Jessica Chastain, star of Terrence Malick’s uber experimental film The Tree of Life, visited Austin earlier this week to attend a cast and crew screening of the film at the famed Paramount Theatre. She took some time to talk to me about her role in The Tree of Life and answer some questions.
Chastain plays the gentle mother of three boys in 1950s America, and the wife of Brad Pitt’s abusive father character. Though her role was light in dialogue, Chastain did an amazing job as the embodiment of grace and love. Her subtle performance and soft emotional presence was all the more impressive given her character‘s reticence.
We Got This Covered: Given how much you had to communicate and emote without much dialogue, how did you approach/prepare for this role?
Jessica Chastain: Well, it was about cultivating grace and spirituality, so I spent a lot of time studying paintings of the Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I watched a lot of Lauren Bacall films from the beginning of her career, and I read a lot about cultivating joy.
I read the Thomas A. Kempis poem about the nature of grace…uhhm yeah, that’s how I started. And then I realized how important the relationship with her children was to the character so two weeks before we started shooting I just went and hung out with them (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan).
WGTC: How was it working opposite Brad Pitt?
JC: Well, it’s a different kind of relationship in the film because his character is more closed-off emotionally, and the mother is constantly trying to reach out to him and trying to get him to open up, so for us to have spent time bonding would have been, I think, a disservice. But it was great working with him because he could play the character and then immediately turn off. As soon as the camera stopped he’d be funny, charming, regular Brad.
WGTC: And was that scene difficult when he got physically abusive and grabbed you?
JC: You know, it’s always a little scary when you’re in scenes like that. But it was completely spontaneous and emotional and honest, and we didn’t know it was going to happen. So it’s wonderful when you’re working with an actor who’s open to being in the moment and having that experience, because then exciting things like that can happen.
WGTC: Did Terrence know that was going to happen?
JC: No one knew! But maybe he knew (laughs), maybe he created a situation where we all….an environment where it would happen. But it surprised all of us.
WGTC: Was Terrence Malick as experimental a director as he is a filmmaker?
JC: Well I guess you could say experimental in that it’s about not having a plan, and it’s about creating a space for accidents to happen. Because that’s far more interesting than, I think, if you try to control of force something.
WGTC: Did he ask things of you as an actress that maybe other directors haven’t because his style in this film was so experimental and avant-garde?
JC: Well he asked me and it’s really a leap of faith to be honest. Because you have to trust that you don’t really know how things are going to turn out, how it’s going to look, and you have to trust the director will help you not look silly or foolish. And I was such a fan of Terrence Malick, and I just thought at the end of the day that he’s never made a bad film, so I was in very good hands!
WGTC: Were you aware of the grand scope of the film when you were shooting your scenes? I mean the beginnings of the universe, the philosophical elements, etc?
JC: Yeah, there was a script for it that I got, after I got the part. And the film is actually the story that was written down, so I was aware of the scope of it.
WGTC: What was your favorite scene? And what was your favorite scene to shoot?
JC: My favorite seen to shoot was the scene where I was dancing in the air. Because for me it’s such a great example of what it’s like to work on one of his (Malick’s) films, because it’s not…I mean we went to go film something else, we were going to film a scene of my feet walking on the ground and being lifted up, but it wasn’t working and we were losing the light, and I was in the harness and I was so happy to be swinging around. I used to be a dancer so I kind of started dancing and then we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s it!‘ And we had it in a couple minutes. That’s my favorite thing when I see it!
WGTC: What was your biggest challenge?
JC: For me the biggest challenge was just letting go of any expectations of what I imagined the day would bring, and to just be open to what the day brought.
That concludes our interview but I’d like to thank Jessica Chastain very much for her time and be sure to check out my review of The Tree of Life.