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Interview: Jessica Chastain of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

'No matter what she does, she will always be "The Girl" ...'

By James Rocchi Dec 24, 2012 12:36PM

In a robin's-egg blue shirt that compliments her eyes, Jessica Chastain is far removed from the camo-clad CIA analyst she plays in "Zero Dark Thirty." One of a series of exceptional performances in exceptional films, Ms. Chastain's performance as Maya is the heart of the film -- and also being touted as a frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar. We spoke with Chastain in New York about intelligence work, the films' subtext about her character and more.


MSN Movies:  The one thing I'm asking everyone, Miss Bigelow and Mr. Clarke, is this. This isn't a whodunnit; we know who done it. We know what happened. But to me it's a howdunnit, all of the stuff that went into this historical event. What was the one thing you learned from reading the script and making this film that you didn't know about the facts around the hunt for and the death of Osama bin Laden?


Jessica Chastain: Yeah, well, one of the major things is the character of Maya. I didn't know that there was a young girl who basically was at the lead of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. She found a piece of information, and she stayed on it for close to a decade even when her superior said, "No, no, no. You're wasting your time. Focus on something else." She really believed it. She gave herself up for her job. She became a servant to her work. And she found him. She found a compound and she followed it to the very end.


There's this interesting thing that's happening where in the film when you're all standing over the body and the one military person says, "Yes, it's Osama. The girl confirms it."


So glad you picked up on that.


BING: Jessica Chastain l 'Zero Dark Thirty' 

And Mr. Clarke referred to your character as "the girl," and you even just referred to her as "a young girl." I mean this is a woman. Is it nice to have a film that's a little bit about gender dynamics where it's not full of five-minute speeches and complaining about the glass ceiling in the CIA?


Yes. Exactly. It's really interesting you say that though because even at the end of everything she's done, at the end she's not referred to as, "Maya confirmed it." She's still "the girl." No matter what she does, she will always be "the girl." And I find that is very interesting you picked up on that. I think only Kathryn Bigelow could make this movie because working with Kathryn Bigelow you're not on the set thinking, "Oh, she's a woman."


"It's a woman's film."




You don't think that.


No. You just think she's an amazing filmmaker. So just like Maya, Maya's not taking the time to make a speech about the glass ceiling and the CIA because that's not where her focus is. Her focus is on finding Osama bin Laden. And it's a very Hollywood thing to do to be like, "Why didn't you take me seriously?" And the reason why Kathryn Bigelow is such a brilliant filmmaker is she doesn't focus on that. She just does her job expertly.


The other great thing about the film is that it's this weird combination of "Zodiac" and "The Battle of Algiers" and "Broadcast News" 'cause it's so about people at work and how intelligence has inter-office squabbling and resentments and people stealing office supplies. Did you like learning ... Is it nice or scary to learn that people in our intelligence agencies are fallible mortals like the rest of us?


Oh, you know what? I think I probably just assumed that they were fallible mortals. I think if you see the film and they're not, then that to me is a red flag -- "This is a Hollywood movie, this isn't a 'real' depiction of what it is."  Also the script reminded me so much of "All the President's Men." I'm very interested when journalism connects with this medium and we're able to look at a film and then also look at ourselves and the time mirrors each other.  


And also it's another film like "All the President's Men" that makes research and note-taking exciting and suspenseful.


Exactly, exactly -- but also too. what they were able to do with this character. I mean if you take the shot of her in the very first scene, Maya, and you take a shot of her in the very last scene she's like a different woman. But yet, everything is so specific on what the changes were. It had to be very detailed on her arc and her journey.  And as interesting as they made the note-taking and the interrogations, the human story, define the humanity in a character that is not allowed to be emotional and is supposed to be and is trained to be analytically precise, defining humanity within that was a great pleasure.


For more about "Zero Dark Thirty," see our video interview with the cast and crew:



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