After playing characters who took on the gun lobby, Southern racism, al-Qaeda, and assorted husbands running the gamut from clueless to abusive, Jessica Chastain can hardly be blamed for wanting a vacation from human nature. She told her agent to look for a film about animals. Along came The Zookeeper’s Wife, out this month, based on the best-selling book by Diane Ackerman. The story draws on the unpublished diaries of Antonina Zabinski, who, with her husband, Jan, ran a zoo in Warsaw, Poland, and smuggled some 300 Jews to safety during the Nazi occupation. Chastain’s is the title role, and the film revolves around her as she cares for a dwindling menagerie and a growing flock of people. The Jews locked in the ghetto are photographed by those on the outside through the bars of the gate. The film, she says, is about “life in a cage.” So much for that vacation.
Chastain has always loved animals. “You look into their eyes and you can see what’s in their heart,” she says, echoing her character’s words to a young girl who has just been raped by German soldiers. Antonina strokes a rabbit as she talks, recounting her own childhood as a fugitive after the wartime murder of her father in her native Russia. “Animals helped her to heal,” Chastain says. “I think Antonina could connect better to animals than she could to people. And I believe animals can teach you how to handle people. I never go into their space unless they are ready to receive me.”
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It was Chastain who suggested that Johan Heldenbergh, the Belgian actor, writer, and director, play Jan. A lover of foreign films, she had been impressed by his performance in The Broken Circle Breakdown, a Belgian movie he cowrote, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2014. Niki Caro, Zookeeper’s director, agreed that Heldenbergh would be perfect for the role. But then the studio executives balked, on the grounds that he’d never acted in English. “So I went on YouTube,” Chastain says. “And I’m an obsessive person.” She typed in his name and kept searching until she came across a video of a toast he had given in a bar in Los Angeles. “And I’m like, ‘He can speak English. Here you go.’ ”
Virile and complex, Heldenbergh holds his own against Chastain, who, with her columnar neck and fine bones, is at her most radiant. The heat between them anchors the film in their life as a couple. They are heroic, though not by the usual Hollywood standards, which, Chastain notes, have more to do with aggression; their courage, she says, takes the form of compassion.
Antonina is the latest in a succession of strong women Chastain has played. In some cases, their beauty has shaped their personalities. Oddly enough, that doesn’t seem to be true of Chastain herself. She’s a bombshell on the red carpet, in a film, or whenever the situation calls for it, but not on her own time. “I don’t walk around like this,” she says, dressed in glamorous makeup, a black blouse and pants, and heels for a media Q&A following our conversation. “In our society, women are valued for their sexual attraction. I’d like to get away from the sex symbol idea of what beauty is. Actually, that’s probably the farthest thing from beauty, because it’s makeup and hair, it’s pouty lips—it’s not real.”
Chastain has a similarly ambivalent relationship to the fame that has come with her success. She obliges the photographers, but you won’t see her diet tips or the details of her private life on a cover at the newsstand. She goes to the gym. She takes the subway. “The reason we like acting is connecting to other people,” she says. “Why would I ever put myself in a situation where I couldn’t talk to those people anymore?” The Zookeeper’s Wife comes on the heels of Miss Sloane, in which Chastain was a Washington lobbyist scheming to secure passage of a Senate bill on gun control. Miss Sloane, not Ms. “It’s sexist; it’s patronizing,” Chastain says. And that’s the point. “No woman would call her Miss Sloane.” The men she deals with professionally find her hard shell and relentless drive repugnant. And yet, Chastain continues, “if you put a male actor in a role in which he can’t hold down a relationship because he’s so focused on his job, he goes with prostitutes, he’s fighting for the good of all against the good of the few. Okay, we’ve seen those characters before. The renegade, the loner—that’s the male lead, right? But for some reason, women aren’t supposed to be that. We’re not supposed to be ambitious, we’re not supposed to be ‘overprepared,’ ” she says, citing the charges leveled at Hillary Clinton during one of last year’s presidential debates.
Miss Sloane brings to mind another tough trailblazer Chastain took on: Maya, the CIA agent who tracks down Osama bin Laden, in Zero Dark Thirty. Some critics found Maya lacking, because she didn’t have a boyfriend, as if the woman who had taken it upon herself to solve the case that had stumped all the intelligence experts needed to be made more likable by being in love. Chastain is making fine films, but she’s also intent on making a difference. “I love that Miss Sloane mentors women,” she says. “That’s the experience I’ve had—with women who take care of one another.”
The women she has brought to life still cross her mind. “Sometimes I think: I wonder what Celia Foote’s doing now. At the end of the movie, when you say goodbye to the character, you hope she’s in a better place than she was at the beginning, that she’s learned something and is going to be able to heal herself. It’s like a kid you’re sending out into the world,” she says, giving a little shove with her hands: “Good luck!” She would like to convene all those past selves she’s played for a reunion. Eleanor Rigby, who lost a son. Rachel Singer, the Mossad agent who hunts a Nazi war criminal. Jolene, the foster child who hitchhikes her way to a new life. Celia, Antonina, Maya, Miss Sloane, and now Antonina. They would all be there, trading stories and contact information, offering one another advice and a ride home.