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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.
Jessica, what’s it been like working with Andy, a new director, and of course Guillermo? Did Guillermo’s name help convince you to sign on for this project?
Chastain: Well of course. I’ve been such a huge fan of Guillermo’s and he’s one of the first people I met actually when I came onto this project. I was surprised, because I had knee problems. I came on to the meeting in crutches and was like “They won’t want me after he sees me in crutches…”
Del Toro: A broken leg. I said, “I will break the other one if you don’t do it.”
Chastain: And then I met with Andy and Barbara and I was really impressed with his ideas and how creative he was and how emotional he wanted the story to be and how important relationships in this story were to him. I always get a feeling about something, and I had a feeling about Jeff Nichols with Take Shelter. I really just go on instinct and I loved the story.
Can you tell us a little bit about Annabel? I was not expecting this…
Chastain: You weren’t expecting me like this? (Laughs) Did you know it was me when I walked in?
[A chorus of "no"s]
Chastain: Yeah, it’s really cool, right? Andy said I should get this [arm tattoo of an octopus] in real life, just have it stenciled in and put his face right here. Yeah, it’s a fun look. Annabel is a woman who, you know, when the film starts she is someone who never ever imagined she would ever, ever be around children. It’s not something she wants in her life at all and she becomes, I guess, the unwilling protector of these girls and by the end she kind of grows up. It’s like Andy said to me in our first meeting, he said “She becomes a hero of people.”
Who is she? This is a character who isn’t in the short, so what does she do? When we meet her, who is she?
Chastain: Well she plays bass guitar in a punk band and she lives with her boyfriend who is an illustrator and she’s like… The way I’m approaching her, she’s this woman who doesn’t really ever want to grow up. She never really has any responsibilities. I mean with the octopus [tattoo] she probably sees herself like an octopus, when the tentacles get caught then they detach and then they grow back. She’s very anti-responsibility. I don’t know what to say without giving away much of the story, she is just stuck. She ends up stuck with these children that she doesn’t want in her life and it’s a complicated relationship, because the children are stuck with something else.
You are wearing a Purple Misfits shirt, which is like a milestone of punk rock, is there any kind of music that you are kind of listening to to get in the headspace of the character?
Chastain: Yes, you know I’m listening a lot to the Ramones and… God, I’ve got my trailer decorated with lots of posters. I can take you guys if you guys want to come see my trailer in a bit… [Note: She eventually did follow through with the offer, which is pretty amazing] What I found and it’s an experiment and we will see if it works, someone told me that Johnny Depp listens… I wouldn’t do this in other movies, but he listens to music when he’s acting like an iPod, because I did a movie with him and he was doing that and I thought “That’s so interesting” and then I thought, “If I’m doing this film…” I asked Andy if on some of the tests that they had put together that there was music, if they could feed it into my ear when we are doing some of those scenes and that has been so helpful, because I’m such a scaredy cat and even listening to like… They have this lullaby that they’ve worked on that is so terrifying and it just plays on repeat. No one knows that I have it.
Del Toro: Now they do.
What’s your background, if any at all, as a scary movie fan? I know that this has been described as a supernatural thriller as opposed to a horror film. What’s your background as a fan of supernatural thrillers or ghost stories or horror films?
Chastain: I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever. You know this is going to sound silly, because you’re [gesturing to del Toro] right here, but I love The Orphanage so much and I love the elements of fantasy that are sometimes in those stories. I love Pan’s Labyrinth with the eyes… and The Ring I really, really like The Ring. As an audience member, I never thought like “I’m going to grow up and be a horror film actress." I just wanted to be an actress that had the opportunity to try everything and learn as much as I could.
But man, I remember when I was really, really young watching The Exorcistwith my mom and my sister downstairs and it was so intense for me watching that film and I remember like halfway through I was like “Okay, can I turn it off?” My mom was like “No, you could just go upstairs.” Then the feeling of walking up the stairs… So I try to pull that feeling… Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door and it’s like me ten years old walking up the stairs. I really love it.
Del Toro: And there’s a great tradition of actresses… I mean let’s say it’s not the norm. You can have just a scream queen or you can have a sexy actress in a horror movie, but there is also a very beautiful rarified layer of great actresses that find their best part in the genre like Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn… Belen [Rueda, star of The Orphanage] for me is a fantastic actress for the genre and everything else. Naomi Watts… Nicole Kidman in The Others. It’s seldom thought about like that and I think when it’s done right and for the right reasons, on MAMA there’s a good chance it may come that way.
Chastain: I was really surprised when it was first introduced to me, the script, because I thought “I am so not the expected choice” and even that gave me more faith in like “Well that’s really interesting. If you think I might bring something to this part…” Because you know like I’m also used to watching a lot of horror films like where you say when there’s the girl in the tank top in the rain and crying… So I thought this would be really interesting.
Do you want a script or a film to scare you when you take it on?
Chastain: Oh absolutely. It has to be something where I think like “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull this off.” When I have that feeling in me, then it puts the element of horror in me already and I have to try to rise to the occasion. I find with anything in my life when you are rising to the occasion, even if you don’t quite get there, you are going beyond yourself somewhat.
This is a very vulnerable time for me to be talking to you guys right now, because this is just the third week we’ve been doing it. Now I feel like I’m starting to find my feet and get into the groove of it, but it’s a completely different way of working. The scenes are so short that I think like “Am I…” I’ve never worked like that before, but when I have great teachers and people watching my back like I have on this team then it gives me more confidence that it’s going okay.
For The Debt you learned the physicality of that, the martial arts, and now you are running through the woods and what not. How physical are the roles in this one?
Chastain: It’s not as physical as The Debt. I don’t do krav maga on any monsters.
Del Toro: Although wrestling the girls to the ground…
Chastain: We do have this amazing girl who plays Lilly who is a firecracker. She is…
Del Toro: Tough to put down.
Chastain: There was a scene where we were wrestling and I actually said to her, “It’s okay, she can hit me in the face” like before I was taking her hand like “Look, it’s fine!” So you know, you normally have to talk the girl into…
Del Toro: And then she goes, bam!
You were saying that this is not like anything you’ve worked on before, but it seems like you’ve worked on so many different kinds of movies. I’m curious, is it the horror that makes this different? You are saying there are short takes. What is so different?
Chastain: Well the character is different and I think it’s easy for me to bond with children and I just love kids, and so to play a woman who really doesn’t know even how to touch a kid. You know, she doesn’t want anything to do with them. And for example Take Shelter we shot that movie so quick and sometimes we’d have three takes for one scene with tons of dialog, so I’d come to set and it would be Mike Shannon and I talking about the structure of the scene and where we had to get and what that was, like a play. This is different in that it’s like “Okay, all we are getting right now is me walking to the closet and opening the door.”
Del Toro: It seems like you and the ghost are both protecting the children, but are sort of at odds with each other. How do you get to the point where you are giving empathy to something that you are so scared of? Does that happen?
Chastain: You know it’s funny, because we haven’t really shot the scenes with me and the ghost yet. Another really cool thing I remember Guillermo said to me the first time we met was you know the idea of a ghost is when the ghost dies, if they are in an extreme state when they die, they stay in that state. So if this woman was in a state of protecting a child or being like this maternal thing, the ghost that she is is that, and so if anything threatens her connection to what she feels is her children, that will always be there. So it’s not like I think Annabel is fighting because she wants to be like the best mom, I think it’s just she becomes a threat, because in any way that the children start to connect with Annabel who’s actually alive and warm, then it pulls them away from her, so it becomes like that dynamic.
As a self professed scaredy cat, are you concerned about your scenes with Mama eventually? Are you going to be terrified on set?
Chastain: Well I have to be, so yeah. I’ve gotten a bunch of scary films that I’ve put in my trailer and I’ve taken a lot of them home and it’s like “I have half an hour? Okay, I’ll just put it on for the sound and the atmosphere.” I’ve been able to do that here, but then when I get home like I try… I’ve tried so many times to watch [REC], it’s just not going to happen.
It’s only like a 75 minute movie.
Chastain: I know, it’s just not possible!
Del Toro: Javier [Botet, who plays Mama] is in it.
Chastain: I know, that’s why I know [I have to see it].
Del Toro: And when he shows up you crap.