INTERVIEW WITH 

Jessica Chastain

Bad movie! That is a term that it is become more clear that Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain just does not know the meaning of. Her body of work over the last few years reads like a best of list in itself – Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar, The Martian and Miss Sloane just to name a few. Now Chastain returns in The Zookeeper’s Wife a film that has already got some people tipping that their more awards in the offering.

The film is based on the best-selling novel by Diane Ackerman and has been brought to the screen by director Niki Caro who has wowed audiences over the years with films like Whale Rider and the brilliant North Country. The Zookeeper’s Wife sees Chastain play Antonina Zabinski who alongside her zookeeper husband tries to protect a number of people at their Warsaw Zoo during the Nazi invasion.

“You know whenever I play any part it is important to do as much research as possible,” Chastain explains when asked about The Zookeeper’s Wife as a novel. “I read the book… The Zookeeper’s Wife… and it was very informative, especially when thinking about what she was going through because it is in her own words… that is what the book is based on. – her journals. It helped fill out the interior of the character. I started by reading the book to try and get into character and I went to Auschwitz in order to … I had never been to a concentration camp and I wanted to feel the energy of that place and to understand the sadness. I don’t think you could ever fully comprehend that or what happened there or what that is but it was important for me to go. I went to Warsaw and went to the zoo and I met with Teresa, Antonina’s daughter, and I saw the house that they lived in and I looked at pictures. It was definitely an immersion.”

Of course the old mantra in Hollywood is to never work with animals or children and it only takes one quick glance at the poster for The Zookeeper’s Wife to see that Chastain had to work with a number of animals on the set including a lion – so how much of a challenge was that for her. “I love working with animals and children,” she says smiling. “When you are an actor it’s a great challenge because they are so in the moment, you never know what they are going to do and they can always surprise you and it’s wonderful to act to that. Plus I LOVE animals and children. I worked very closely with the animal wranglers so what I would do was before those scenes with Lily (the elephant featured in the film) I would feed her a bunch of apples and then right before they said action I would show her an apple and I would walk away and hide the apple so she would know that I was the one to go to for the treat. It’s a trick with a trunk but that way she would play with me while looking for food.”

When asked to describe her character in her own words Chastain says “Antonina Zabinski is married to Jan (played in the movie by Johan Heldenbergh) who is the zookeeper at Warsaw Zoo… the two of them run the zoo. During World War II when her zoo is bombed and the Jews are being forced into the Ghetto her and her husband decide to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, to smuggle people out of the Ghetto and hide them in the zoo.”

Chastain also says that director Niki Caro also brought a lot to the film. “I loved working with Niki,” says Chastain. “She is so incredibly intelligent and fierce. She has a very strong point-of-view and that is important for me when I’m finding a director to work with. She was so good at kind of wrangling in this huge group of people and animals and of course this whole period drama. You never felt like the set was getting away from her and I felt that she was a great collaborator that I could come forward and try whatever I wanted to. I could take risks and she was always there to support me.”

The other major player in this film is Daniel Bruhl who for the lack of a better term plays the bad guy in this film but Chastain says he was a major help with morale on the set. “I’d been a huge fan of Daniel Bruhl. I loved him in Rush and all the incredible films that he has done. One thing that really shocked me about working with him was how funny he was. He brought this great sense of levity which I think was really important for the story because every scene was so important and rich and heartbreaking and you feel just really depressed but then in between takes Daniel is there to lighten the mood and think that was really important for the morale on set, but also important for the character that he is playing because he is playing a pretty dark person and he’s able to give it a sense of humanity that you may not be able to get with someone that just came in with only darkness.”

Chastain was also impressed that The Zookeeper’s Wife shows a different side to being a hero as well. “I think with heroism there is a stereotype that it comes with violence – that you are defending someone or that you are fighting to protect your country. That is our definition of what a hero is but there are many other ways that somebody can be brave and strong and I think that Antonina shows that. She shows that compassion and is an incredible form of strength. I think it is important for people to see this film because it tells the story from another perspective and another point-of-view. Going to school in the United States I didn’t really read that much about women and history. I read a lot about men in history but not so much about the incredible women and the sacrifices that they had made in history. I was so moved and inspired by Antonina and the empathy that she has for other people. At the end of the day it is a movie about hope, love and family. I think it shows that no matter how dark life can be and how dark it gets love will always be there and you can find it and there is something beyond this moment.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife is in cinemas now and has been reviewed at www.heavymag.com.au

Written by Dave Griffiths