When she was about to turn 40, in 2016, Jessica Chastain founded her production company, Freckle Films. She did not decide to finance her own projects just to secure the roles that Hollywood might not offer her anymore because of her age. For one of those roles, she won her only Oscar so far (she’s been nominated three times), the best leading actress Academy Award for The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021). In it, she plays the controversial televangelist and LGBTQ rights activist who died in 2007. “I bought the rights to make that film 10 years before releasing it, but I couldn’t shoot it until I became a producer. Tammy Faye was merely a villain in the eyes of the public. It was not possible to tell her story without humiliating or condemning her,” Chastain tells EL PAÍS from Marrakesh, where she traveled to serve as chair of the jury for the city’s film festival.
When she was a juror at Cannes in 2017, she took advantage of the final press conference to criticize the lack of female perspectives in the selection of that year’s French competition. Chastain is one of the members of the Time’s Up platform, which was created in support of the MeToo movement. In April 2018 she took a stand against the ruling in the La Manada rape case in Pamplona, Spain, on her social media pages. She also met with Volodymir Zelenski in Kiev six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.
“Hollywood has never questioned power and created a climate conducive to it. I try to think of a movie from a major studio that has done that, and I can [only] think of very few,” she notes. Chastain cites Coming Home, the 1978 Hal Ashby-directed drama set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. “The exceptions that come to mind were released in the 1970s and 1990s, just after big strikes in Hollywood. So maybe more will come out in the next few years,” she says.
From her position as chair of the jury at the Marrakesh festival, the actress has spent a week questioning the industry in which she reigns supreme, the same industry that recently punished women like Susan Sarandon, Melissa Barrera and Maha Dakhil (the CAA agent who represents stars like Tom Cruise) for taking a stand in favor of Palestine in the midst of the war between Israel and Hamas. Carefully measuring her words, without pointing to a specific conflict, Chastain made her position clear at last weekend’s opening ceremony. In it, she appealed for an art “that speaks truth to power” in the face of today’s “broken and divided” world. “Film can influence social behaviors, beginning with breaking down barriers and starting important conversations about difficult issues like racial justice, gender inequality and other important cultural issues,” Chastain argued.
Chastain grew up as the daughter of a single mother in 1980s California. She has often said that her lack of financial means when she was young gave her a braver outlook, making her unafraid of losing some of her privilege. Does she consider herself a political animal? “I don’t know if I am, but I do know that I have always been interested in people. All kinds of people. I grew up in a complicated context. And I’ve always felt the need to question a single way of thinking. If I’m constantly given the same message, I’m interested in exploring other points of view,” she says, days after delivering her speech. Working with Mexican director Michel Franco on Memory has informed her search for truth in film. “The best artists are the ones who accept that others question their ideas,” she says.
“I just don’t get the idea of staying quiet to keep working. There may be directors who no longer want to work with me, or people with certain cultures, or people from certain genres... but that means there will be others who will want to. I will find my place. I can work in the theater...,” the actress, who starred in a new adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House on Broadway earlier this year, tells this newspaper.
Arriving on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival last September, where Franco’s film was being screened, Chastain wore a T-shirt with the emblem of the Hollywood actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, which at that time had already started the screenwriters’ and actors’ strikes. “It’s untenable that only the studios have the power in this industry, because they are only interested in making profits. To do that, they have to please as many people as possible. There’s never going to be anything the least bit controversial coming from there,” she now says.
Despite her attempts to connect her career with critical and curious thinking about what’s going on in the world, googling Chastain’s name results in a huge amount of headlines that mostly mention the dresses she wears to premieres and award shows. “It’s something that would bother me if those articles only talked about my looks. But they often also mention all these things about which I want to start a conversation,” she admits. Jessica Chastain understands fashion as an art and also as a form of power: “If one of my dresses catches someone’s eye on the internet, and they click on the photo and end up reading one of my statements...good for them.”
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