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Oscar favourite Jessica Chastain on leading the Osama manhunt in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

She plays Maya, the resolute CIA officer who spent her career tracking Osama bin Laden and ultimately spearheaded the massive operation that brought down the most hunted man in history. In an email chat, Jessica Chastain tells t2 about the highs and lows of being the “unemotional” Maya in Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty, releasing in India on February 15.

How did you react when Kathryn Bigelow offered you the role of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty?

I wanted to be involved in any movie that Kathryn was making… I read the script and I really wanted to do it. I was really nervous when I was about to meet Kathryn because I am a very soft personality and not quite on a par with Maya. I was just hoping that she doesn’t reject me!

“The greatest manhunt in history”... the search for Osama bin Laden is exclusively told through the eyes of your character. What were the biggest challenges of playing Maya?

Maya is trained to be unemotional and analytically precise. But that doesn’t mean she is unemotional because there are moments when she appears weak. On the other hand, all my life I have been trained to be emotional… it’s been like years of trying to bring the walls down and open up my heart... allowing myself to be sensitive. So, being the kind of person I am and being in such scenes, my natural impulse would be to cry but Maya would never do that.

Is there any point where Jessica and Maya meet?

Like I said, the character is emotionally controlled and to the point whereas in real life I freely express my emotions. So that was a little difficult. But as I went on with the movie, I understood that she is not completely unemotional; it’s just that she is trained not to express. I felt a slight connect that no matter how hard and strong a woman is, she has emotions in her.

What kind of research did you do to understand Maya and her world? It must have been a disappointment not to have met the real Maya because of the undercover nature of her job…

I fell in love with Maya and her story. Sadly, I never met her. Of course I never want anyone to find out who she is because she’s an undercover CIA agent, but I am happy that in some way this film acknowledges her existence.

I asked (screenwriter and producer) Mark Boal a lot of questions about the CIA, about this woman, everything about the scenes….You don’t think there are that many questions but there are thousands that come up! I read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright and Michael Scheuer’s book Osama bin Laden, which is fantastic. I learned so much about him which I could never have learned from reading articles or following regular news. Then I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks of what I couldn’t find in the research about this woman. But I wish I could meet her; I want to salute her for the courage and the strength and thank her for everything she did.

The Zero Dark Thirty crew in Chandigarh

The shoot must have been stressful, both physically and psychologically...

Yes, the shoots were not easy. The atmosphere was dark and depressing and I found it difficult to handle. They don’t see women that often. I was like, ‘I am not getting out of this car, how dare these guys?’, but then you think, this woman had to live in Islamabad and all those places when she was doing this job and had to experience the same treatment where she had no control. Kathyrn and I got pretty depressed while we were shooting all that. So, we would send each other videos of dogs getting rescued!

The torture scenes have come in for a fair amount of criticism. How tough was it filming them?

It was not very easy for me to do something that I don’t believe in. I don’t like violence and I don’t like to fight. I personally can’t be that hard. So, it was like learning to do something that my inner self does not allow.

Was it easier being directed by a woman in a film as sensitive as this?

She (Kathryn) was awesome. Once she took me to Maya’s apartment and asked me how I wanted that to be. Yes, if you ask me, Kathryn herself does not believe in that (violence), but according to her, a filmmaker is a filmmaker. I think her approach to the movie was incredible and that’s what inspired me as well.

How was it shooting in Chandigarh?

I didn’t know what it would take on my part until I went there. I went to the Oscars (in 2012) and was in my Alexander McQueen drinking champagne with my grandma... the best day ever. The next day I had a flight to India, a 25-hour flight! The moment I landed, I rushed straight to the sets without any hairdo or make-up. I just wore a robe and we started filming in the market and that is how it worked everyday. We shot on the outskirts of Chandigarh and Rajasthan and I realised how different the culture and dressing were. It was pretty crazy… people were pushing me and I was buying vegetables and the cameras were hidden and I was thinking, ‘I was just at the Oscars!’ But I actually went on a horse-drawn carriage and it was so amazing. I also went to the Taj Mahal.

The film has been mired in controversies with many calling it a love letter to the Barack Obama administration…

A lot of research has gone into the making of the movie. As it is based on one of the world’s greatest manhunts, it is naturally dramatic. So people might feel that it’s dramatised. We were all ready for such comments.

After winning the Golden Globe, you are tipped to take home the Oscar for Best Actress on February 24...

Fingers crossed! I have kept my emotions under control. I am very excited.

Priyanka Roy

Why will you watch Zero Dark Thirty? Tell t2@abp.in


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