The furore over its torture scenes continues unabated, but Zero Dark Thirty star and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain is keeping a cool head amid all the hype and controversy. “We are at a very strange moment in the US,” she tells DONALD CLARKE
THE HOTEL room door opens and Jessica Chastain, barefoot in a sensible grey dress, is discovered curled up on the sofa. Of course, Jessica Chastain is here. She’s everywhere. The chances are that, as recently as three years ago, you had no idea who she was. Then, in 2011, she found herself cast in seven major pictures, almost all of which were worth seeing. The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Coriolanus, Take Shelter: it looked as if they were cloning the poor woman.
This week, she pops up in Kathryn Bigelow’s eye-wateringly controversial Zero Dark Thirty. That film currently sits at number two in the US box-office charts. The top-placed film is a supernatural shocker called Mama. That film also stars . . . Oh, you can see where this is going.
“I know!” she says in her endearing, enthusiastic voice. “I can’t believe it. The same thing happened last year with The Help and The Debt – movies driven by women. And they say women can’t open a film. Huh?”
Before considering the bends-inducing rise of this versatile, graceful Californian, we had better address the 500lb gorilla lurking in the room. When Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, opened in the US at the end of 2012, it received thumping reviews and was rapidly installed as a favourite for every award in the cabinet. Then whispers began. What do we make of the scenes that show CIA operatives torturing suspects?
Two linked objections came to the fore. On the right, politicians such as John McCain argued that “harsh techniques” such as waterboarding played no part in the eventual elimination of Osama Bin Laden. To the left, critics suggested that, by presenting the torture with no editorialising, Bigelow was implicitly endorsing the practice.
“This movie is based on first-hand accounts,” Chastain says. “Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the writer, researched it and it did happen. It’s all over the press. We are at a very strange moment in the US. A CIA agent is going to prison for three years for talking to a journalist about waterboarding. I was on Jon Stewart’s show recently and he said: ‘Oh, so we are allowed to waterboard. We’re just not allowed to talk about it.’ That’s a strange situation.”
So what about the notion that the film is endorsing torture. Chastain’s character, an obsessive CIA analyst named Maya, winces during the waterboarding. But she doesn’t object.
“In the US, you are not allowed to have characters with grey areas,” she says. “It happens all the time in European cinema. Kathryn and Mark didn’t write a scene where somebody says: ‘Oh this is wrong’ because they weren’t making a piece of propaganda.”
In a recent interview, Bigelow claimed that the controversy surprised her. It seemed like a naive comment from an Oscar-winning Hollywood veteran.
“We end the film with an unanswered question: ‘Where do you want to go?’ Do that and you ask the audience to think. Some will appropriate it. Before the film came out, the right were saying it’s a commercial for Obama. Now, because Kathryn left her own politics out, others are saying it’s pro-torture. That did really surprise her. That shocked her. She would never think that.”