Juilliard-trained. Schooled in Shakespeare, Strindberg, Oscar Wilde. Dedicated to her art, and to the idea of art.
But in “Interstellar,” the sci-fi epic from Christopher Nolan, Jessica Chastain plays a scientist with a head full of equations, and questions, about time, relativity, quantum mechanics. She’s an astrophysicist.
A stretch, right?
“Actually, I am an astrophysicist,” insists the twice Oscar-nominated actress, on the phone from Los Angeles. “I’ve been paying the bills through acting. And now I’m finally able to combine both of my pursuits.”
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Which, of course, is a joke.
“It was really a stretch for me,” Chastain confesses. “A lot of the parts I play are.” Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty” – her CIA officer, bent on hunting down al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden – “was opposite anything that I had known of, or thought of. ... And this character, she’s wrestling with an agricultural crisis on Earth. She’s also wrestling with her own crisis. She’s trying to learn how to feel love again.”
It’s tricky for Chastain – or for anyone who has seen the film and doesn’t want to be a jerk and spoil it for others – to discuss her role in depth. “Interstellar” is a grand-scale endeavor that literally bends the physical universe as it mulls matters of science and the soul. It’s ambitious. It’s Kubrickian. It will wow Nolan’s ardent fans.
Role under wraps
But despite Chastain’s star status, she’s a blink of the eye in the trailers for the $150 million, 2-hour, 49-minute undertaking. Matthew McConaughey is there in his space suit; Anne Hathaway is there in her space suit; Michael Caine is there looking professorial and profound; Chastain gets to hold a flare and stand in front of some corn.
“I don’t think I even say a word in the trailers,” she says, laughing. “They’re just trying to keep everything about me a secret.”
Suffice it to say that Chastain plays the daughter of McConaughey’s NASA test pilot-turned-farmer, Cooper. In real life, the actor is 44, she’s 37. In “Interstellar,” however, they are separated by considerably more years than that – with no old-age makeup in use. Clearly, there’s some temporal monkey business going on.
Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, was on set during the shoot to help out with said business – about black holes, wormholes, the fourth and fifth dimensions.
“Whenever I had questions about the relationship between time and gravity, he would be there to answer it,” Chastain explains. “I definitely had to understand anything that I’m saying in the film. You know, you can’t talk about something and just say it. You have to know where it comes from, why your character would say it.”
Working with a legend
Chastain – who had seven films released in 2011, including “The Help” (her supporting actress Academy Award nomination) and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” opposite Brad Pitt – did have questions she wanted answered by her co-star, Sir Michael.
In “Interstellar,” which takes place in a near future in which Earth has been ravaged and the food supply drastically diminished, she is Caine’s protege – a whiz kid learning from the wise scientist overseeing a secret NASA project to save humankind.
“I always try to work on films where I get to hang out with an acting legend,” Chastain says with another laugh.
“And so, when I was working with Michael Caine, I was trying not to be completely like a journalist, asking him questions every five minutes. I was trying to play it cool and not seem like I was interviewing him. But we got to talk about his films. I love ‘Hannah and Her Sisters.’ ”
For Chastain, “it was an incredible day. You understand, working with him, why he is such an important figure in cinema.”