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Jessica Chastain on Acting

Charlie Rose recently had the wonderful Jessica Chastain on his show for the hour. Available on [link] -- it delved into her thoughts on acting and I wanted to share some of her thoughts which I found particularly interesting.

Al Pacino
Charlie Rose: How did he [Al Pacino] change you as an actress?
Jessica Chastain: Well, he taught me a couple of things. I used to be afraid of the camera and think, like, pretend it’s not there. And he said, it completely opened my eyes, “Most people are afraid of the camera, but for film, you have to be intimate with the camera. Because more than your scene partner, the camera sees into your eyes. It sees into your soul. It’s part of you and just like your arm is part of you, once you accept it, you forget the arm is there. But with the camera, once you accept it has a direct line to your soul, you can forget it. But you have to be more open to it than anything else.” …. It just changed me.

L.A. and Getting into Julliard
Jessica Chastain: I had many people after I got in, tell me, in L.A., after I got in, you shouldn’t go to Julliard because you’ll be too old when you get out of school to be an actor.

Thirst for Learning
Charlie Rose: So if someone came out of high school today, who had talent, and they admired you --
Jessica Chastain: Go to school.
Charlie Rose: You say, go to school?
Jessica Chastain: Absolutely.
Charlie Rose: Go to Yale. Go to Julliard. Go somewhere.
Jessica Chastain: Go somewhere. Even if it’s not acting school. Go to school. You have to learn about life. You can’t be an actor not having experienced life. Uh, every part I get, to me, it’s like a course I’m taking. When I did “The Debt”, I learned so much about the medical - not fun - so much about the medical experiments during the Holocaust and Mengele, and the survivors. Every part I play, I have to immerse myself in that. I have to study that world in order to understand those women. And when you go to school, and you have this capacity to learn, this thirst to learn, I think it makes you a better actor.

Doing the Work
Jessica Chastain: I think I’ve always been the person, I do the work when no one’s watching. I’ve always been like that. Even when I was playing a dead body in L.A. on some TV show, I was at my house doing play readings of “Miss Julie” and ask my friends to come over and read the play out loud. I was constantly, at one point I was writing, adapting “Hamlet” for a movie which I’ll never make. But I was constantly trying to remind myself, every day, I’m an actor. I’m this kind of actor. I need to challenge myself in these stories.

The Prep
Charlie Rose: If you were teaching a master class about acting, what would you want the students to know, that you have learned?
Jessica Chastain: The most important thing, I think, is the prep before you arrive. Absolutely. If it’s someone who doesn’t want to play themself as the character, like in “Zero Dark Thirty”, I’m not playing Jessica Chastain as a CIA agent because then I would be crying throughout the whole movie! …. It’s always, for me, the prep is understanding the world that you’re in and really understanding the character. Understanding your similarities and the differences. It’s a lot of homework. That’s absolutely what I would stress to people.

Giving Yourself Over to a Role
Charlie Rose: The idea of being able to execute it once you understand it? Can you explain it or is that simply doing it that you learn the things that are necessary to being good?
Jessica Chastain: …. It’s about not having a sense of vanity as an actor. Or even a sense of vanity / narcissism. When I was working with Sean Penn on “Tree of Life”, we were talking one time about acting. And he didn’t know how shy I was. At that point, I was still painfully shy but I was trying to hide it. And he said, “That a person who is self-conscious is just as narcissistic as someone who talks about themselves all the time because you’re still self-absorbed.” And there’s something about being an actor where, this is me defining what he said. Something for me about being an actor, that with nudity, or doing scenes, that I can’t be concerned with how I look when I’m playing a character. I have to completely give myself over to the woman, or the man, or whatever it is I’m playing, and yes, have an emotional thruline to myself, but there has to be an absence of self at the same time.

A Character’s Energy
Jessica Chastain: I think a lot about energy when I’m acting. …. I think, “Where does the energy live in the person?” And, for me, Rachel Singer, has survivor’s guilt. Her whole family has been killed. Why does she deserve to be alive? So, for her, I thought a lot about scar tissue. That she is just this walking scar tissue.

Michael Shannon
Jessica Chastain: Working with Mike [Michael Shannon], that’s a master class right there. You can never take your eye off the ball. He’s constantly doing something. If you’re not present, you miss it.
Charlie Rose: Why did you take that role?
Jessica Chastain: To work with Mike Shannon.

Being Part of Something Bigger
Charlie Rose: Are you happiest getting inside the character, or the actual filming of the material?
Jessica Chastain: You mean, like, the research or the filming?
Charlie Rose: Yeah.
Jessica Chastain: I’m always happiest in the filming. Because there is a freedom in that. You do all the work before, which sometimes is really difficult, because you have to go to really dark places, learn things about humanity that you didn’t know. These horrible things. Create secrets for your character. Once I do that, I have this kind of book, this is who I am. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I just show up there, and now it’s in me. And it’s like, there’s this intimacy between actors that is so incredible. Being able to look at someone and have it mean so much. It’s very rare, even walking down the street, when we really look at someone. And there’s something about filming, like I said, that makes me feel part of something bigger.

Confidence vs. Fear
If you’re too confident, you end up not being good, because your ego is driving everything. But if you’re too fearful, you never take chances. I’ve always found you learn more from failure than you do from success. So, if I’m going to risk failure, I’m going to throw myself out there. I’m not going to be good in this. That’s fine, because I’m going to learn more.

Ralph Fiennes
Charlie Rose: Ralph Fiennes. You said about him, “That his performance in “Schindler’s List” made you realize that acting was more than about being in films, it was about playing complicated, very human, characters.”

Charlie Rose: Someone said to me, about acting, that it has to look like you’ve just had the thought. So that’s what's happening there, you’re looking at it as a spontaneous experience. You have to feel it as a spontaneous experience, even though, in your head, and everything you’ve thought about, you have practiced it.
Jessica Chastain. Yeah, the difference for me though is I don’t know what my thoughts are going to be. So I know what the lines are, I know where my character is coming from, but not until I’m in the scene with the person, and I see how they’re talking to me, and the temperature - what exactly is going on in this room, are they rude? Are they listening to me? Is he shutting me off? Is he not looking me in the eye? I don’t know how I’m going to be within it. So for me, the thoughts are always spontaneous because it depends on the actor I’m with.