Jessica Chastain stars as Anna Morales alongside Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales in writer/director J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. The multiple-award-winning-actress speaks about her character’s role in the film.
Q: In order to get the right Anna, you also had to find the right Abel and I loved the fact that you campaigned really hard for Oscar Isaac. Can you talk about why you thought Oscar was the perfect person?
Jessica Chastain: I have known Oscar for over ten years; we went to college together. Not only have we been fans of each other’s work, but we’ve been friends and I know him really well. He came to my premiere of The Debt, I went to his premiere for The Nativity Story, (laughter). We had dinner the day he was auditioning for Inside Llewyn Davis. We were having dinner at a Thai Restaurant and he pulled out his iPhone and he said, let me show you my audition, and I was like, you are going to get this part! We are in total support of each other and such great friends, but we have never acted together. So there was someone else attached to the film that fell out, and I said to JC, there’s an actor who is really, really right for this role, and he’s one of the best actors working today. Oscar is Cuban and Guatemalan and he moved to the United States when he was a child. He did actually live the American Dream, as Abel is trying to do in the film, and he’s a really good actor. He’s someone who can see something in this character that is exciting.
Q: To then work with Oscar, who you have known for so long, what was it like to collaborate on creating the relationship of Anna and Abel, what was the kind of conversations that you guys had?
Jessica Chastain: Our training was in theatre. So sometimes in film when you go onto a set, there’s no rehearsal time, which makes me worry a little bit. Usually rehearsal is reserved for just costume fittings. But with this film, because we have the same training, Oscar and I had the same vocabulary. We had the same way of approaching the project. So before we started filming, he and I met, we hung out at my house, and went through the script. We created the back story together. There’s a scene in the script where my character hits him and we can ask the questions, has this ever happened before, has she ever hit you before? Has he ever hit her before? Things like that. We get to understand the relationship so well, so when we are on set we can just play. To work with an actor like that, you feel like you are part of a team, and you see that in the movie. Like Anna and Abel, they are on the same team. Even though they argue, even though they don’t have the same ways of going about finding success, they are in it together. And that’s exciting to me, to work with another actor like that.
Q: What was kind of fascinating watching the film was the whole time I was asking, are they a good couple? What is your take on it?
Jessica Chastain: Oh gosh. It’s an interesting question to think about, are they a good couple. I think they definitely work together. I think they love each other. She cracks me up because one moment she is celebrating him, he is her king and she lifts him up and the very next moment, she’s critical of him. And she doesn’t even realize what she is doing. I think that comes from the fact that she is a woman born 20 years too soon in a man’s world and the frustration of never being taken seriously, having to hide behind a man, to become a trophy, where her tool is the way she looks, where she is easily underestimated. I think that’s the reason why she is so back and forth with her attitude toward Abel. But part of me also wonders if it creates this fire in their relationship. I think they have the hottest relationship, (laughs) I mean they have kids, but I think that if she was all-emasculating, it wouldn’t work, but because she lifts him up at the same time, I think it works for them.
Q: So when you come to this realization, how did you find the tone for your Anna? What kind of research did you need to do in order to get it right for your version of this character?
Jessica Chastain: Well, I saw on the page a woman who is trying to present herself differently than how she really is. I mean, she’s coming from Bayside Brooklyn, her dad had ties to the mob, they had money, but they didn’t have a lot of money. Now she thinks she’s Jackie O. She thinks she doesn’t have an accent, her weapons are the way she looks, so she wants all the money, the nicest cars and the biggest house, because that is power and everything she is, is about showing power and intimidation from the get go. If someone sees you weak, they attack. Even her nails; in 1981, women really had very, very long nails. Not all of them, (laughter) Jackie O did not have long nails, but there is something about it that is predatory. This is a woman who doesn’t raise her children, she doesn’t cook meals or do housekeeping and she has trouble lifting boxes or opening cabinets, so in a way you think she’s psycho, but in fact, the nails are like claws. There’s a predatory, sexual aspect to it. Men need her and they think she is this visual, sex object. But in doing so, you are underestimating her, because more important than her sex is her mind and her brain, and that’s what you come to realise at the end, is that there is so much more that is happening behind the scenes. So I loved this idea of the character, that there are always opposites happening. We talked about lifting Abel up and then emasculating him. We talked about acting helpless but also then being threatening. Two things are at odds and I think those are the most interesting acting choices.