After graduating from Juilliard in 2003, Jessica went back to her home state of California. She was soon cast in the WB pilot of the Dark Shadows reboot. Though the pilot wasn’t picked up by the network, she did land guest spots on hit shows like ER and Veronica Mars. In 2004, she went back east to star in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. For her follow-up, she hit the stage again in Rodney’s Wife for director Richard Nelson. This might have been the most fortuitous role of her career.
Nelson knew Al Pacino, who happened to be looking for a Salome for his production of the Oscar Wilde classic. Nelson recommended Chastain for the part and Pacino cast her. This brought her to the attention of casting directors and she spent the next several years juggling the film and stage. She almost seemingly came out of nowhere in 2011, starring in an amazing six films, culminating in an Oscar nomination for The Help. She followed that up with an Oscar nomination the next year for Zero Dark Thirty. She could get the early morning wake up call from Oscar again for her latest film, Miss Sloane.
In the film, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the most powerful forces behind the scenes in Washington. The blue chip influencer at an old-school lobbying firm headed by George Dupont (Sam Waterston), Miss Sloane will do whatever it takes for her clients — even if that means bending the rules. But when the head of the powerful gun lobby calls on her to help convince women to oppose a bill that will impose new regulations on the sale of firearms, she turns him down flat and instead joins a progressive boutique firm representing the backers of the law. Alongside the firm’s CEO (Mark Strong) and a group of young up-and-comers, Miss Sloane schemes, maneuvers and manipulates her way to what could be a stunning victory, but her zeal for winning threatens both her career and the people she cares about. Compromised, vulnerable and under investigation by the Senate, Elizabeth Sloane may finally have met her match. Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), the film co-stars John Lithgow, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill and Jake Lacy.
Chastain thinks her sudden and unexpected career change sheds some insight into her character. “She sees them as granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing hippies who don’t really understand what it takes to get anything done,” Chastain says. “Her background is about supporting free enterprise, without thinking about the consequences. She doesn’t fit in well there, although truthfully, Liz is a rebel at both firms. She doesn’t really work well with others. She’s incredibly intelligent and ambitious and compulsive in her desire to win, but she’s also really vulnerable. It was a beautiful character to embark on. The script has such intelligence. It never talks down to the audience. It explains what’s going on simply and beautifully.”
Before Chastain’s 2011 cinematic debutante ball, John Madden cast her in the star-studded thriller, The Debt. Chastain was thrilled to repay this debt by teaming with Madden again. “He’s so generous on set,” she says. “Even if someone comes in for one day, John does anything he can to make that person feel a part of the team. That’s why people like Christine Baranski and Jake Lacy came in for just a short time. Each day I saw the actors I would be working with and knew I was going to be in the best hands, because John had orchestrated the whole thing.”
Chastain was also thrilled to reteam with her Zero Dark Thirty co-star Strong. “Mark is intelligent and thoughtful about the choices he makes. Unlike Liz, Rodolfo really does care about how other people perceive him and how they’re affected by his actions. The differences between the two of them make for really interesting scenes. She is like a bull in a china shop and he’s trying to control the bull.”
It was the thriller aspects of the story, however, that most impressed Chastain. “You’re watching an incredible story about a woman who risks everything to win,” says the actress. “There are twists all over the movie. Just when you think you know what’s going on, there’s a big surprise. I like movies that keep you guessing.”
But it’s not a sudden shift in political perspective or a pang of conscience that motivates her to join the smaller firm, says Chastain. It’s the apparent impossibility of the task that attracts her. “Liz Sloane is addicted to winning. The bigger the risk, the bigger the win. That’s what entices her. The gun lobby donates heavily to political campaigns and politicians care about keeping their seats. So they have a good deal of leverage in Congress, which makes them a formidable opponent for her. The real issue we are addressing here is what is rotten in our system, what doesn’t work in American politics and why change is so difficult.”
We have all heard of lobbyists, but many of us don’t really know what they do. Chastain was no exception and did intensive research to prepare for the role. “I went to D.C. and I met with 11 lobbyists, mostly women,” says Chastain. “I wanted to know what they struggle with and how they became a success in that environment. I talked to them about their families and their personal lives. We discussed what it really takes to get a bill passed and the different ways you would go about it. I learned what grass roots and grass tops were and how the various strategies of running a campaign work.” [For the record, here’s the definition of a grass top: activists or members of an organization or geographic area that have a high professional and/or public profile, may be part of the “political family” for a decision maker, and can raise public attention or influence decision makers through established connections.]
Chastain promises us that we’re in for a fast-paced, compelling and unexpected two hours. “There’s a lot more mystery than you are used to seeing in political dramas. You won’t quite know what Liz’s motivations are or what she intends to do, because she has so many tricks up her sleeve and that makes for a thrilling ride.”
Miss Sloane is now playing in select theaters and expands nationwide December 9th.