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Jessica Chastain Saves the Drama for “MAMA”

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by: Trevor Parker on: 2013-01-16 21:28:13

It’s not often that an actress rides into
the motion picture world on the crest of as much hype and critical adoration as
has Jessica Chastain. Rarer still is when that actress entirely validates the
hype surrounding her, as Chastain most definitely has, garnering her second
Oscar nomination in as many years. With her ruthless CIA operative in ZERO DARK
THIRTY currently ruling the box office, audiences can catch a different side of
Chastain’s acclaimed range when director Andy Muschietti’s ghostly fable MAMA
his theaters this Friday.

FANGORIA caught up with Chastain on the
MAMA set, during the shooting of some of her key scenes. As Muschietti calls for
action, Fango watches as Chastain’s reluctant caregiver Annabel starts to show
frustration over her new and unwanted duties. She shouts at the two small girls
(played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) who have been left in her
care, slamming their bedroom door behind her as she storms off. Muschietti
calls cut, and as the scene is reset, it’s obvious that the Juilliard-trained
Chastain is no precious, standoffish Method actress, as she sits relaxed and
chatting with the crew between takes.

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Before the day’s filming begins, Chastain,
her trademark firey tresses lopped short and dyed black, describes her role in
MAMA: “Annabel plays bass guitar in a punk band, and she’s very much living the
life of never wanting to grow up and have responsibility. She’s got a great
boyfriend [Lucas, played by Nicolaj Coster-Waldau of GAME OF THRONES], but
she’s not at the stage where she thinks she’ll settle down and have a family.
She’s kind of in a holding pattern. Against her own wishes, she gets stuck with
the responsibility of caring for two young girls, and she doesn’t know anything
about how to deal with kids. They come with…something else, and Annabel has to
contend with that as well.”

That something else is an enraged spectral
presence, determined to reclaim its tiny charges at any cost. Chastain gushes
about playing alongside the real live Mama, embodied by Spanish creature
performer Javier Botet of the [REC] series. “Javier is 6-foot-7, and he’s so
skinny!” she laughs. “He’s amazing, physically, what he can do with his body.
It’s great to have him here, because I don’t have to act with greenscreens. I
don’t have to fake it—he really does give you goosebumps!”

Muschetti based this feature (which he
scripted with his sister Barbara and Neil Cross) on his MAMÁ short film, a
highly effective smidgen of terror that impressed Guillermo del Toro enough to
join the full-length project as executive producer. “I loved the short,”
Chastain says. “I’m a huge fan of these kind of films. My best friend and I, we
go to [horror] movies all the time. We rent them at home; sometimes we’re able
to finish them, sometimes we’re not, because it’s just too scary!

“That friend came to my house, and I said,
‘I’ve got to watch this [MAMÁ] short. I read the script, it was interesting,
and I haven’t met with the director yet, but they sent me the short. Do you
want to watch it with me?’ We watched it on my computer, in the daylight. At
first we were like, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful shot, down the staircase in one
take, that’s very clever, I’m liking the camerawork…’ Then when the creature
came out, I was really blown away by it. Because in addition to being
terrifying, it actually showed that the director had sensitivity. It wasn’t a
gratuitous kind of horror, and the girls were so incredibly sweet. I loved the
little touches—each little gesture that says who the characters are. Not that
there’s anything wrong with this, but sometimes [a director] comes from video
games or something that’s purely visual, and [their work] lacks the emotional.
I felt emotional during that three-minute clip.”

When selecting parts that interest her from
the flood of scripts sent her way, Chastain says she relies on an inner
compass. “I always get a feeling about someone,” she says. “I just follow my
instincts in choosing every role. I did it when I was thinking about [the
psychological thriller] TAKE SHELTER. I met with Jeff [Nichols, director], and
I had the same feeling when I met with Andy—someone who has their own point of
view, and not just a technician who has been hired to tell a generic story.
Andy has his own vision, but he’s also incredibly collaborative and listens to
my ideas on my character. I find that very inspiring, artistically.

“What really got me is that I met Guillermo
first, and he had just seen me in THE DEBT. He was talking to me about the idea
of a female character who is allowed to be strong but still allowed to be
vulnerable—because for some reason, a lot of females in movies are either one
or the other. He talked about THE ORPHANAGE and that brilliant actress [Belén
Rueda], and how the intensity was so high. The stakes are always really high
[in horror movies]. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. I’ve never done that
as an actor before, where I’ve had to sustain that intensity for a long time.
I’ve also never done anything where sometimes the scene is one line, or no
lines. I’ve always done movies that were more like plays.

“MAMA is very script-driven, but the camera
is also a character,” she continues. “When building the tension, two people
don’t come in and start talking about how they’re feeling—it doesn’t go in this
playlike structure. It’s more like, ‘OK, this is the scene where I open the
closet door.’ [Laughs] And that’s a very important scene, because of what can
happen when she opens that door. So I was really interested when Guillermo was
talking about what all that meant. I always approach everything like I’m taking
a class—so this is my class in the genre, to see if I can do it. And it’s hard
work!”

Chastain is also pleased that Muschietti is
charting a detour from the typical Hollywood themes that tend to get shoehorned
into any movie concerned with the family unit. “When I first met with Andy, and
he was talking to me about the character, I wanted to make sure we weren’t
doing a movie about ‘a woman who didn’t want to be a mom, and now look how
wonderful it is,’ you know? Andy said, ‘It’s not about that. Annabel becomes a
hero of people.’ It’s about this woman who’s not necessarily unlikable… [Laughs]
Well, I hope unlikable; I always want to push things more than they’ll let me.
She starts out a bit self-centered, not very generous or compassionate. And
through the relationship she develops with these girls, she learns how to be a
good person and to put herself at risk to save others. You actually have the
making of a hero in this story.”

About the author
Trevor Parker http://www.trevorwriter.com
Trevor Parker is a Toronto-based writer and editorial assistant whose work has appeared in numerous international periodicals and websites. He also contributes the 'Dump Bin Diaries' column to Fangoria magazine. He can be reached at trevor@fangoria.com or via his website at www.trevorwriter.com.
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