Despite Jessica Chastain appearing in seemingly every movie last year, I didn’t recognize her when I met her on the set of Mama. Her red hair was hidden under a short black wig, an octopus tattoo on her arm, and her thin frame was in an oversized Misfits shirt. She looked like a punk rock PA, not the star of the movie.
“You didn’t expect me like this?” she said with a smile when the roomful of journalists were surprised. “Did you know it was me?”
We all assured her we were surprised (one of the journalists later expressed disappointment; she had seemed like his type before he knew she was a movie star, and out of his league). She loved the reaction.
The radically different look was to change her into Annabel, a woman not ready for the strange responsibility the film would thrust upon her. “She plays bass guitar in a punk band and she lives with her boyfriend who is an illustrator,” Chastain explained. “The way I’m approaching her, she’s this woman who doesn’t really ever want to grow up. She never really has any responsibilities. I mean with the [tattoo] she probably sees herself like an octopus, when the tentacles get caught then they detach and then they grow back. She’s very anti-responsibility. I don’t know what to say without giving away much of the story, she is just stuck. She ends up stuck with these children that she doesn’t want in her life and it’s a complicated relationship, because the children are stuck with something else.”
What is that something else? See the first part of this set visit report, where Andres Muschietti’s original short film is posted, to give you an idea. I have to wonder how much of an idea Chastain had when she signed up for the gig - she’s a self-professed scaredy-cat. Seriously, this is her quote: “I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever.”
“I remember when I was really, really young watching The Exorcist with my mom and my sister downstairs and it was so intense for me watching that film and I remember like halfway through I was like ‘Okay, can I turn it off?’ My mom was like ‘No, you could just go upstairs.’ Then the feeling of walking up the stairs... Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door and it’s like me ten years old walking up the stairs. I really love it. “
Later Chastain brought us to her trailer, which was decked out in a collision between the actress and the character. 70s punk and scum rock posters hung on the walls, while fashion magazines were scattered on the couch. Her three legged dog, Chaplin, hopped about. Around the mirror were hung letters from fans - many about The Help - with one being from a very young girl. If I hadn’t already spoken with Chastain this might feel like a fame thing, like it was her way of seeing that people liked her. But after talking with her, it came across more like a grounding thing - reminding herself that people out there cared, and that what she did could matter.
This was a year ago, and I bet that since then she’s really seen how her job could matter. It was interesting speaking to her at this transition point, just when she was really exploding into the larger world. Mama, while a small film in the roster of Universal movies, was a big film for her, and it was a major change in how she approached a role.
“[With] Take Shelter we shot that movie so quick and sometimes we’d have three takes for one scene with tons of dialog, so I’d come to set and it would be Mike Shannon and I talking about the structure of the scene and where we had to get and what that was, like a play. This is different in that it’s like 'Okay, all we are getting right now is me walking to the closet and opening the door.'
"Now I feel like I’m starting to find my feet and get into the groove of it, but it’s a completely different way of working. The scenes are so short that I think like 'Am I..?' I’ve never worked like that before, but when I have great teachers and people watching my back like I have on this team then it gives me more confidence that it’s going okay."