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The Tree of Life - Jessica Chastain interview

Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life

Compiled by Jack Foley

JESSICA Chastain lifts the lid on what it was like to be directed by ‘reclusive’ filmmaker Terrence Malick while making The Tree of Life and why Brad Pitt and Sean Penn made it easy for her.

She also talks about her career to date and reuniting with Malick a second time.

Q. The Tree of Life is a film that’s hard to sum up. How would you describe it?
Jessica Chastain: I don’t know if Terrence Malick would agree with me, but for me there is in all of his films this struggle between nature and grace. Even in The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven, even in Badlands and The New World, it’s like Grace, the spiritual world, versus the more primitive survival of the fittest – the mentality, I suppose, you see in the wild with animals; and are we separate from animals? I think our film is another question of that.

Q. In what way is it and how is your character a part of that?
Jessica Chastain: Well, I play a woman in the 1950s and I’m married to Brad Pitt’s character, and we represent nature and grace. So, my character is the embodiment of grace – put others before yourself, unselfish love, do unto others as you would have done to you – and he is every man for himself, if someone does something bad to you, you do something worse to them so they never mess with you again. It’s these two ways of living, and our children then have to decide which way they’re going to be.

Q. How did you prepare for the role?
Jessica Chastain: I had to cultivate a grace within myself, which meant a lot of meditating, a lot of reading about the spirit, a lot of watching old movies and looking at paintings of the Madonna, and listening to the way Lauren Bacall speaks, very slow and steady. Not like the way I speak at all.

Q. Terrence Malick is always written about as if he’s a recluse. What was he like?
Jessica Chastain: He’s not a recluse, he’s just reclusive to the press. It’s actually a beautiful way of living. He believes that everyone’s involved in making the film and he doesn’t want to take all the credit. That’s what I think it is, anyway, even though I believe he deserves all of the credit.

Q. So is he very accommodating?
Jessica Chastain: Yeah, in his personal life he’s always concerned about every single person on the set. I was talking to a PA and he said: “You know, Terry walked me home one day and on the way he said, ‘I just want to make sure you’re having a good time’.” That’s a beautiful thing, I think.

Q. And that’s how you found him to be?
Jessica Chastain: Yes. You know the movie about Tolstoy The Last Station that came out, where [James] McAvoy first meets Tolstoy and Tolstoy starts saying: “I’ve read your work. Tell me about yourself’?” He asks him all these questions and James McAvoy starts crying, and says: “I’m just shocked that you’re interested.” Well that’s Terrence Malick. He really wants to know about other people and he’s very generous.

Tree of Life

Q. How was working with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt?
Jessica Chastain: Oh it was fantastic. The wonderful thing about them is that they help you forget that they’re Sean Penn and Brad Pitt. For them the important thing is the story and the relationships in the story and the film. There was no big diva moment. I wish there was because it would be such an interesting story. I should make one up.

Q. Were you nervous when you saw the film for the first time, because people who have worked with Malick in the past – such as Adrien Brody on The Thin Red Line – have sometimes found they’re onscreen much less than they expected?
Jessica Chastain: I was a bit nervous. We made jokes a lot like: “I could be cut out…” But I was there every day for so long, and I had read the script and in the script this idea of nature and grace was very important, so I just thought: “I’m playing Grace!” I was nervous, but I think the nerves mostly came from the excitement.

Q. What’s your favourite line in The Tree of Life?
Jessica Chastain: It’s actually in the trailer: “Unless you love your life will pass by.”

Q. What does that mean to you?
Jessica Chastain: If you don’t fully take every moment and love every moment and every person that you’re with, your life will be over before you realise. You will have spent like 80 years of your life without living. To me it’s a beautiful thought.

Q. Is it true that Terrence kept calling you back to do more voice work after the completion of filming, three years ago?
Jessica Chastain: Yeah. I’d be on sets or even up at Thanksgiving with my family and I would get a call asking me to put some stuff on tape, which of course I was very happy to do, and I would get a FedEx with 30 pages. I would go into a sound booth with someone who had no idea who I was or what I was there for or what the movie was, and I would just whisper these lines. Most of it has not made the film, but I loved it.

Q. Do you prefer being on stage?
Jessica Chastain: It depends. I started on stage, so for me it’s what the character is. Two years ago I did Othello, I played Desdamona and Phillip Seymour Hoffman was Iago, in a theatre that was 1400 seats, and that actually made me realise I don’t prefer that, because in a theatre that big someone is so far away from you, it makes it more difficult to have honest reactions because you have to project. You can feel it, but you have to like show that you’re feeling it. I like just being in the moment and working with the same partner. I prefer small theatres when I’m doing theatre, but it’s all about the part. So, the part could be television, theatre, cinema.

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life

Q. Was there a scene in The Tree of Life that was particularly difficult?
Jessica Chastain: In a Terrence Malick movie you don’t film in scenes. There is a section of the film that deals with grief, so we spent about a week-solid shooting, which means that you shoot all day and the only break that you have is the two minutes to reload the camera. It’s not like: “This is the scene, beginning, end.” It’s more like: “Okay, this is what we want to convey. Here’s some lines. Let’s try it here, but it’s grief. Okay, now I’m going to give you more lines. Let’s try it outside.” So, it’s like a week and a half of those emotions, and that was challenging.

Q. You’ve done a second film with Terrence, The Burial, starring Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz. Who did you work with most on the film?
Jessica Chastain: All my scenes are with Ben Affleck, but I was only there for a few days and for me it was more of an opportunity to go and see the entire crew and Terry and visit the set. So, I don’t know whether I will be in that movie. Probably I won’t make the end of it. But for me that was more about the experience of being with everyone again.

Q. You’ve made 11 films in four years, but you’re still really at the start of your film career. How does it feel to have worked with one of contemporary cinema’s most respected filmmakers, at such an early stage?
Jessica Chastain: It’s a very strange feeling to have had possibly one of the greatest experiences of your life right at the beginning. Meeting him and making the movie [The Tree of Life], every day I felt like: “This is it, I’ve arrived. This is beyond anything I’d ever imagined!” And then I saw the movie and I was like: “Yes!” It just lived up to everything I had wanted. So, now it’s what do I do now?

(Interview by James Rose)

Read our review of The Tree of Life