the designation. I met up with her downtown Minneapolis the morning after her Wednesday night appearance at the Walker Art Center for the local premiere of her new movie The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s absolutely spellbinding Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival.
Chastain was in great spirits despite having just learned that she would need to undergo surgery for a leg injury she sustained on the water. We talked a bit about how the Walker premiere went (it was so packed, staffers had to set out folding chairs to accommodate everyone), what it was like to work on a movie whose form is so, well, non-traditional (I am hard-pressed to say there was a single “scene” in the entire film), and who she’d like to work with in the future.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Q: I fell into the “love it” camp. It’s one of my favorite movies so far this year, but I feel like the movie’s reaction has been a little bit polarizing? Have you gotten that sense?
Chastain: Most people don’t talk with me about the “not like” camp. (Laughs) But to me, my favorite films are the ones that are polarizing. So it actually couldn’t make me happier. I think it’s a film that asks more questions than it answers, and it creates a lot of discussion. And to be a part of a film that makes people want to talk about it is really exciting to me.
Q: Yes, I don’t mean to denigrate it by saying there is a “hate it” camp. Both reactions are passionate.
Chastain: Right. And if it was just something that everyone just wholeheartedly loved, sometimes I wonder if those films stand the test of time. Usually it’s the ones that are polarizing that, 30 years later, people are still talking about.
Q: Or fighting about.
Chastain: Exactly. Maybe they’re just ahead of their time.
Q: What was it like working with Terrence Malick? Did you have a sense of how it was all going to come together? Were you worried your part would end up like Adrian Brody’s in The Thin Red Line? [Note: Malick is known for drastically changing the course of his films in the editing room. Brody's almost entirely deleted role in Line is one example of someone being involved in the shooting of a Malick movie and then, mysteriously, being absent from the final product.]
Chastain: I always had a sense of the film. I think the Brody situation was a little different. What I’ve been told is that there were so many actors there with their own story lines that, of course, it couldn’t be put into a two-hour film. When we were making The Tree of Life, when I was reading the script, it was definitely focused on this family. Grace and nature, and I play “grace.” You can’t have nature without grace, so I really didn’t have that fear about it.
Q: How was it like when you were approached with the project?
Chastain: When I first heard he was casting, I was beyond happy to go in for it. He wasn’t at the first audition, but Nicolas Gonda (Malick’s producer) was. There was a lot of behavior for me to do, not really scenes. It was like “put a baby to sleep,” “look at someone with love and respect,” “sing a lullabye to a child.” Really simple kind of being, not acting. … There were some lines from a Eugene O’Neill play just to hear my voice. And then I got a call a couple days later to see if I would like to meet with Terrence Malick, which was like, “YES!”
Q: So you were a fan of his before this, then?
Chastain: Oh yes, a huge fan. Even after I had my first audition with him, I thought, it doesn’t even matter if I get the part. I mean, I’d love the part, but at the end of the day I’ll be able to say I got to work with Terrence Malick. And not very many people can say that.
Q: True, though he’s been, by his standards, pretty prolific lately. He’s got another one in post now, right?
Chastain: Right, with Ben Affleck and Olga (Kurylenko) and Rachel (Weisz). They’re still editing that one, I believe.
Q: The editing process with Malick can last awhile, though, right? When did you finish shooting Tree of Life?
Chastain: We made this film three years ago. When you see it, it’s so large. I think for me, I think it changes the language of cinema, because it’s just snippets of memory that become this one man’s life. Usually, in the past whenever you’ve seen a movie about someone’s life or their childhood, you see complete scenes — beginning, middle and end. I find that when I think of myself at 10, I don’t think of memories as that. I think of the way my mom laughed or my sister and I running through the yard in the sprinkler. Good memories like that. I think Terry is one of the first to really explore that.
Q: That’s a good point. I can’t remember a single full “scene” from my childhood either. My earliest memory is simply of a red tassel hanging from a lantern in a Chinese restaurant. I think this movie captures moments like that.
Chastain: Or, I love in the beginning of the film as Jack’s growing up and you have, for a second, a mime. It’s something that happens that’s immediately planted into your memory.
Q: This isn’t the only movie that you were connected with at Cannes. [Note: Chastain also appeared with Michael Shannon in the apocalyptic Take Shelter, which won the Critics Week Grand Prize.] What was it like being in two movies that were awarded at Cannes?
Chastain: Oh my gosh. I’ve always been such a huge fan of the festival, a crazy stalker of the fest. I look at the movies they support and know they’re going to be movies I love. I’m a huge fan of Michael Haneke. And, of course, Isabelle Huppert is my acting goddess. To hear that Tree of Life was going to Cannes, and then I found out Take Shelter was going as well … and then also I have another film I was in called The Wettest County in the World that there was a bidding war over at Cannes. Harvey Weinstein ended up buying it. (It’s a John Hillcoat film I did with Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy. It’s a great film.) And then to hear both Tree of Life and Take Shelter won prizes! … Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that. I was so excited for (Take Shelter director) Jeff Nichols because this was his second feature and I think he should be discovered by everyone.
Q: So beside Michael Haneke, who are some of the other director’s you’d love to work with? I mean, you’ve now been in a Terrence Malick movie. You have your choice, right?
Chastain: I wish I had my choice! (Laughs) But working with Terry does open doors because he’s so beloved in the film community. It’s why I got to work with John Madden and John Hillcoat. Of course, I’d love to work with Olivier Assayas. I think he’s fantastic.
Q: And really great with female actors!
Chastain: All actors, especially after seeing Edgar Ramirez in Carlos. Of course I’d like to work with Scorsese and Woody Allen. Especially with Woody Allen, you never know how many more he can do. I missed the chance to work with Anthony Minghella and Robert Altman, so I’d love to work with as many visionaries as I can.
Q: How about Lars Von Trier? [Note: While Tree of Life was making off with the top prize at Cannes, Von Trier was snatching the headlines by calling himself a Nazi at his press conference for Melancholia. Star Kirsten Dunst was awarded the fest's Best Actress prize, just as Von Trier's previous stars Bjork and Charlotte Gainsbourg previously did.]
Chastain: Breaking the Waves is one of my favorite movies! I saw it when I was a girl and it was so inspiring. (Laughs) It’s funny because I was very young when I saw it.
Q: Too young, maybe!
Chastain: But I was like, “This is what I want to do! This is why I want to be an actor.”