In just six years, Jessica Chastain has gone from unknown theater actor with occasional TV gigs to a two-time Oscar nominee. She's also an inspiration to young actresses in Hollywood for taking genre-busting roles like the driven CIA analyst hunting Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty” and the no-nonsense wife of a heating oil company owner in “A Most Violent Year.”
Now she's taking on the boys' club that is DC politics in “Miss Sloane” (currently playing in select theaters, opening in wide release on December 9). Playing lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane, Chastain delivers a riveting performance as a ruthless influencer in the political world. But when the gun lobby attempts to acquire her talents, she shocks everyone by moving to the other side of the issue, and she brings all her tricks with her.
Business Insider recently talked to Chastain about her transformation into a lobbyist (which could get her another Oscar nomination), how she deals with Hollywood's gender pay gap in her own career, and what her plans are now that Donald Trump has been elected president.
Jason Guerrasio: So you read former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s book for research. How did you plug that into the Elizabeth Sloane character?
Jessica Chastain: Well, I wanted to learn the underside of lobbying so I read his book and I also thought how does someone get into lobbying? Because someone doesn’t think immediately, "I want to be a lobbyist.” So reading his book, I saw how he started working for the Reagan campaign, and it was very helpful in created a backstory as Elizabeth works on free enterprise and she's conservative, for sure. I wanted to understand issues that would be important to her. But I also wanted to learn about being a woman in DC — it's definitely a boys' club.
Guerrasio: Was it hard to find female lobbyists in DC?
Chastain: I just started Googling "successful female lobbyists" and did as much research as I could. I put a list of people together. I met around 11 women on a weekend and I shadowed someone during a fundraiser. I shadowed someone who lobbied on Capitol Hill. It was very, very helpful.
Guerrasio: Did you get into what they did after-hours, too?
Chastain: I didn't get into it that much. We talked about their personal lives and what it's like in DC and what they have to contend with, but I never went to their houses or anything like that.
Guerrasio: And something that's striking talking to you now is how different your voice is in the movie. How conscious were you in how Elisabeth would talk?
Chastain: She's a very different character to me. I'm very much a hippie from Northern California. I’m very slow in my rhythm and my energy and she's a woman who is the opposite of that. That was a big challenge for me to play and bring that kind of energy that she has. She's doing five things at once, so though I'm not thinking about my voice, I'm sure when you think about the energy and that she has to talk to her team in her office and thinking about emails she's sending out, she's got many layers she's going through. Because of that I think she doesn't have time that I have, so I think you're hearing that.
Guerrasio: And being among a boys' club she has to have an assertive voice.
Chastain: Yeah. It's almost like she's not living life to its potential. The clothes she wears — I talked to [“Miss Sloane” director] John Madden about this — I wanted it to be like she's in a suit of armor. She's going to battle. There's no sensuality to her, she doesn't enjoy fashion, she pays someone to buy her clothes and style it. Her sex life, there's no foreplay, it's something that is just "get it done as quick as possible and let's move on to the next thing." I think that went into how I held my body, my voice, everything.
Guerrasio: The gun debate is very much the MacGuffin of this movie. The audience is really more interested in your character and what she'll do next. How she’ll get out on top. Is that reaction a surprise for you?
Chastain: What I loved about this when I first read it was it reminded me of an Aaron Sorkin project. I grew up watching “The West Wing” and I loved that show and I have been so interested in the gun debate. There was so much information about it in this film, and not just how a bill gets passed, but all the fundraising involved. At the end of the day, though, it's not a documentary, it's entertainment, so it has to have an entertaining character and the aspect of the film is a thriller, so that was all very interesting to me. But making this going into the election, I realized this is also about gender politics. I knew I needed to meet female lobbyists, because, yes, it is a boys' club. I needed to understand their gender politics. But I didn't understand how important it was when I met with these women. In this current system it really came to the forefront of this film.
Getty/Business InsiderGuerrasio: How did the responsibility of creating Elizabeth Sloane differ from doing Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty”?
Chastain: I take great responsibility in any character that I play. Maya is based on a real woman and there's a lot of speculation on who she is so there was a responsibility in that, but also you have to stay topical and that was a character where the main focus in our film was revenge. She was seeking out someone. So that was a character study on what happens to a person when they live their life like that. And she's a character that doesn't play politics, she doesn't know how to be nice in a room or manipulate, she says what she feels. Elizabeth Sloane, there's a slyness like she's almost a shark. She knows how to manipulate, she knows how to work a room, she's great at politics. So no matter what the characters you play, you have to find the differences in them, especially when you are doing a political movie. Both are political movies that are ambitious with very powerful females at the center.
Guerrasio: I don't know if you heard the comments Amy Adams gave recently about the gender pay gap and how producers should be asked the question more than actresses. Do you feel the media should stop asking actresses about the gender pay gap in Hollywood?
Chastain: I don't know exactly what her quote was because I didn't read it but I'm sure she's being asked a lot because she was the subject of a lot of the pay gap conversation for “American Hustle.” I love the article that Jennifer Lawrence wrote about the pay gap — I thought it was so important. I love that people are talking about it. It makes sense that journalists are asking actresses and actors about it because, seriously, producers aren't the ones doing press.
Getty/Business InsiderI saw a video where Amy Pascal was asked about the wage gap and she said basically women get paid less because they don't ask for more. And I heard that and at first I got so offended and then I went, wait a minute, that's probably true. I started reading a lot about it and you realize women don't ask for more but they don't ask for promotions, and knowing that I've completely changed. No matter what, I'm going to ask for more. I'm going to ask what is correct, what I deserve, especially in relation to male actors. And it's also making me ask why don't we ask for more? Maybe it's a situation like after the first presidential debates, Hilary Clinton's criticism was that she was over-prepared. I have never heard anyone say that about a man — he’s over-prepared for a debate or the job. And we have to look at society and go, why is society telling women to not show up over-prepared? Not to be treated equal. Not to ask for more. Not to be ambitious. What's wrong with trying hard and showing up and being good at your job? We really need to look at ourselves and say we need to reevaluate this. We need to reevaluate that women who ask for a pay raise or ask for a promotion — it’s actually an okay thing. It's okay to be ambitious, it's okay to be over-prepared. I guess going back to “Miss Sloane,” she's the example of a woman who does all of those things.
Guerrasio: So in negotiations for roles, you are being more aggressive? Asking more questions?
Chastain: For me, I’m not in an industry where I'm starving. I'm so lucky to have this job, I'm compensated for my work in an incredible way. But what I do ask is when I join a production I want to make sure that the male actor isn't making four times my salary, which has been true, or seven times my salary. And if that's true you go, you know what, I don't need this job. It's not really asking for more — it's asking for something that is respectable and equal to the male actor and you have to go, why are women being valued less?
And I think you have to take the whole idea of wage equality out of the film industry. Yes it's here, and yes it's so visible because actors are talking about it, but take it to other industries. Look at Hispanic women — they are being paid 42 cents on the dollar — or African-American women. I think it's an issue we have to look at across the board.
Guerrasio: How has the election this year changed you?
Chastain: I feel very inspired right now because I know there are a lot of people out there who are really scared but I feel this great sense of togetherness and people coming together and saying, "I got your back." Look, if anyone is scared, I got your back. I'm going to the Women’s March on Washington, which I'm really excited about. And it's not anti-anything — it's pro. It's showing how strong we are together — women, minorities, and those who feel ignored. I’m really excited to be there to show my support.