Jessica Chastain: ‘It was a very difficult upbringing’

The star of ‘The Help’ and now ‘Miss Sloane’ is taking on inequality in Hollywood and beyond

She replies to her fans on Facebook and Twitter. The first time she was nominated for an Oscar, for The Help, she took her granny. She loves animals so much that she's a vegan. She's "empathetic", "sensitive", and "generous" according to her invariably charmed interviewers. Even the late Joan Rivers could think of nothing scabrous to say about Jessica Chastain: "She's the nicest women in Hollywood," Rivers once cooed between comic takedowns of, well, everybody who isn't Jessica Chastain.

“Oh cool,” says Chastain, as she greets me in a central London hotel, before disappearing apologetically behind a napkin to giggle and snack on avocado. Then she leaps on to a couch, vegetarian stilettos and all, and leans in, with undivided attention.

If there is a male actor who has the same level of experience as myself and he's working the same amount of days, then we should be getting paid the same.

If she isn’t the nicest woman in Hollywood, she does an awfully good impression. “It’s not something I think about,” she says laughing. “But I did grow up with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. We did not have money. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating. It was a very difficult upbringing. Things weren’t easy for me growing up. . . Because of my mother, I do always try to think about how something must be for someone else. I’m not so interested in myself. I’m interested in other people.”

That interest has propelled Chastain to take on inequality in Hollywood and beyond. Last year, she launched two production companies: Freckle Films, which will specify in on-screen and off-screen diversity; and We Do It Together, a non-profit organisation dedicated to reversing the lack of substantial roles for females and the discrimination women face within the film industry. Its advisory board includes the actors Juliette Binoche, Queen Latifah, Freida Pinto and Zhang Ziyi and the directors Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), Amma Asante (Belle), and Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now).


Chastain notes the not-so-magic numbers: "Seven per cent. That's how many film were directed by women in America last year. I seek out female directors. I try to work with one at least once a year. It gets tough during a year like this when I'm not actually going to do that many films. So I might look to work with someone on a short film. But it's very important for me to do whatever I can to help someone gain the experience they need to get bigger jobs. I just worked with Niko Caro on The Zookeeper's Wife. She's an incredible film-maker. And now she's directing $100 million movie for Disney [a live action version of Mulan]. Not because of me, obviously. But because The Zookeeper's Wife put a spotlight on her

Last month, in an interview with Variety, the two-time Oscar-nominee revealed how she turned down a major role having been offered a fraction of what her male counterpart would earn. She didn't name names but recent history records that she was approached by Marvel Studios to play Maya Hansen in Iron Man 3. The role ultimately went to Rebecca Hall, and was controversially cut down because, as director Shane Black told this newspaper: "Female toys don't sell as well."

“The thing I turned down,” she nods. “It wasn’t even a situation where I was asking for equal pay to what the male actor was getting, because he was very famous. But I knew that what I was being offered wasn’t. . .”

She pauses diplomatically: “It wasn’t appropriate, considering the amount of days they were asking me to work. And the size of the project. This is not a shocking or unreasonable thing. If there is a male actor who has the same level of experience as myself and he’s working the same amount of days, then we should be getting paid the same. Of course I understand that if I’m working opposite Leonardo DiCaprio then he will be making more money than me. And that’s fair; he has a lot more experience than I do. However, I’m no longer going to accept a situation where I am being paid a quarter of what my male co-star is being paid.”

80 per cent of single parent households are taken care of by the mother. So as far as I'm concerned women don't need to be taught about responsibility

Chastain was the first woman in her family to go to college, and the first who didn’t have a child while still in her teens or early 20s. She is, accordingly, a passionate campaigner for access to affordable reproductive health care for women, and, in particular, for the organisation, Planned Parenthood. Just hours before we meet in London, the House of Representatives in the US has passed the American Health Care Act, a move that leaves Planned Parenthood and the five million men, women and adolescents who require the organisation’s services at risk.

"We are still going to go to the Senate; this is not just a done deal for us," she says. "It's a tough time right now. I do feel like there is a push back. I mean, there has always been a war on women in terms of healthcare. There is a representative in Texas – and this made me so cross – who argued that if abortion was made illegal that it would teach women to be more responsible. Now 80 per cent of single parent households are taken care of by the mother. So as far as I'm concerned women don't need to be taught about responsibility. They are the ones who stick around and raise the children. I think if anything, perhaps gentlemen need to be taught to be more responsible. And perhaps gentlemen also need to stop talking about what women need, or what they should do with their bodies."

She smiles: “It is a very frustrating time, but I’m excited to be alive today. We all have a common adversary.”

Last March, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, two of the people who, in 2015, faked videos accusing Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue and "baby parts", were indicted on 15 counts. Their efforts, though entirely discredited, continue to influence the debate about federal funding.

I like playing women that are complicated and ruthless. You see men play those kinds of characters all the time. So it's about time women started playing those parts

“Completely faked,” says Chastain. “An absolute lie. I think we need to pass a law that targets those who knowingly create false news. I guess we’ll have to start right at the top.”

It's interesting to see the ethical Chastain playing the mostly unethical Elizabeth Sloane. The titular anti-heroine of her new film – the enjoyable, twisty political thriller Miss Sloane – is a DC lobbyist, a woman whose personal code is elastic enough to allow her to "rep for Indonesia", but who appears to find a conscience when she is asked to oppose a bill that imposes regulations on firearms.

“I like playing women that are complicated and ruthless,” says Chastain. “You see men play those kinds of characters all the time. So it’s about time women started playing those parts.”

Typically for Chastain, she helped fashion Sloane’s aesthetic with a power wardrobe and darkened auburn hair. There was homework on the Hill, too.

“I went to DC and met with about a dozen female lobbyists,” Chastain says. “We did have a lobbyist firm attached as to the film as consultants. But they were all men. For me – if I’m playing a woman who is incredibly successful working within a male-dominated industry – I needed to talk to someone with that experience. So I just started googling. And I found the women I wanted to meet with. . . I don’t know how I would have prepared the role without that weekend I spent with them in DC.”

Chastain grew up in Sacramento, northern California, where she struggled at school and was apt to ditch class so that she might read Shakespeare in peace. “You know people become what you tell them they are. And at high school and middle school, for the longest time, I was just led to believe that I wasn’t smart; that I was a troubled kid; that I was annoying to teach. I was imaginative, I was creative. So I wasn’t focused the way they wanted me to be. They wanted to stomp the artist out of me. And once I got to Julliard, and was taking philosophy and humanities, I loved it and I was excelling. And for the first time I thought: ‘Oh wait, actually I’m not dumb.’ ”

Post-college, Chastain relocated to Los Angeles and began chalking up screen credits in Veronica Mars and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. A career as a respectable working actor seemed assured. And then Al Pacino cast her in a 2006 production of Salome. All bets were off.

"I love Oscar Wilde, " she says. "He started my whole career. Al Pacino and Oscar Wilde. Little did he know when he wrote Salome."

Within two years, she was Hollywood's hottest ticket. In 2011, she appeared in no fewer than six films, including Ralph Fiennes' Corialanus, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and the box office smash, The Help. Her subsequent career has juggled awards contenders (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year), hits (Madagascar 3, Interstellar, The Martian) and arthouse, including Liv Ullman's 2014 version of Miss Julie, shot in Enniskillen.

“I love the people there,” says Chastain. “And I bought so much incredible crystal. But the weather? In winter? Holy smokes, it’s cold.”

Chastain is a visible presence on red carpets, award ceremonies and such fashionable shindigs as the Met Ball. Yet she remains a fiercely private person. She has been in a relationship with the Italian noble Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo for years, but often turns up to public events alone, and is far more likely to discuss her rescue dog, Chaplin, than her other relationships.

“I think it takes some restraint,” she says. “But I believe any one of us actors has the ability to stay out of the spotlight. You have to be careful about who you decide to date. Because if you date another actor or famous person that is going to multiply the attention on you. You have to be careful where you choose to eat lunch when you’re not working. If you go to the restaurant that’s the big new restaurant that all the paparazzi are at, then you are going to get photographed. There are people I know who encourage that.

“I had a lot of time when I wasn’t in the industry and I got to watch it from the outside. And what I noticed was the actors that would allow me to fall completely into a movie were actors I didn’t know much about. I knew I wanted that for me. They put their private lives on display, and it creates a lot of attention. I have no judgment about that. But it’s not for me.”

She doesn’t name names. She’s far too nice for that.

Miss Sloane is on general release