Zookeeper’s Wife star Jessica Chastain opens up about sexism in Hollywood

William Mullally
William Mullally - Special to Al Arabiya English
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If I’m to be frank, it took Hollywood, and the world, far too long to discover one of its biggest stars. It wasn’t until 2011, at the age of 34, that Jessica Chastain finally got her moment in the spotlight. Since then, she’s never left it.

A string of stand out, award-nominated performances in 2011’s Take Shelter, The Help and Tree of Life made us recognize her prodigious talent, and her work since has cemented it. From her Oscar-nominated turn in Zero Dark Thirty to her big-budget hits The Martian and Interstellar, Chastain has shown few limits to her abilities.

But Chastain is not one to let only her work speak for her—she’s an outspoken voice on many issues, never afraid to fight for equal pay, or to put her voice behind causes she believes in on twitter or in the press. She believes that women should have a strong voice—both in front of the camera and behind it.

“When I began, I didn’t have as much of a voice. When I first started, I realized—and this is crazy but this is true—but that directors wouldn’t necessarily listen to me if I had an idea. What I realized I had to do was that I had to become allies with the male co-star, and the two of us would talk about a scene and talk about my ideas and I would have to somehow make him think that they were his ideas, and then we would have to go to the director with mostly the male co-star leading it, and that was how I could be heard.”

Thankfully, that has changed.

“Now I’m at a point in my career that I don’t want to work with a director who’s not interested in collaborating with me. Because I’m so outspoken, now filmmakers know that I’m going to have a point of view, and if we sit and talk about a script, I’m going to talk to them about how I envision the character, how the character should look, as I’m very involved in the way that a character presents herself to the world, so I find if they come to me they know what they’re going to get.

“For me [acting] is much more fulfilling now because I feel like I have more of an artistic collaboration with others.”

Chastain is conscious of the difference between male and female filmmakers, and that’s why she tries to work with women whenever possible. Her latest film, The Zookeeper’s Wife, opening 18 May, has female talent across the board—a female writer, director, and star.

Zookeeper’s Wife star Jessica Chastain opens up about sexism in Hollywood
Zookeeper’s Wife star Jessica Chastain opens up about sexism in Hollywood

“It’s the only time I’ve ever had an experience like that. For the most part, when you’re on set, it’s a story told from a male point of view. It’s a male lead, a male storyline, or the director, or the writer…most of the time that is the gaze that the storytelling is from.

“I do make a point to work with female filmmakers, and I try to seek them out. I don’t work half and half male and female, but I really work hard to supplement. I have some feminine point of views in my work for storyline, but it’s important to me to be in films that reflect society. And it’s still so odd to me that in a world where women are 50 per cent of the society why stories of women and by women are still so rare to come by.”

In the film, Chastain plays Antonina Żabiński, a real-life woman who secretly saved the lives of many, right from under the Nazi’s noses from her home in the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. In telling the story of a heroic figure who risked her life for others, it was important for Chastain to show Antonina’s femininity, as well as her strength.

“The incredible thing about Antonina, yes she’s a female lead and focal point, I discovered how feminine she was, I was really happy that I got to show that femininity does not equate weakness.

“I think that sometimes in society you do see that—that’s where sexism comes from. The idea of softness and femininity, in the past, people have seen as weak. But with Antonina, she’s very feminine, and very strong, and very brave, and I like that our film shows that a woman can be all of those things.”

In the film, Antonina is shown to catch the romantic fancy of Dr. Lutz Heck, the chief zoologist of the Nazis who used Antonina’s zoo to do breeding experiments. Because the film is written and directed by women, the film takes extra care to show the dangers inherent in the male attention, and to shy away from portraying male assault in the way that many male filmmakers do.

“Sometimes of course it’s necessary, but I’m so tired to feel in film like a rape scene is made to be salacious, is made to be the ultimate attack that then prompts the female character, or the male character, who is responsible for the female character, to seek revenge. I feel it to be a really tired device that’s used in storytelling.

“I was really impressed with [director Niki Caro’s] point of view, because when telling a story and showing that women and children face sexual attacks in war, she doesn’t let the camera linger on it. Our imagination is far worse than what a camera can show, and [in one scene] she puts us in the eyes of Antonina’s husband Jan Żabiński, who sees this little girl go into this alleyway with these two soldiers, and he knows what’s happening to her, but we’re in his imagination, and we don’t have to see this little girl be violated and raped to sympathize with her. I think that’s an old-fashioned trope that’s been overused in cinema.”

“And even now, you get male filmmakers not even seemingly aware that they’re doing it,” I say.

“Exactly! What’s somehow difficult for me too is when they show it and then say no it’s about female empowerment because she’s then overcoming it! She’s almost stronger! But if you think about what that means is that a woman is sexual attacked and because of that she becomes stronger, which I think is very misleading, and we need to kind of reevaluate how we see sexual assault.”

Zookeeper’s Wife star Jessica Chastain opens up about sexism in Hollywood
Zookeeper’s Wife star Jessica Chastain opens up about sexism in Hollywood

But the film’s message is not only a feminist one—it’s a film of compassion across the board, especially for those persecuted in society. For Chastain, that has huge parallels for how refugees are treated today.

“Antonina is someone who didn’t fear strangers in a culture of fear and paranoia and violence. She stayed true to who she was and she led with compassion and kindness and I think that’s important. Any energy is contagious. Fear is contagious, but so is love. So if you’re living in a culture of fear of the other and paranoia, how wonderful to counter that with love, compassion and acceptance.”

“We learn about Anne Frank in the United States in our school system. It was required reading when I was 12 years old. But I didn’t learn that the United States denied the Frank family entry into the United States twice. They were denied visas! So in a way we are responsible for their deaths, we are participating in that story. I feel betrayal to have learned the story of Anne Frank and connected it with this little girl but not have understood my country’s fear of her and fear of the stranger at that time.”

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