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I saw Jessica Chastain in 5 different movies in 2011, and yet when I saw her walk in a room in October of last year, I didn't recognize her. And in a way you might not expect from a young starlet on a very fast rise to fame, she seemed completely delighted to fly under the radar.
"Did you know it was me when I walked in?" she asked with a laugh after sitting down with group of journalists, who had already been chatting with a very animated Guillermo del Toro. In our defense, she had accomplished a pretty impressive transition in costume as Annabel, the unlikely heroine of Mama, which del Toro was executive producing while his directorial effort Pacific Rim was in pre-production on the soundstage next door at Pinewood Toronto Studios. As Annabel Chastain masks her signature flame-red hair beneath a short, dark brown wig and has enough realistic looking tattoos on her arm that you immediately believe her character, a bass player in a punk band with absolutely no interest in raising kids. Of course, what happens next in Mama is exactly the opposite-- she and her boyfriend Lucas (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) wind up caring for two little girls (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) who have spent years living alone in an abandoned house in the forest.
Or… were they alone? As you might have seen in the film's sublimely creepy trailer, the girls are loyal to a figure they call "Mama," who looks like a ghost, a witch, or some terrible combination of the two. Mama was first introduced in the short film of the same name that director Andy Muschietti made in 2008; before we go any further, you can watch it below, though keeping in mind that the story of the feature film, and the look of Mama, are pretty different.
Guillermo del Toro got a look at "Mama" while Andy and Barbara were planning to make a different film, but when he encouraged them to develop "Mama" as a feature, they brought all of their attention to that, asking themselves about the back story of the girls in the original short, and adding new characters like Annabel and Lucas to help tell the story. In the scene we saw them shoot that day last October, Annabel has been left to care for the girls on her own, and is doing something most parents wouldn't think twice about-- opening a closet door in the girls' bedroom. But with the girls unnaturally fixated on the door, and our knowledge that Mama is watching over them constantly, Annabel's walk toward that door is filled with dread-- even watching it take after take, on a monitor 20 feet away from the actual set.
A daylong visit to the set of Mama was an exercise in contrasts, and not just from peeking at some of the massive Pacific Rim set under construction while walking to visit the modest soundstage where Mama was holding court (as co-screenwriter and co-producer Barbara Muschietti joked, they were using just one studio because "Guillermo took all the others.") Terrifying test footage of actor Javier Botet in costume as Mama was followed by a visit to the trailer where the two adorable child actresses were in a session with their tutors. A tour of the art department showed off the brightly colored, hipster knick-knacks of the apartment Annabel and Lucas shared before they took custody of the girls, then the designs for the gnarled, supernaturally creepy tree that's the focal point of the film's finale. And amid all of that there was Chastain, with dark eye makeup and a wary scowl while in character, but who invited us into her trailer between takes to see the research she'd done, and allowed us to play with her adorable three-legged poodle, Chaplin .
We'll be bringing you lots more information from the set of Mama both later today and throughout the next few days, from details on just how unnerving that test footage was to a conversation with brother and sister Andy and Barbara Muschietti, who have been working together for 10 years and who draw on a deep reservoir of influences that scared them as kids to make their first feature film together. There's also, of course, an exceedingly long conversation with Guillermo del Toro, who somehow spent an hour chatting despite the fact that he was executive producing this movie while also two weeks away from starting production on Pacific Rim.
But first, here's the conversation with Chastain, occasionally peppered with jokes from del Toro, who stuck around throughout. She admits that she's a huge scaredy-cat when it comes to horror, but she actually uses it to her benefit, asking the director to pipe in music from the film's test reels to help her get in the mood for the creepier scenes. She also talks about the benefit of being scared by the role, being accidentally slugged by one of her child co-stars, and how the fact that she's not exactly who you'd expect for a movie like this is exactly why she wanted the part. Check it all out on the next page, and come back later for much, much more from the set of Mama, which opens January 18 next year.
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