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Jessica Chastain Bet on Herself. Now She’s Ready for the Bigger Fight

Hours before going on strike, the Oscar winner opened up to Vanity Fair about her first Emmy nomination, taking charge of her career, and why—if need be—she’s ready to strike for the long haul.
Jessica Chastain Bet on Herself. Now Shes Ready for the Bigger Fight
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Jessica Chastain is swiftly emerging as one of her generation’s most decorated actors. Within a little over a year, she’s taken home an Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, earned a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her Broadway tour de force in A Doll’s House, and nabbed her first Emmy nod, for the Showtime miniseries George & Tammy. But last month, as we spoke in the glow of that lattermost achievement, the grind-and-hustle spirit that got her to this point was top of mind. Along with the rest of her SAG-AFTRA union, she was about to go on strike.

For the Juilliard graduate, it’s all related—in the way she’s found her groove in Hollywood by developing her own vehicles, serving as a producer on all of those aforementioned projects; in the way she used to stretch a guest-spot paycheck over months thanks to residuals, even as she kept losing out on other roles; in the way she’s learned to live in her art, realizing the emotional impact of a job, a commitment, a performance. For George & Tammy, Chastain, brilliantly portraying the country singer Tammy Wynette opposite Michael Shannon’s George Jones, pushed herself to sing the duo’s iconic songs live. Terrifying but worth it. It’s what an actor does.

On this week’s Little Gold Men (listen or read below), Chastain goes deep on what it means to be an actor today, and what she and her union are fighting for—both practically and artistically.

Vanity Fair: Let’s get this out of the way—you’ve been on quite a streak. You won an Oscar recently, you were just Tony-nominated, and this is your first Emmy nod. For someone who’s been in this industry for a little bit now, what does that embrace feel like?

Jessica Chastain: To have the most incredible past couple of years—and I have to say, the past couple years, it’s also been more of me producing the projects. That I find interesting. As women get older in the industry, we need to become more active in producing projects in order for us to have a place here—because no one else will do it for us. When you just said that—I’m speaking this for the first time out loud, so I haven’t really thought it through, but The Eyes of Tammy Faye, George & Tammy, and A Doll’s House were all projects that I was involved in behind the scenes and not just acting.

How have you found navigating this industry with that sense of self-reliance?

It’s a complicated thing. I have a friend of mine visiting me right now, and she’s kind of transitioning into becoming a writer, and I think it’s beautiful. Women are exploring other ways of creating their own work. But it also makes me a little bit sad that it’s necessary. I’m happy that I’m doing it. I love doing it, but I wish more people were interested in telling these stories and that these actresses wouldn’t have to do that.

Have you learned anything about the business that’s surprised you, either in a good way or a bad way?

I watched the industry for a long time before I had the opportunity of working in it, and I gathered a lot of information. It has changed quite a bit, the whole #MeToo culture, which I am appreciative of, the idea that there’s now more resources for people who feel like they’re in an unhealthy, abusive situation. There are abuses that were really out in the open; now they’re just gone. I don’t see anything anywhere near to what I used to see in the past with just how people were treated and the sexist jokes and all of that. That really has dissipated a lot. So those have changed in our industry.

But yeah, I guess the most that I’ve learned, really, has been the producing side and the development side, and we’ve done a lot at my company. We started working in my living room, and we just recently got an office. It’s been a very steep learning curve.

It’s particularly impressive with these projects because this has been a time of great upheaval in the industry. You’ve had to think really practically about the lives that these projects live. As a producer, how have you found balancing that in your head?

We have no idea what the world holds, what the industry holds. I mean, no one imagined a pandemic. Eyes of Tammy Faye really didn’t play in the theaters. People weren’t going to the theaters. I couldn’t have imagined that when we were in prep for that movie. And [George & Tammy], the idea that we’d been working on it for over a decade, there’s so many false starts and stops and different casts. Then starting tomorrow, I’m not going to be allowed to ask people to watch it, which I’m supportive of because I’m definitely pro-union, but, again, it’s like—you have no idea what you are embarking on. The experience of making something has to be very fulfilling because you can’t really count on anything else.

Yes, by the time this airs, SAG-AFTRA will be on strike. Like most actors, you broke into TV by guest starring on shows like ER. What do you remember about that time as an actor going from job to job? And can you relate it for me to this moment for actors and the union?

Well, it’s a completely different industry. I remember living in Los Angeles, and thank goodness I was very lucky when I graduated—I got a holding deal from John Wells. It was only an eight-month deal, but it sustained me for years. I knew how to stretch a dollar because I didn’t work for a long time. I was living in Los Angeles, going from audition to audition in pilot season. I’d get sent 20 pages to audition for a show and then go in, and they’d be like, “We just need the first scene.” Recently, someone reminded me, there was an article in Backstage magazine about casting directors, and someone asked, “Do you remember an experience?” They said, “I remember Jessica Chastain coming in during pilot season and she had to do six scenes. And she came in and her hair was all messed up and she was kind of sweaty.” I was like, Oh, my God. Clearly I didn’t think about my presentation. It was just like, Okay, what’s the material?

I had my Honda Civic and I had my trunk full of costumes for each of the auditions, and I would change at the gas station and go into the next one. If I got a guest spot on a show, that meant I made, I think at that time, $5,000 minus taxes. That’s what, $3,000? And I would stretch that money for a few months, and then I would get the checks of residuals every time it played or where it played. And that actually sustained me and helped me work because it’s very rare that an actor is given the opportunities to work in a steady way. We’ve had much advancements and innovations in our technology and in streaming and in content creation. The contracts never kept in line with the innovations that were happening in technology. And because of that, the people that are in their Honda Civic going from audition to audition, hoping to get a guest spot on something for $3,000, and then not getting residuals if it’s going to streamers, that is not enough money to live for months and take care of yourself and support a family. There are a lot of downloads and streams, and someone’s making a lot of money, and it’s not the everyday actors out there working hard, or the writers who make a show happen.

I remember being at the SAG Awards earlier this year, and you won for George & Tammy. You gave a beautiful speech reflecting on your time in college and a visit that Philip Seymour Hoffman paid your class that really inspired you. Amid so much uncertainty and imminent stoppage, what do you say to young actors today?

When I was in Los Angeles, I didn’t have a family that I was supporting. It was me on my own in a rent-controlled apartment. I lived very meagerly, and I know a lot of people out there are living meagerly. Many people are going to try to figure out how to support their family with other jobs during this time. But if someone’s able, I would just say: Do something every day to remind yourself of who you are and the art that you make. When no one was hiring me for something—and I know that’s a very different scenario than a strike, but when I wasn’t on a set working—I would do things like go to the library and check out books. I thought, like, Okay, I’m going to adapt Hamlet for a movie. I did things every day to remind myself of who I was and what I should be doing. And I wasn’t waiting for someone else to give me value. That’s what we have to remind ourselves during this time where we’re not going to work. We can be reading. We can decide, Okay, what if I write a one-person show based on this book that I like or this story that I like? At the end of the day, we are what is interesting to the public, not someone in a suit making decisions about whether or not a writer’s story is interesting.

I think of a project like George & Tammy in that context, the artistry that you and Michael and the entire creative team bring to the series. And I think of the subjects you’re playing, these very tortured and landmark artists. Did the project make you think about your art, and art generally, in a different way?

Tammy has this quote. She said, “I believe you have to live the songs.” And I really connected to that, this idea of living your art. What does that mean? She lived her songs. She didn’t just stand there and sing something. She wrote about an experience that she was going through, or she sang about something she was grappling with. And as an artist, as an actor, I find that when I’m creating something, it’s as though I am living it. I don’t feel a sense of removal, of that person is different from me. When I’m playing a scene, it’s as though something is happening to me personally.

When I did Tree of Life, I loved those boys. I would get Mother’s Day cards after we wrapped from them. We really had such a strong bond, and we created something real and we lived it. We lived the story we were telling. And I think that is true to my work. The reason why George & Tammy works so well is there’s love there. I really care for Mike. I’ve known him for a long time. I was very protective of him during the shoot. It’s a very vulnerable thing for him to do a romance and to showcase his vulnerability in an industry that has typecast him against it. They’ve really looked at him another way. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about any kind of art form—that you really get to experience circumstances that are different than your own, but you walk away with a greater understanding of humanity because you’ve learned more about life.

You mentioned Mike coming into this with the industry seeing him a certain way, maybe. This felt, to me, like one of your most daring  and interesting performances as well. Stepping into it, what felt most daring about it to you?

For sure it was the singing. To stand up in front of hundreds of people and sing “Stand by Your Man” for 10 hours, looking at these faces of these amazing background artists, and know that I am going to hit some bum notes—it’s a very vulnerable thing to do. I kept thinking, Is someone going to take out their video camera or their cell phone and record me and then post it online and then make fun of me? It was so much vulnerability with that kind of exposure. But just in the same way that Mike was vulnerable in doing a romance and really showing his fragility, I had to be gutsy and be like, Okay, I have to allow the vulnerability of performing in this way that I’ve never done before.

What did it feel like to wrap the project and say goodbye?

It was kind of amazing because we wrapped in Nashville. We shot this in Wilmington, and then at the very end, we were able to perform at the Ryman, which is the sacred house of country music. It was not even meant to be this way, it just happened schedule-wise. But onstage at the Ryman was my last performance, and we had me singing “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and it was the anniversary of Tammy’s death. It was a complete coincidence; we realized it maybe a week before. This had been such a long journey to get this made, so to be there onstage at the Ryman, to be singing that song, to have Georgette, her daughter, there—it just felt so meaningful.

I said to the audience that day—to all the people who were there watching, I said, “Please excuse me, there may be some times I might not be able to get through the song. This is a very special day because we’re honoring her. This is the anniversary of her death.” [Sniffles] It was a beautiful way to end this series, but a very emotional way to end.

I can see you’re still emotional about it.

I think it’s just the way I am. It’s hard for me to talk about it because I do get emotional when something affects me. And again, living the songs, this idea of living the experiences, it doesn’t feel like it happened to someone else. It feels like it happened to me because I feel like I’ve lived it. As an artist, too, you work so hard to not armor up; you want to be open. And so that means sometimes I do get affected because it’s my job to be an open human being and to be vulnerable and to be honest. So because I lived this very meaningful experience, sometimes when I talk about it, it’s like I go right back to what the experience was. My job is incredibly important to me and incredibly meaningful because it goes very deep.

I think of Tammy Faye, George & Tammy, Doll’s House. They’re all really intensely emotional characters, performances, stories. So I can imagine it’s quite a lot to live with, making that art a part of your actual experience.

Yeah, but there’s a lot of joy too. I mean, Scenes From a Marriage was very tough. And I love Oscar [Isaac], but the reality is, our friendship has never quite been the same. We’re going to be okay, but after that, I was like, I need a little bit of a breather. There was so much I love you, I hate you in that series. But there’s so much joy in what I get to do. There’s a lot of catharsis. I feel like I have the best job in the world because I get to have these experiences. They’re so out of this world and feel like they’re mine. But then I live a very quiet life. I don’t have to have these tortured things in my life. I play them and I experience them, and then I come home and I live quietly and peacefully.

With this recent stretch of roles that you’re talking about, does it maybe just change what you’re looking for a little bit, show you what a career can be? That 2011 period, for people like me who were just getting introduced to you, was super exciting, but I think now it’s really expanded.

Well, here’s the thing. This might be controversial to say. In 2011, a lot of directors were very excited about discovering me and shaping me. I’ve had great experiences, like working with Terry Malick was one of my favorite experiences of my life. But there’s a sense when you are new to the scene as a woman, you’re very interesting for the male gaze. And as you become less new, you try to figure out how you fit in the industry, because a lot of the male gaze wants what is—they gravitate toward the new actress. I’m working with Michel Franco, who’s an incredible foreign film director; I have another project with him. I probably will seek out a lot more foreign filmmakers because I think they’re interested in women of all ages and of all stories and not interested in a Svengali saying, like, I am the creator of this artist. “She’s an artist on her own, and I want to collaborate with her.” It takes a very confident filmmaker—and man—to do that.

As we talk through a difficult period for this industry, I am really interested in your perspective as someone who, as we’ve been talking about, has been through a lot of stages of it.

I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think the contracts are fair, and I’m not speaking for me. I’m at a place right now where I can support my family. But there are a lot of people who can’t, and the industry, it’s not right, it’s not fair. We need to stand together and fight for a fair wage until we get it, and we can do that.

I mean, we closed down during COVID for a long time. Here’s the difference, though: During that time, we still in some sense did press, whether it be social media; we were constantly going on Zooms, and there was still some sense of entertainment. A lot of people who are making the decisions are saying, like, “Okay, well, at a certain point, artists and writers will get tired of not working.” The reality is, at least what I’ve heard from my union, what I’ve heard from writers that I’ve spoken to, this is a fight that will go on for a long time until people are paid fairly. And I’m willing to not work to make sure that everyone is paid fairly. But it makes me really sad, though, too, because, again, we just talked about George & Tammy. I’ve been working on it for 12 years, and starting tomorrow, I can’t even post about it. It’s a shocking thing, but, again, worth it for my union and for the writers union.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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