Jessica Chastain says isolation guided her work in ‘Interstellar’

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With “Interstellar” nearing the half-billion dollar mark in worldwide box office (more than $120 million domestically and more than $330 million in the foreign markets), Jessica Chastain is part of a gigantic movie for the first time in her career. Chastain’s two Oscar-nominated roles were in films that did well in the United States — some $169 million for “The Help” and about $95 million for “Zero Dark Thirty” — but as she told me in a recent conversation, she’s never been a part of something this gigantic.

I had spoken a few times with Chastain in the months before “Interstellar” came out, including right after she had seen the finished product herself for the first time. Shortly after its premiere, I asked her what it was like to finally share the movie with the world.

“I got happy, because I don’t like keeping things a secret,” she said. “I love talking about movies. More than just being an actor, I just love going to the movies. So to be able to finally talk about this film makes me so happy.”

SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE YET TO SEE THE FILM!

In Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi journey, Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an engineer who travels with a small crew through a wormhole in search of a new home for humankind. The space-time continuum is bent, so while Coop remains essentially the same age throughout the movie, his daughter Murph, who was a little girl when Coop left Earth, eventually catches up to him in age. Chastain plays Coop as a grown woman.

“It was a very interesting challenge for me,” says Chastain. “I’m playing an astrophysicist who’s dealing with the agricultural crisis on Earth. My character is Michael Caine’s prodigy, which is kind of cool, so most of my scenes are with him. …

“My character has suffered this emotional hurt when she was a child and, from that moment on, she hid behind physics and equations. She doesn’t allow herself to be loved again. But she eventually opens up to these ideas she had as a child and becomes more open to the idea of love and the spirit.

“She’s very isolated … so that’s what I was doing. There was never a time when I was hanging out with anyone in the movie. The very first scene I filmed, I was talking into a camera. I didn’t even have a scene partner. She’s a woman that is sad and angry and hurt and emotional, and in her life she doesn’t even have a person to react to.”

McConaughey and Chastain are never physically in the same room together, but through the miracle of editing and acting, there is this relationship between the two characters.

“That’s right,” says Chastain. “And watching Matthew’s performance in this film is so heartbreaking. And the character that I play could never know the effects her words have on everyone. … This is definitely [a spiritual film]. I was surprised when I first saw the film. There were elements that reminded me of ‘Tree of Life.’ That was all about nature vs. grace. This film, it’s about body and spirit, the connection. This relationship between science and spirit.”

“Interstellar” has drawn inevitable comparisons to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but whereas that film was emotionally “cool,” this movie has the same kind of grand ideas and epic scope but also makes a play for love. The almost supernatural power of love. That’s a bold thing for a movie to do.

“This is one of Chris’ most personal films. The production company name is ‘Flora’s Letter.’ And I was on set and I was talking to this little girl, and she told me she was Chris’ daughter. It’s his eldest child, his only daughter, and her name is Flora. And as soon as I realized that … Chris had never told me. It kind of opened my character in a new way. I realized yes, this is a thrilling, visually stunning space exploration film, but the core of this movie is about the powerful bonds of love, and it’s about the relationship between a father and a daughter.

“Just because someone leaves you doesn’t mean they’re gone.”

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