Jessica Chastain: 'I won't put a picture of me in a bikini on social media ... I like to retain some mystery'
Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain delivers a commanding performance as a ruthless political lobbyist in Miss Sloane. She talks to Susan Griffin about gender politics and claiming her space in the world
Jessica Chastain appears to have enjoyed a flawless ascent to become one of the world's most sought-after actors.
"I feel lucky because there's not one film I felt I was forced to do," says the two-time Oscar nominee. However, she stresses it was a slow start.
"It just took forever because I couldn't get auditions. No one was really that interested and it was all rejection. Of course, facing so much rejection, being told I wasn't good enough for a part, that I wasn't pretty enough - I carried that within me and I behaved that way," adds the 40-year-old.
"It's not an industry that creates confidence; it's something you've really got to find within yourself."
And she has, with a raft of exceptional film projects, a reputation for calling out industry sexism and by dedicating herself to playing characters "that shatter any type of gender stereotype".
"I don't feel uber-confident," she says.
"I'm actually normally a very awkward girl and kind of shy and I'm not very social and so much has been going on. I'm talking about gender politics and the wage gap and women not asking for what they need."
Chastain recalls a talk given by Hollywood power player Amy Pascal, "where she said the reason women get paid less is because they don't ask for more. Because of that I now feel it's my responsibility not to be arrogant, but to claim my space in the world. I think all women need to learn that".
Her latest role is another powerhouse performance, this time as the formidable lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane in the movie Miss Sloane.
Directed by John Madden, the political thriller pulls back the curtain on the secretive and powerful lobbying industry, including the people pulling the strings behind America's decision-makers.
"I didn't know anything about lobbying before I read the script," admits Chastain, sitting with her legs curled beneath her on a sofa and looking flawless in dark trousers and a pale blue blouse.
"I was really surprised by all the underhand manipulation that happens in the American political system when trying to pass a bill or to kill a bill."
She now watches the news with an element of cynicism.
"When I look at protests and I see some ridiculous sign in the middle of the protest, which diminishes the whole message, I go, 'okay, that's a lobbyist-hired actor'," she says.
"When we were making Miss Sloane, I thought we were making a piece of fiction, I thought it was an exaggerated view of what can go on in American politics, and what's a bit crazy is now, every day, it's just exaggerated politics."
In preparation for the role, she read Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff ("an American lobbyist who was very successful and ended up in jail because he did some really cool things") and worked tirelessly to perfect the immense dialogue.
"I knew that it wasn't the kind of part where I could search for my lines," she explains. A lot of actors memorise in a way they can take these pauses, they can search for what they're saying next, but she (Sloane) doesn't search for anything."
Chastain visited Washington DC to meet with numerous female lobbyists.
"I would never have been able to create this character without the help of these women," says the actress, who also used her Hollywood agent as inspiration.
"There's a way Sloane presents herself that is unsexualised and very aggressive and intimidating.
"She wants to intimidate the men in the room and the way to throw them off is by not embracing her femininity, not dressing in a soft, delicate way.
"She intimidates them by the sound of her heels clicking on the marble floor before she enters the room and her black nails.
"That's something I got from the DC lobbyists."
Sloane's obsession with winning is what drew Chastain to the character.
"I've never really played an addict," she says. "And she is that, she's addicted to the win and her addiction fills up this emptiness within her. And that was exciting for me to explore."
Sloane's methods might be questionable, but Chastain doesn't judge her character.
"I feel sorry for her," she reveals, but "also I'm inspired by her, by her commitment to something."
The only similarity they share is "the dedication" to work, but "Sloane goes above and beyond what I do. I don't sacrifice my sense of privacy or my personal life; she just has nothing but her job".
Although Chastain is fiercely protective of her private life, she does embrace social media and doesn't find this difficult to balance.
"I love sharing things with my fans and social media is a fantastic platform to put positive things into the world," she says.
"I don't put anything out there that isn't already in the press. I'm not going to put a picture of myself in a bikini.
"I'm not going to put a picture of something people wouldn't normally see. I like to keep an air of mystery."
Born in Sacramento, California, Chastain studied drama at the Juilliard school in New York through a scholarship funded by the late Robin Williams. She graduated in 2003, but it wasn't until Al Pacino cast her in the 2006 stage production of Salome that her career took off.
"All of a sudden, the public agencies and the industry took notice and from then on I've been very fortunate," reveals Chastain, who began working on films that were all coincidentally released in 2011.
These included The Tree Of Life, opposite Brad Pitt, and The Help, which earned Chastain her first Oscar nomination.
Then in 2012, she appeared in the crime drama Lawless with Tom Hardy.
"There's nudity in it, but what I liked so much is the idea of the gender stereotype being shattered in the love story," she says. The character of Maggie is very aggressive with how she pursues the man, and he is the one who is more submissive, and I like that. I like anything that shifts people out of their expectations of what a woman is supposed to be."
It's a subject matter she's passionate about.
"It bothers me when someone looks at Zero Dark Thirty (which earned her a second Oscar nomination) or Miss Sloane and says, 'It's a great female character, but she's too masculine'. I want to ask people, 'What is masculinity and femininity today?'," says Chastain, who in recent years has appeared in Interstellar, The Martian and The Huntsman: Winter's War.
"In 2017, we're living in an age where gender lines are being blurred and it's important that each man defines what masculinity is to him and each woman defines what femininity is to her."
It's why she set up her production company Freckle Films.
"It's really exciting for me because I like the idea of creating opportunity for other people and advocating for female voices in the industry," she says.
"I'm using whatever platform I have to do what I can to offer opportunities to others."
Miss Sloane is in cinemas today