The moment Jessica Chastain finished reading the script for Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow's scrupulously researched re-creation of the CIA's decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, the first movie she says she thought of was All the President's Men.
"I thought of it the second I read the script," Chastain says, "because they're both films made about real-life recent events. In the 1970s, Hollywood started making a lot of movies about the Vietnam War — things like Coming Home, which shed light on the struggles of the returning vets. But those movies were based on fictional stories. Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, not a documentary. But it is based entirely on firsthand accounts of people who went through this. And you have to realize it was just (2011) that Osama bin Laden was killed. That makes it a water-cooler movie because it is so of the moment."
Written by Mark Boal, who previously teamed with Bigelow on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on Chastain's character, Maya, who devotes her life to her job: finding the elusive mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Told over the course of a decade, the movie is expansive enough to cover other terrorist attacks, including the 2008 bombing of the Karachi Marriott in Pakistan, but its relentless focus is Maya, who is based on a real person.
Chastain never got to meet her off-screen counterpart, due to the undercover nature of the woman's work. But the actress, whose profile soared in 2011 after she starred in three celebrated movies (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help), says she feels a kinship with the real-life CIA agent.
"Maya believed she had a calling to do this," Chastain, 35, says. "She even has a scene where she says, 'A lot of my friends were killed trying to do this. I believe I was spared to finish the job.' So no matter how many dead ends she came across or how many superiors got in her way, she refused to take no for an answer. And she didn't use anything except her brain and smarts.
"Maya is a really exciting character in cinema because the filmmakers didn't play loose with history by creating some emotional problems to make her more interesting. Historically in movies, lead female characters are defined by men: They are usually either a victim or a love interest. Maya is none of those things. She is capable and intelligent, and she stands on her own. We're not used to seeing a lead female character like that in American movies. She's the perfect representation of this generation of women, and no other filmmaker except Kathryn Bigelow could have captured her so well.
"I don't know if Kathryn understands this character better than a man would. But I do see a similarity between Maya and Kathryn. When Kathryn Bigelow is working on a set, she doesn't talk about the fact that she's a woman. She's one of the best filmmakers there is, she's kick-ass on the set and she's incredible. When Maya is working, she's not talking about all the hardships she suffers because she's a woman. She just does her job and does it really well. I find that really inspiring. These two people — Kathryn and Maya — don't take the time to have the conversation about the glass ceiling of their profession. Instead, they use their energy to be really good at their job, so it becomes a non-issue."