Jessica Chastain is proving to be one of the most versatile actresses of movies in this decade. Her chameleon-like ability to play vastly different characters is evidenced in the horror flick “Mama," in which she stars as Annabel, a somewhat Goth-looking musician who plays bass in a struggling rock band. Annabel lives with her artist boyfriend Lucas (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who gains custody of his two nieces Victoria (played by Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (played by Isabelle Nélisse) after their parents die. Annabel, who isn’t exactly the maternal type, is obviously less-than-thrilled about having to care for two young children.
But the children have a dark past: Their father Jeffrey, who was Lucas’ brother, had murdered their mother, became a fugitive, and is now presumed dead. And there’s a fiercely protective and jealous spirit that the girls call Mama that is not happy about this new custody arrangement for the girls. Chastain has been on a whirlwind of promoting “Mama” and her other winter 2013 movie, Oscar contender “Zero Dark Thirty,” as well as starring in the Broadway play “The Heiress” and making the rounds at the major awards shows for movies. But she made time in her very busy schedule to do a press conference for “Mama” in New York City. Here is what she said:
How did you get involved with "Mama"? The role you have in the movie is very different from any role you’ve previously done.
This script was sent to me right after “Tree of Life” came out. So “Tree of Life” was at Cannes with Take Shelter. And all of a sudden, I started getting all these scripts sent to me with these really devoted wives and mothers. In “Tree of Life,” she's the most graceful, perfect mother in the world. So I realized that there is typing in Hollywood. And this got sent to me.
I mean, this couldn't be further from “The Tree of Life,” the character of Annabel. She's definitely the reluctant mother, wants nothing to do with children. She's a bass guitarist in a punk band, who's not even that good that she'll ever be famous. She'd be happy going to community college her whole life, living with her sexy boyfriend in their loft, and just hanging out.
And then she's forced to deal with the responsibility of these children. I was really moved by the hero's journey, this woman becoming a hero, becoming a selfless person. And I kind of liked that in the beginning, she's a bit of a bitch. She's a little unlikable, she's a little selfish. And she grows a heart of gold by the end.
What do you think about working with the kids in “Mama”?
I loved those girls. I’d rather hang out with kids than adults any day. I really like them. I’ve been really lucky with “Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter” and “Coriolanus” and this film [“Mama”] to have amazing scene partners that are kids. The best thing about these kids is that they’re kids first, they’re not child actors that are trying to be adults. That really kind of disturbs me a bit. We had a lot of dance parties.
You know that [Taio Cruz] song “Dynamite”? Little Isabelle [Nélisse], she didn’t speak English at first, because she spoke French. And she learned English throughout the shoot, and she became obsessed with that song. So we would play it every day. She learned all the lyrics. We did dance parties in the trailer. It was so sweet. They would make drawings for me and paste them in my dressing room.
I tried to be in the very, very beginning, not cold to them, but a little bit removed, because I thought “OK, I don’t want to just scoop them up and love them from the beginning because that’s not quite the character and I want them a little unsure of me.” But after a week of trying … at one point Megan came to dinner and said “Jessica, you come sit by me!” and I was just like “How do you not love these girls!” So it [the aloofness] didn’t last long.
Was it ever scary on the set of “Mama”?
No, it was never scary, it was very important that they always feel safe and protected. There was more laughing on the set than anything. This group is like a family. Everyone was cracking jokes, mostly at [“Mama” director] Andy’s [Muschietti's] expense, which is fine by all. It was a lot of fun. Megan [Charpentier] is an incredibly talented girl.
You play a rock musician in “Mama.” Did any real-life musicians inspire how you played the character? How did you construct the Annabel character?
For this character, I started from the outside in. There was so much in the script about who she was. There was a lot of clues. A lot of it was talking to Andy, because this is more Andy’s world than my world.
Alice Glass was the inspiration for the hair, so there were a lot of photographs of her around. The idea of the octopus tattoo was Andy’s. At first I thought, “That’s super-strange. Why an octopus?” He had a very good answer that when a tentacle gets stuck, it detaches, and he liked to see Annabel like that, where whenever she’s feeling tied down she’s able to move away …
It was a lot of listening to punk music, Lou Reed, The Smiths, wearing all those T-shirts. And Andy had certain T-shirts made that he wanted to see. And so that was the whole physical.
I had never done a horror film before. I really like horror films. I don't like slasher films, but I really like the tension of horror films and fantasy and horror fantasy drama. So I just got as many as I could, and filled my dressing room with them, and would play them whenever I was hanging out in there. Even if I was doing something else, it would just kind of always be on.
It took me three times to watch the movie “REC.” It's tough, man! I like horror films, but I realized I like watching horror films when I'm with other people. And watching one by yourself is no fun. So yeah, it was a lot of that ticket to Annabel.
Brother and sister Andy Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti wrote “Mama.” Andy is the movie’s director, Barbara is one of the producers, and Guillermo del Toro is an executive producer. What was it like working with all three of them?
Even though they all three have very distinct personalities, they’re all cut from the same cloth. So it was a very harmonious set. I can’t remember a fight on set. Everyone got along.
My favorite thing was just like the family stuff, because Barbara and Andy are brother and sister. And Andy's like a Renaissance man. I think, I could be wrong, but all the drawings in Lucas' room are all [by] Andy; he's an amazing artist.
He also plays tons of instruments, so he's like into music, and drawing, and writing. But because of that too, he kind of gets lost sometimes. He'll be creating something, and then my favorite thing is that all of a sudden Barbara starts speaking, I'll hear, "Andy!"
And she starts speaking in Spanish to him, and then they start speaking back and forth. And you really see the amazing team that they are, because she's so organized and smart. It's like they're two sides of the same coin.
I turned to both of them. Andy, because he's incredibly creative, and inventive, and visual. And Barbara, because she's whip-smart, and really fun to be around.
And then Guillermo, you turn to for humor. He's like the captain, you know. But he never makes you feel like a servant. Whenever he's on set, it's like a standup routine, he's really great to be around.
What scares you in real life?
In real life, sounds in the night scare me. I moved into a new apartment here in New York, and my dog always barks when someone comes in. It was a few weeks ago, I was sleeping soundly, and he starts barking like crazy … Anything like that, waking me up in my sleep.
When I was a child, I had such bad nightmares. So I was one of those kids who would run and leap onto the bed because I was afraid that something would reach out and grab me and pull me under. Or I’d wake up in the middle of the night and put the covers over my head, and then I’d get too hot, and I’d be afraid to take the covers down. I’d be afraid there’d be a face staring right at me.
I had bad nightmares as a kid, but I learned that you get nightmares when your body overheats. And this is true. Even if I have a nightmare now, you usually wake up sweating, and if it’s really hot, it’s because your body is protecting you by creating a nightmare to wake you up. Once I realized that, it was like, “Air conditioning on. We don’t need all these covers on the bed.” And I was fine.
Are you scared of awards season?
No. I went through it last year [for “The Help”], and it was so much fun. And my grandmother will probably be my date again. Going with her is just such a reminder to enjoy it and not take it seriously.
Was that really you playing bass guitar in “Mama” or where you pretending to play?
I took bass lessons for about a month before we started. I learned this song, this two-and-a-half-minute song. I’d been working on it. And then a week before we shot, I heard that the song was changed. [She laughs.] I was really irritated.
So then I started to up the lessons and I learned another song. And so I said, “OK, this is the second song. I feel really comfortable shooting it for the band scene.” We shoot it, and the camera starts on one end, and it goes to another, and it goes to another. And then it goes to me, and Andy goes, “Cut!” Andy, you showed 30 seconds of me playing the bass, and I spent five weeks learning how to play the bass!
Maybe knowing how to play guitar could come in handy for a future role?
There you go. Maybe I’ll play in a band. Maybe I’ll cut my hair off with Alice Glass and join a punk band.
We know that Mama is very jealous of anyone who gets close to Victoria and Lilly, but Annabel is kind of jealous of the girls. We see it in the scene where Lucas tells Annabel that the girls are the most important people in his life. Can you talk about Annabel’s jealousy and what the turning point was for her (without giving away spoilers) on when she started to feel protective, and not jealous, of the girls?
Usually in films we’re not used to our heroes being seen doing unlikable things. I kind of liked the idea that Annabel is irritated that her boyfriend prioritizes his nieces over her, because typically we would see the person understand that that would be a reasonable thing to do, considering the girls grew up for five years without anyone and they’ve lost their parents.
I found it to be a very human reaction that she would react that way, because she prioritizes him, so why doesn’t he prioritize her? And I also found it to be immature, which also goes along with playing [Annabel] as this person who doesn’t want responsibility, she doesn’t want to grow up. The idea of being a yuppie is the worst thing that could happen to her.
Any chance I would take, I would go for the choice of doing the selfish or not-generous thing for Annabel, until the big moment when she finds Lilly in the garden. And she carries her in. We’re fighting, and it’s not even loving. Annabel’s not really loving her until that moment.
That was the very first moment that changes. In that fight, that does change Annabel. She sees the stubbornness in this girl, like, “Oh yeah, a chip off the old block.” There is something about that. That’s the very first connection. And then she starts to feel this protection for the girls. Every scene after that, like the scene at the breakfast, you see her touch Victoria’s hair a lot. Little things like that, I tried to build on.
A lot of actors avoid doing horror films. Did you have any trepidation about doing this type of movie?
Not at all. I want to do all kinds of films, all kinds of characters. I don't want to be typed. If someone tries to type me, I'm super-stubborn, and I will do the opposite. “Tree of Life” is one my favorite things that I've ever done, and that character was probably the greatest gift I've ever been given.
But the second I found out people were typing me, I was like, "I'll show you! I'll do the opposite of a Terrence Malick. I'm going to do a horror film, and I'm going to play the opposite of a good mother.”
I want to do a western. I want to do a musical. As long as I play a woman that has an arc, and has something going for her other than the male counterparts. Sometimes in American cinema, the woman is there to serve the male role. Even if it's a small part, I don't mind. Celia Foote [in “The Help”], that was a fun role. I was not the lead of that film, but she had her own interesting arc in it. And that's what I need in a film.
Annabel obviously struggles with the idea of being a mother. Do you have those same struggles, or do you have a clear idea if you want to become a mother or not?
I think the first meeting [for “Mama”], what concerned me was that I don’t want to make a movie that says women who choose not to have children are wrong, or our purpose is to be mothers, because I don’t necessarily think that that’s true. I hope to be a mother some day, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. And there are other wonderful things that will happen.
When I first mentioned that, it was a little over a year ago, so it was a very funny first meeting because Andy’s English was not so great. But one thing he said, and I loved the way he put this: “It’s not that Annabel in the movie becomes a mother, but she becomes a hero of people.” I thought, “That’s great. That’s a selfish person who rises above it and becomes selfless to become a hero of people.”
He also said at one point when I had a concern about something, instead of saying “Oh, let me put you at rest,” he said “OK, I will tranquilize you now.” It was a lot of laughing all of us we had in that first hour. I thought, “OK, if the short film [‘Mama,’ also directed by Andy Muschietti] is this scary in three minutes, and if the film is being carried over, and we’re having such a good time in this meeting, I’ll do it.
What’s next for you?
I’m not sure yet. It hasn’t been announced. It’s pretty obscure. In typical Chastain fashion … It might be a Strindberg thing.
Is it the Strindberg play “Miss Julie”?
For more info: "Mama" website