Acclaimed actress Jessica Chastain powers through her winning streak of knockout performances with a women-led action thriller—proving to be the breakout badass of the year.
There is no doubt Jessica Chastain is having a major moment. Rounding out a winning streak of critically acclaimed performances in The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Scenes From a Marriage, the reigning superstarlet of the year leaps and bounds across the screen in her latest project, an all-women-led spy thriller, The 355.
In the Simon Kinberg-directed film, Chastain plays CIA agent Mason “Mace” Brown, who bands together with fellow international agents (Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz and Diane Kruger) to recover a top-secret weapon. The title comes from the historic Agent 355, the first female spy who aided the patriots in the American Revolution and still remains anonymous to this day. “She was a code name. Her real identity was never known,” says Chastain of the original Agent 355. “She is the first record of a female spy in the United States— and she’s anonymous,” she marvels.
Chastain was first drawn to the project while on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. “I saw all the films with all these male ensembles, and I was like, ‘Why don’t they do this with women?’ They had done some, but it was not really taking it seriously. ... It was more of a joke,” she shares. “I realized that if I got together a group of five international women from all over the world, we could raise the money ourselves and we’d be the owners of the film—and be in charge of it,” she says. “I really wanted to alter how we had seen women in terms of age and in terms of strength. In the past, women have just been used in many films as props, and not as actually the ones making the calls and making the decisions. It was kind of like filmmaking as an act of protest.”
And what a power-packed protest it is with the world’s top female talent rounding out the cast. “Penélope just floored me with how funny she was… and Diane is a badass. Oh, my God, [Diane] on the motorcycles... she really kicked my butt. She’s so regal and she brings this authority. Lupita is so rebellious and intelligent,” she says of her castmates.
Chastain powered through weapons training and hand training—and pushed to do her own stunts whenever possible. “I jumped off that building,” she proudly shares of the film’s physical challenges. “I always planned on doing it, but didn’t really understand what it was, or what I’d be allowed to do. They were going to stop me, and I was like, ‘Give me a crack at it.’ They start bringing me up and then we passed where I thought of jumping from. … I had the harness on and they were wiring me up to this thing, and I guess I gave it away that I was scared because [they] said, ‘You don’t have to do this.’ And I looked out at the entire crew just staring at me all the way up there. And I was like, ‘No. I’m doing it.’ I didn’t want to let the crew down. So I did it. I just ran and leapt out into the air hoping that the wire would be there to protect me… because it is a leap into the unknown.”
As with everything Chastain does, her actions have a larger purpose. “I’d love to see a shift in media and in language,” she says when asked how she hopes for change in the industry. “I was sitting with some friends the other day and I was having a bourbon,” she shares, when one of her guy friends dropped the P-word to signify weakness. “I was like, ‘I’ve just got to stop you right there. … I don’t think that’s what you meant to say.’ And then his friend who was a guy was also like, ‘Yeah, she’s right there. We’ve got to stop saying that.’ I think we have to be comfortable to be able to say, ‘I don’t think that was your intention. I don’t think that’s what you mean. I think you’re just repeating something that you’ve been taught.’ And I think, perhaps as a society, we need to go like, ‘OK, what have we been taught? And how [have we] been brainwashed in terms of language and media? And what is our intention?’ Because I believe most of our intention is to say women are amazing and strong and capable. Most people I know believe those things. So we kind of have to rewire our brains.”
The transformation is already underway according to Chastain. “I already see a huge change in the industry now than what it was 10 years ago when I started,” she says. “It’s monumental, the shift.” Chastain says the power is in the storytelling. “When I was on the jury at Cannes, we got asked a question at the closing ceremony [about women in the industry]. I was very disappointed by the female characters I just watched, so I brought that up. I said, ‘We need to really change the storytellers. We need to create room for female storytellers. When your stories are only being told through one lens, you do not get an accurate depiction of humanity,’” she shares. “We have to be authentic to what our situation is and what we believe. Now at Sundance, the Oscars, Venice, San Sebastian, all of those festivals and award shows this year… 10 years ago, the idea that one of those prizes would go to a female director would be shocking. But the fact that now in all of those festivals and the Oscars it all went to female directors, there is something exciting happening now where the lens of storytelling is widening.”
As her own award nominations show, Chastain is on a winning streak following standout performances in two beautifully complex characters and challenging projects, Scenes From a Marriage and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye was very important to me in terms of media and how they see women,” Chastain shares. “[The media] was so focused on how much mascara [Tammy Faye] wore, and not on the fact that, in 1985, when the president and all these people would not talk about the AIDS epidemic, she went against the conservative evangelical and brought an openly gay minister onto her show, and reminded Christians what it means to be Christian—and that you love through anything. It was so rebellious and so strong and so incredible what she did… so it’s shocking to me that the media never really acknowledged that and only decided to make fun of her physically. That to me is very upsetting,” she says. “In all of my projects, I look at what am I putting out into the world and I want to make sure it’s a healthy fit.”
“I find, hopefully, everything challenging,” Chastain continues. “I want to be learning because otherwise I feel like I am wasting this beautiful gift that’s been given to me,” she says. “I’m so lucky to get to do what I do. It’s a very rare thing to have a career like I have. It was a dream [the] moment I realized this was something someone could do for a living. And the fact that I actually get to do it still shocks me and surprises me. … It feels like I’d be taking this opportunity for granted if I was comfortable. I’ve got to put myself in uncomfortable situations because that’s how, in some sense, I feel worthy or deserving of the opportunities I’m given. So I always want it to feel challenging and difficult.”
Up next, Chastain will play Tammy Wynette opposite Michael Shannon in George & Tammy, a limited television series—followed by two films: The Forgiven, a drama set in Morocco, with Ralph Fiennes; and crime thriller The Good Nurse, co-starring Eddie Redmayne. “I’ve taken this time since the pandemic to focus on my career,” she says. “I need to focus on challenging myself personally so the work I’m drawn to right now tends to be things that really pushed me.”
Photography by: Photographed by David Roemer