Jess Perfect | 

Jessica Chastain reveals why she enjoys playing ‘unlikeable characters’

Hollywood darling Jessica Chastain is next seen in The Forgiven, by Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh. She tells Esther McCarthy why she’s not interested in perfection despite finally bagging an Oscar
Celebrating her Oscar win with husband Gian Luca Passi

Celebrating her Oscar win with husband Gian Luca Passi

Jessica Chastain on the red carpet

Jessica Chastain on the red carpet

Jessica with Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

Jessica with Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

Jessica with director John Michael McDonagh

Jessica with director John Michael McDonagh© ??  `??_/O????????

Sunday World

A fondness for the movies of London-Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh led Hollywood superstar Jessica Chastain to her latest project.

The man behind hit films including The Guard and Calvary brought Jessica on board to play the type of complicated woman she has nailed so many times on the big screen.

The result is The Forgiven, a twisty psychological thriller adapted from the smash-hit novel by Lawrence Osborne.

Hot on the heels of her Oscar win earlier this year, the movie further solidifies the star’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s most bankable actresses.

“Incredible,” is how Jessica describes her Oscar night when she picked up her first win for playing a real-life televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She’d been nominated twice before, for her role in Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and race drama The Help, but this was the first time she got to bring an Oscar for Best Actress home.

“I still can’t believe it. I’m so lucky,” she says of that memorable night. “I have felt that way every single day since 2011 when my films started to come out. I can’t believe that I get to do this with my life. This started out as a dream I had as a little kid and now here I am living it. I’m still in shock about it and I hope I will always be in shock because then I will always appreciate it.”

Jessica with Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

Jessica with Ralph Fiennes in The Forgiven

The Forgiven, released in Irish cinemas later this summer, is set in Morocco and sees the star play Jo Henninger, the wife of Ralph Fiennes’ David. Set over one memorable weekend in a remote region, the story looks at the impact of a random accident both on the house guests and the local community.

“I play Jo, who with her husband David is kind of sleepwalking through their life and through their marriage,” she explains. “They are on their way to their friend Richard’s party in the middle of the desert in Morocco when a terrible accident happens and a boy is killed. I don’t want to give anything away, but both Jo and David find themselves needing to atone in some way because they cannot help but be affected by what they have done.”

Ever since the Californian first began to carve out a career for herself, first in theatre and then in TV and film, she has embraced the opportunity to play complex women. Since then she has done just that, shining as Celia in The Help, as a woman who ran a high-stakes poker contest in Molly’s Game, and opposite our own Colin Farrell in Miss Julia, a period drama filmed in Co Fermanagh.

In The Forgiven, Jo gets to deliver the memorable line: “I’m so awake I’m dangerous”, and Jessica revealed that she specifically asked to use it after reading the book.

“Yeah, that’s in the novel. It’s my favourite quote of Jo’s so I asked John to put it in the screenplay. It perfectly sums up Jo’s story arc of how this one traumatic event shocks her into waking up and changing her life drastically. That line was very important to me because after what happens she no longer cares about being polite, she just cares about being alive and awake.”

Jessica Chastain on the red carpet

Jessica Chastain on the red carpet

It doesn’t bother her that Jo — and some of the other women she has played — can come across as unlikeable. “I love it. I’ve built a career on playing unlikeable characters. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes and we are all selfish and ambitious. That’s what being human is. We’re all complex — we’re not always selfless or filled with integrity and honour.

"I find characters, female characters especially, who do things that go against what society expects a woman to do very exciting to play. I was very happy to play Jo for that reason.”

By a strange coincidence, the 45-year-old looked into bagging the rights to the book herself, before the role eventually came her way via McDonagh and her co-star, Ralph Fiennes.

“I loved the book initially. I was flying into Vienna to spend some time with the amazing filmmaker Michael Haneke and his wife, and at the airport, I thought I would pick up a book to read. I grabbed The Forgiven and I was just gripped by it.

“We were talking about art and cinema over this most incredible weekend together and with this book so vivid in my mind, I got to thinking what an incredible film it could be. That’s when I went after the rights, only to discover they had gone. That was years ago so it’s strange how things worked out,” she says.

“Ralph Fiennes, who I have worked with before and who is a dear friend, texted me saying that he was going to be a part of this new version and I was interested straight away. It became a very easy decision — like it was kismet and I was supposed to play Jo. All of the pieces fell into place and I have always loved John Michael McDonagh’s work as a writer and a director so it all just worked out.”

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The young Chastain didn’t initially dream of a career on the big screen when growing up in the Californian suburb of Sacramento. Her mum was a vegan chef and her stepdad a fireman, but she started dancing as an adolescent before taking part in local productions of Shakespeare plays. Everything changed when she landed a place at the acclaimed New York arts school Juilliard, and soon she was making a name for herself in theatre. The Help and Zero Dark Thirty would prove to be her big breakthroughs on screen.

She is acutely aware that her high profile places her in a position to shine a light on social injustices and has, for example, been vocal about the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US on social media.

Jessica feels that The Forgiven is relevant to the present day. “I think people are just starting to open up and ask what privilege really means, and to question the life they have been living up until this point. Are other people being denied the same rights I have? We’re in a time where, hopefully, many of us are looking into ourselves and questioning whether we are serving the communities around us. I think this is an important film because it delves into that.

“We should never stop being curious about our effect on others. That’s how you grow empathy. Hopefully talking about this film right now means we’re at a point where we’re focussed on creating an empathetic society.”

Regardless of her success so far, mum-of-two Jessica says she is always on the lookout for meaty new roles.

“It’s about the creative experience, who I am working with and what I can learn from the experience. The most important thing is to do something new and challenging. I don’t have to play the most noble person in the world. Mostly, I want to know that I am contributing to something positive.”


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