April 24, 2024

Jessica Chastain doesn’t want to be constrained.

“I’m quite rebellious,” she says from the Marrakech Film Festival, where the star is serving as jury president. “[Whenever] the industry and the world starts seeing me as one kind of actress, I will push against it. [I need] to show that no one’s in charge of me except for me.”

And so, once 2011’s one-two-three punch of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Tate Taylor’s “The Help” launched the actress into sudden, megawatt stardom – shining on her a glow of festival and auterist prestige, with an Oscar nomination to boot – Chastain immediately signed on to Andy Muschietti’s “Mama,” a horror gem that was never destined for the festival and awards circuit.

Such was her thinking a decade later, when, fresh off her best actress Oscar win for 2021’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Chastain swapped the televangelist’s garish makeup for the harsh light of unsparing auteur Michel Franco.

In some ways the gambit paid off – as Michael Showalter’s gilded evangelical biopic and Franco’s austere abuse drama share little in common but the actress herself – though, somewhat ironically, this U-turn didn’t quite send her into a different lane: Drawing career-best acclaim, and set for release later this year, Franco’s “Memory” could return Chastain back into the Oscar race.

And if it’s too early to know how this latest race might play out, at least one fact is certain: With Franco, Chastain has found a collaborator with a similar bent. “I’m really interested in subversive, provocative stories,” says Chastain. “[So] I look for directors and creators who are [equally] subversive, who take huge risks. I demand the same thing of myself; I never want to allow myself to get too comfortable.”

“Memory”
Teorema/High Frequency Entertainment/Screen Capital/MUBI/Case Study Films

That provocation, subversion and acute discomfort have all been hallmarks of Franco’s work might account for the fruitfulness of his and Chastain’s creative partnership. Indeed, with “Memory” in the can and on the awards hunt, the two have already wrapped their follow-up feature, “Dreams.”

Though plot details are typically hazy (“Michel’s so guarded about his filmmaking,” says Chastain), the film will pair the star with Mexican ballet luminary Isaac Hernández and recent Wes Anderson stock-player Rupert Friend for an undoubtedly unsparing drama shot in Mexico and San Francisco.

At Variety’s behest, Chastain offers one more morsel: “My character could not be more different than the one in ‘Memory,’” she laughs.

Still, what drew the actor to Franco in the first place, and what drew her back for a second round well before “Memory” premiered to Venice acclaim, has not changed.

“I’m really drawn to directors who are willing to take big swings and willing to risk big failures, because when [you take that risk], you’re probably breaking new ground,” she says. “Michel is just like that. You can’t expect anything from him because he’ll do the opposite. He loves keeping the audience on their toes, not really knowing what’s going to happen from scene to scene.”

“I think great art should be confronting,” Chastain continues. “I mean, it’s so important to have something that wakes you up from moment to moment. Everyday, you should really question who you are — and I don’t believe we should ever really be able to answer that question, because we should be constantly evolving.”

Tilda Swinton, Jessica Chastain and Isabelle Huppert at the 2023 Marrakech Film Festival
Courtesy of Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

The actress felt this thrill upon stepping onto Franco’s set, shooting her first scene for “Memory” in a Brooklyn church where a real AA meeting was being held.

“I’d never experienced anything like that,” Chastain says. “I mean, there was an immersion that you just really had to fall into, in the same kind of way that Terrence Malick works. You had to be ready to be filmed at all times, to be filmed with non-actors. And I loved that, because I find that to be an incredible challenge — to try to not look like an actor.”

Once Marrakech jury duty wraps, and when productions resume early next year (“Depending on if the [SAG-AFTRA] contract is ratified,” she adds), Chastain will next begin work on the Apple limited-series “The Savant.” Based on a 2019 Cosmopolitan feature about an anonymous woman who infiltrates online hate-groups, the eight-part drama will allow Chastain to tackle a real-life figure in a markedly different way.

Unlike with Tammy Faye and Tammy Wynette, the subject of the original magazine profile stayed back in the shadows, going only by “K” in order to protect her anonymity. As Chastain now prepares for the role, she will do so absent a certain degree of expectation.

“I didn’t feel that it was as important to get all of her mannerisms and all of those things down because she’s undercover,” she says, casting off another constraint. “And I wouldn’t want to look and behave exactly like her because I want to keep her hidden.”

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