“Zero Dark Thirty” was going to be a divisive movie if only because of its subject matter, but one aspect of the film can definitely be agreed upon: Jessica Chastain gives a fantastic turn as main character Maya. She’s almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and already earned herself a Golden Globe nod, and it would be a surprise if she didn’t walk away with both wins.
Even if she doesn’t take home any major awards, Chastain’s Maya is still one of the most interesting characters to be introduced this past year. Based on the CIA operative who led the team that killed Osama bin Laden — and deliverer of one of the best lines of the year — Chastain didn’t have an easy job bringing Maya to life.
“I had three months before we started shooting that I went to ‘school’ for it I guess,” she reveals. “I nicknamed [screenwriter] Mark [Boal] ‘The Professor,’ and I’d sit with him and go through the screenplay and ask a lot of questions about the character I was playing, about the CIA. I did some reading. Two books I found particularly helpful were ‘The Looming Towers’ and Michael Scheuer’s book on Osama bin Laden.”
Chastain continues, “Because I was never able to meet the real woman it’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions. Instead of going, ‘Okay, Jessica Chastain as a CIA agent and this is what I would do,’ I tried to answer why she was recruited out of school.”
There are certain elements of the film that Chastain had to set up herself to try to explain Maya to the audience. Items like a child’s drawing in her Pakistan office or American candy lying around were meant to be seen as things that were tying Maya back to reality. “Certain things that would be a reminder of the life she was becoming a stranger to, I had to create on my own, but still stay truthful to the woman I’m portraying,” Chastain explains.
The most difficult part for her in creating Maya actually came as a result of Boal’s script. Because Maya rarely outright explains her actions and emotions, Chastain had to have the tiniest physical details about her give away why her character was acting in a certain way.
“There is a very definite arc for Maya, but the wonderful thing about her and actually the most difficult thing about her as an actor to play is she’s someone who does not explain her subtext,” Chastain explains. “She doesn’t take the time to say how she feels. She doesn’t like sit down and have a drink with someone and talk about her feelings. I mean, she’s so haunted by this mission.”
“A lot of the arc had to almost be mapped out before we even started shooting, so much so that I found chapters in the script that were marked by different … for her when something might change,” she continues. “Is she brushing her hair? What kind of effort is she putting in when we see her, so we understand something about her before she even opens her mouth. So much of Maya is told without her explaining it.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow adds, “It’s a real testament to [Chastain’s] talent that she could do that.”
Unlike Bigelow’s last movie to be honored by the Academy Awards, “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty” has a female at the center of its plot. Though she says that wasn’t the only reason she was intrigued by the story, Bigelow explains it was an added bonus.
“I think what’s important to me is that this was a very strong character at the center of this hunt, and that the movie doesn’t engage necessarily in gender politics about this character,” she says. “I mean, she is not defined by man, she is not defined by a love interest, she’s defined by her actions, and I think that’s a character that’s very inspiring and is beautifully played by Jessica.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” is out in limited release and expands to a wide release on January 11.