If conventional Hollywood wisdom means anything in the more modern, disruptive form that the business has taken on, children and animals should be the most difficult co-stars to work with. Yet, there are plenty of both in director Niki Caro's Holocaust drama The Zookeeper's Wife, and the performances of both child and animal are just as good as those of the adult leads of the film. Regardless, working with the animals did require some preparation from Jessica Chastain.
CinemaBlend recently asked Jessica Chastain how hard it was to work with a menagerie of actual animals in the midst of a very visceral World War II drama. Chastain provided the following insight into just how she prepared to work with the animals of the film:
Niki created an environment for the animals to just be, and behave as themselves and not be forced to do anything that they wouldn't naturally do. I spent some time before I even got to Prague and worked with people who dedicate their lives to animals, because I knew I'd be working with animals and I wanted to bring an energy that made them feel safe and supported them and wouldn't put anything in distress.
While speaking with both Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain during the press day for The Zookeeper's Wife, Chastain spoke out about her experiences prior to filming the movie, and it seems as if she took the role seriously. In fact, when you see The Zookeeper's Wife, you'll probably notice the moments between actor Jessica Chastain and some of her animal co-stars are notable, as the scenes between her and the inhabitants of the recreation of Antonina and Jan Zabinski's zoo are just as moving as her moments with the Polish Jews they're providing refuge to.
While preparing for her role in The Zookeeper's Wife, Jessica Chastain worked with the fine folks at the Brooklyn Zoo in New York City, and both on and off camera reportedly grew comfortable with the animals that were on set. Not only did these efforts help the animals co-operate for the filmmakers, but it also helped Chastain herself relax in-between takes of what was undoubtedly a grueling shoot.
Still, all of the advantages of live animals on the set don't completely take away from the fact that working with animals is still a difficult prospect. With CGI being such an easy alternative to creating indelible images like Antonina comforting an elephant mother, while trying to resuscitate her supposedly still-born child, the studio could have saved themselves the time and effort of working with real animals on set. However, it would have removed one key ingredient to what makes The Zookeeper's Wife work in its best moments: the authenticity.
No one understood this more than Jessica Chastain, as she continued her remarks about the advantage of working with actual animals, as follows:
What I loved about working with them is their authenticity, and I never forced myself onto them. I never forced them to do anything they didn't want to do naturally, and I waited for them to invite me into their space before I imposed myself onto them.
It's a bond you can see working in one particular scene--minor spoilers--featuring Jessica Chastain actually emoting opposite an elephant, who is working to revive her baby. Don't take my word for it though, as the footage of my conversation with Jessica Chastain can be seen below:
In that moment, Antonina Zabinska is solidified as the nurturing protector that history would remember her as. Her tenderness towards animals and humans alike is the fuel to the engine that is The Zookeeper's Wife, and as per usual Jessica Chastain has outdone herself with a performance that lights up the screen. You can see The Zookeeper's Wife for yourself, when it's released this Friday. See what else is coming up with our premiere schedule.