In part two of our interviews on the set of Mama (read part one here), producer Guillermo del Toro is joined by the charismatic star of the show, Jessica Chastain. After our interview, Jessica took us to her trailer to show us how she had decorated with punk posters to get into characters. Of course, I was too distracted by her playful three-legged puppy Chaplin to pay too much attention to the sparse trailer. So here is the interview.
Jessica, what has it been like working with Andy, a new director, and of course Guillermo? Did Guillermo’s name help convince you to sign on for this project?
Jessica Chastain: Well of course. I’ve been such a huge fan of Guillermo’s and he’s one of the first people I met when I came onto this project. I had knee problems. I came in to the meeting in crutches and was like “They won’t want me after he sees me in crutches…”
Del Toro: A broken leg. I said, “I will break the other one if you don’t do it.” [Laughs]
Chastain: And then I met with Andy and Barbara and I was really impressed with his ideas and how creative he was and how emotional he wanted the story to be and how important relationships in this story were to him. I always get a feeling about something. I really just go on instinct and I loved the story. I think the script is really well written and of course I love Guillermo and I have a feeling about Andy and working with him, he’s been great. He is so collaborative, so inventive, and just good energy on the set. He’s a kind person.
Can you tell us a little bit about your character, Annabel?
Chastain: You weren’t expecting me like this? (Laughs) Did you know it was me when I walked in?
Chastain: Yeah, it’s really cool, right? It’s a fun look. I love working with kids. Sometimes I like working with kids and animals more than adults, because they are so surprising and really playful and inventive and this was another opportunity to work with kids, but in a different kind of relationship. Annabel is a woman who, when the film starts, she is someone who never ever imagined she would ever, ever be around children. It’s not something she wants in her life at all and she becomes, I guess, the unwilling protector of these girls and by the end she kind of grows up. It’s like Andy said to me in our first meeting, he said “She becomes a hero of people.”
Who is she? This is a character who isn’t in the short film, so what does she do?
Chastain: Well she plays bass guitar in a punk band and she lives with her boyfriend who is an illustrator. The way I’m approaching her, she’s this woman who doesn’t really ever want to grow up. She never really has any responsibilities. She probably sees herself like an octopus [referencing one of her many fake tattoos] when the tentacles get caught then they detach and then they grow back. She’s very anti-responsibility. I don’t know what to say without giving away much of the story, she is just stuck. She ends up stuck with these children that she doesn’t want in her life and it’s a complicated relationship, because the children are stuck with something else.
You are wearing a Purple Misfits shirt, which is like a milestone of punk rock, is there any kind of music that you are kind of listening to to get in the headspace of the character?
Chastain: Yes, I’m listening a lot to the Ramones and… God, I’ve got my trailer decorated with lots of posters. I can take you guys if you guys want to come see my trailer in a bit. Of course in my free time I do listen to a lot of that kind of music. It’s an experiment and we will see if it works, someone told me that Johnny Depp listens to music on an iPod when he’s acting. In this genre, music is so important that I asked Andy if on some of the tests that they had put together where there was music, if they could feed it into my ear when we are doing some of those scenes and that has been so helpful. They have this lullaby that they’ve worked on that is so terrifying and it just plays on repeat. No one knows that I have it.
Del Toro: Now they do. [Laughs]
Jessica, what’s your background as a fan of supernatural thrillers or ghost stories or horror films?
Chastain: I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever. I even just got goose bumps when you talked about that, because I’m thinking of horror films…
Del Toro: [Laughs] You were thinking of going to the trailer with him, like “Holy shit, what did I do?”
Chastain: [Laughs] You know, this is going to sound silly, because you’re right here, but I love The Orphanage so much and I love the elements of fantasy that are sometimes in those stories. I love Pan’s Labyrinth and I really, really like The Ring. I never thought, as an audience member, “I’m going to grow up and be a horror film actress,” like that was never a goal of mine, I just wanted to be an actress that had the opportunity to try everything and learn as much as I could. But man, I remember when I was really, really young watching The Exorcist with my mom and my sister downstairs and it was so intense for me watching that film. I remember like halfway through I was like “Okay, can I turn it off?” My mom was like “No, you could just go upstairs.” Then the feeling of walking up the stairs… So I try to pull that feeling… Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door, it’s like me, ten years old, walking up the stairs. I really love it. When I first met with Guillermo, he was talking to me about the different style of acting like the great actress from The Orphanage. What was her name?
Del Toro: Belen Rueda.
Chastain: It’s just this level of intensity that you really have to sustain, almost to where your muscles hurt after, because of the tension. That really excited me to think “This is an opportunity to learn how to do it or see if I can do it.”
Del Toro: And there’s a great tradition of actresses… I mean let’s say it’s not the norm. You can have just a scream queen or you can have a sexy actress in a horror movie, but there is also a very beautiful rarified layer of great actresses that find their best part in the genre like Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn… Belen for me is a fantastic actress for the genre and everything else. Naomi Watts… Nicole Kidman in The Others. It’s seldom thought about like that and I think when it’s done right and for the right reasons, on Mama there’s a good chance it may come that way.
Chastain: I was really surprised when the script was first introduced to me, because I thought, “I am so not the expected choice” and even that gave me more faith: “Well that’s really interesting. If you think I might bring something to this part…” Because I’m also used to watching a lot of horror films where there’s the girl in the tank top in the rain and crying… So I thought this would be really interesting.
After the year you’ve had, you are probably being inundated with scripts. How do you go about choosing your projects? Does it have to scare you?
Chastain: Oh absolutely. It has to be something where I think “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull this off.” When I have that feeling in me, then it puts the element of horror in me already and I have to try to rise to the occasion. I find with anything in my life when you are rising to the occasion, even if you don’t quite get there, you are going beyond yourself somewhat. This is a very vulnerable time for me to be talking to you guys right now, because this is just the third week we’ve been shooting. I feel like I’m starting to find my feet and get into the groove of it, but it’s a completely different way of working. The scenes are so short and I’ve never worked like that before, but when I have great teachers and people watching my back like I have on this team then it gives me more confidence that it’s going okay.
Who’s responsible for the partial sleeve, the octopus tattoo?
Chastain: I think Andy. Andy is very creative.
Del Toro: He’s a great illustrator.
Chastain: Yeah, he’s an amazing. He actually does all of the storyboards.
Del Toro: He did a mural.
Chastain: Yes, in his office. When I first got here I went to his office and there was this beautiful… He just draws on the walls. I came in one day and I found out he had stayed up until like 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning drawing the storyboards, so he has his hand in everything. We just started filming in the girls’ room and Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau, who plays Lucas, an illustrator] said, “I feel like I would have done something for the girls,” so then Andy’s there. It’s great. He really feels like a renaissance man, You feel like with this whole team, everyone is good at more than one thing.
How physical is your role in this one?
Chastain: It’s not as physical as The Debt. I don’t do krav maga on any monsters.
Del Toro: Although wrestling the girls to the ground…
Chastain: [Laughs] We do have this amazing girl who plays Lily who is a firecracker. She is…
Del Toro: Tough to put down. [Laughs]
Chastain: There was a scene where we were wrestling and I actually said to her, “It’s okay, she can hit me in the face.” So you know, you normally have to talk the girl into…
Del Toro: And then she goes, bam!
Chastain: Like immediately and I’m like just trying to pin her. I did fine though in that very first take and Andy was laughing, because he comes over to me afterwards and he goes “Could you let her fight a little more?” After she hit me I put her in an elbow lock and I krav maga-ed her arm and she’s just looking at me like “What…?”
Del Toro: That scene is one of the most beautiful ones in the movie, because of how they react to each other. She is just trying to calm her down; it is fantastic. I found it very moving.
You were saying that this is not like anything you’ve worked on before, but it seems like you’ve worked on so many different kinds of movies. I’m curious, is it the horror that makes this different? What is so different?
Chastain: Well the character is different and I think it’s easy for me to bond with children. I just love kids, so to play a woman who really doesn’t know even how to touch a kid... she doesn’t want anything to do with them. That’s different, the character, but then definitely the genre [is different.] For example, Take Shelter, we shot that movie so quick and sometimes we’d have three takes for one scene with tons of dialogue, so I’d come to set and it would be Mike Shannon and I talking about the structure of the scene and where we had to go, like a play. This is different in that it’s like “Okay, all we are getting right now is me walking to the closet and opening the door.” So it’s a different way of working; as soon as it starts you have to be ready, you have to be where it is in that short moment and so that is really exciting and interesting thing for me to tackle, because it’s unlike anything I’ve done.
Del Toro: It seems like you and the ghost are both protecting the children, but are sort of at odds with each other. How do you get to the point where you are giving empathy to something that you are so scared of? Does that happen?
Chastain: You know it’s funny, because we haven’t really shot the scenes with me and the ghost yet and I don’t know how much you guys know, so part of me is like “What am I allowed to say?” It’s an interesting dynamic, because another really cool thing I remember Guillermo said to me the first time we met was, you know the idea of a ghost is that if they are in an extreme state when they die, they stay in that state. So if this woman was in a state of protecting a child or being like this maternal thing, that is the ghost she is, so if anything threatens her connection to what she feels is her children, that will always be there. It’s not like I think Annabel is fighting because she wants to be like the best mom, I think it’s just that she becomes a threat, because in any way that the children start to connect with Annabel who’s actually alive and warm, then it pulls them away from her, so it becomes like that dynamic, but we haven’t shot yet.
You guys know Javier is playing Mama? He is amazing. I saw him in his outfit and he is just… physically, what he can do is beyond and we have one scene where I look in a mirror and I catch a glimpse of him and that’s all we shot. It’s like two seconds together and it’s so… it really makes your skin hurt.
As a self-professed scaredy cat, are you concerned about your scenes with Mama eventually? Are you going to be terrified on set?
Chastain: Well I have to be, so yeah. I’ve gotten a bunch of scary films that I’ve put in my trailer and I’ve taken a lot of them home and if I have half an hour, I’ll just put it on for the sound and the atmosphere.” I’ve been able to do that here, but then when I get home... I’ve tried so many times to watch [REC], it’s just not going to happen.
Del Toro: That’s a great movie. Javier is in it.
Chastain: I know, that’s why I know.
Del Toro: And when he shows up you crap. [Laughs] You know what’s really funny is, at its base level, I believe that horror came from fairytales. At the most metaphorical level, the movie is a mother wrestling with a motherly instinct in order to grow. I told Andy, “This is so fabulous for me. Literally you are making a serious struggle that she is going through. If ultimately that’s the story of her making peace with or not, maternity… we are going to have her wrestling with the epitome of motherly instinct, which is great.”
What’s your relationship with Andy as a first time director and working with Barbara, his sister, as a tag team?
Chastain: It’s great. It was so moving actually to meet them, because family is really important to me and I just see a lot of sacrifices that they both have made and they are a really good team that supports each other.
Del Toro: They are like the dream brother and sister. My brother used to beat the shit out of me. [Laughs]
Chastain: We were talking about Halloween costumes and what we are going to be and everyone was getting ready and she says, “We are doing the brother and sister theme.” I said, “Great.” She goes, “I’m going to be Luke Skywalker and Andy is going to be Princess Leia.” Andy had no idea.