NEW YORK -- Tradecraft? Jessica Chastain is an old hand.
In The Debt, one of the seeming dozens of films Chastain starred in in 2011 (a couple of others: The Help, Tree of Life), the actress played Rachel Singer, a Mossad agent in 1960s East Berlin. Emotionally scarred, Chastain's Israeli spy was nonetheless skilled, stoic, resolute.
And so, when director Kathryn Bigelow contacted her about the role of a CIA operative bent on hunting down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain thought she could pull it off.
"Of course, the character's completely different," Chastain says. "But playing Rachel Singer made me feel like I could play a badass woman. Because, in addition to Rachel's vulnerability, she really could stand her own with men. . . . It definitely gave me confidence to think, OK, I've dabbled in the spy world before."
Maya, the woman at the center of Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's pulse-pounding fictionalized account of the 10-year manhunt for the al-Qaeda mastermind, is difficult to read at first. In the harrowing opening interrogation scenes, she watches a suspected terrorist strung up on ropes, stripped naked, waterboarded. Maya's face is a blank, stony mask.
"Yeah, I'm playing somebody who has been trained to be unemotional," says Chastain, laughing, during a day of interviews for Zero Dark Thirty at a hotel on Central Park South not long ago. "And I have been trained to be emotional. My whole life -- going to Juilliard, studying theater -- it's all about opening the heart, letting the walls down, finding vulnerability. That's what my whole life is about."
The film, released in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Academy Award consideration, opens tomorrow at the AMC Neshaminy, United Artists King of Prussia, Regal Warrington, and AMC Cherry Hill theaters. The torture scenes have sparked controversy -- with several U.S. senators and the acting head of the CIA denying such "enhanced interrogation" techniques were used. For Chastain and the two other actors involved -- Jason Clarke as the CIA interrogator and Reda Kateb as Ammar, the detainee -- the experience of re-creating such brutal sequences was challenging enough.
"Those scenes, we're shooting in a Jordanian prison, and these rooms, it was really tough to try to keep it buttoned up," Chastain notes. "To be honest, when we were filming, there was a day that we were doing a scene -- it wasn't even a torture scene, it was an interrogation scene -- but I was like at my wits' end, I was so emotionally frazzled.
"And we had to take a 10-minute break and I went behind a building and sobbed. Jason Clarke came over and asked if I was OK and patted me on the back. It was intense, and I didn't get a lot of those scenes where I got to channel that intensity into some sort of emotional release. It isn't until the end" -- after the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden's Pakistani compound -- "that Maya cries. And if we had seen it throughout the film, it would have been easier for me -- Jessica -- to be like, 'OK, this feels good, let it out.'
"But it wouldn't have been accurate to the woman I was playing."
That woman is based on a real intelligence officer, who, like Maya, was single-minded in her pursuit over the decade since the 9/11 attacks of the al-Qaeda leader. Chastain wasn't able to meet with her real-life counterpart ("She's undercover in the CIA -- I can't call her up and say, 'Hey, can I go undercover with you to do my research?' "), so she took the information that Bigelow and Boal supplied and built her own backstory.
"I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks," says Chastain. "But I had to create a backstory that was true with the research I had done. I couldn't take Jessica's backstory and put it in there."
Yes, Chastain is referring to herself in the third person. But she has a lot to juggle right now. The 35-year-old actress is talking about Maya and the dead-serious mission behind Zero Dark Thirty, and in just a few hours she goes down to the Walter Kerr Theater and becomes Catherine Sloper, the plain-Jane heroine of Henry James' Washington Square in The Heiress.
"It's an hour of prosthetics," Chastain says. "I put a nose on, put a wig on." And, in The Heiress, she is anything but empowered, assertive, assured -- she's the opposite of Zero Dark Thirty's Maya.
"It makes so many statements, this movie," Chastain says, addressing the issue of having a woman at the center of a story -- a story directed by a woman.
"Actually, the very first time I read the script, I was shocked by Maya's central role in all of this. And then, immediately, I felt disgusted with myself. Why is it so surprising that a woman would be intelligent and capable and does all of these things that she does?
"We're used to seeing lead characters, female hero roles, as flawed. If we're right, there's also something wrong with us -- we've got neuroses or we're mentally ill, you know what I mean?
"We're not just used to seeing someone who's really capable of doing the job."