Q&A: Jessica Chastain’s ruthless ‘Miss Sloane’ Goes to Washington

September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Jessica Chastain (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — She’s arguably the best actress working today, elevating every film she touches, from major popcorn blockbusters to indie art-house sensations.

In the last five years alone, she was the lonely social outcast in “The Help” (2011), played an eternal mother in “The Tree of Life” (2011), won a Golden Globe hunting Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), broke hearts in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (2012), got straight gangster in “A Most Violent Year” (2014), contacted her astronaut father in “Interstellar” (2014), captained a rescue mission in “The Martian” (2015) and chilled us with Gothic horror in “Crimson Peak” (2015).

Now, the sensational Jessica Chastain delivers one of her most daring roles as a cutthroat lobbyist in “Miss Sloane,” which premiered at the AFI Film Fest over the weekend and hits D.C. theaters Dec. 9.

“When I started reading it I said, ‘Let’s see how this character lives in my brain,'” Chastain told WTOP. “I found her to be so exciting. She challenges the status quo. We’re not used to seeing women like this on screen. We’re now seeing ambitious, over-prepared women that are one step ahead of everyone.”

Written by 32-year-old debut screenwriter Jonathan Perera, the script was discovered after a query letter by the writer’s manager in spring 2014 and the spec script was acquired less than a year later. It quickly found its way onto the annual Hollywood Blacklist of the hottest unproduced screenplays.

“What it really is, is a political thriller, and it sure as hell, the one thing I can promise, it’s not what you expect either as a whole or at any moment,” British filmmaker John Madden told WTOP. “It has an extraordinarily pleasurable quality of surprising you at every juncture. … [Sloane] is a powerful and irresistible character, but not without flaws and complications. … She’s something to behold.”

Madden, who directed both Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench to Oscars in the Best Picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), says he imagined Chastain playing the part from his very first read.

“I instantly saw Jessica in the role,” Madden said. “There’s a particular reason for that. She has an extraordinary range as an actress. The part called for a level of technical skill in terms of verbal dexterity, speed and ferocity, but also I wanted it to have this flip side, which is a sort of fragility.”

So, he immediately sent it to Chastain, who previously starred in Madden’s thriller “The Debt” (2010).

“I wouldn’t have wanted to do this film with anyone else,” Chastain said. “I trust him so much. He started out as an acting teacher at Yale and he’s so nurturing to be on set with. You feel like you can just do whatever on set and he’s going to prevent me from looking stupid. … I like having a good time on set and I like directors that collaborate with actors and we create the characters together.”

Chastain says there was a key difference between shooting “The Debt” and “Miss Sloane.”

“The difference was we made this movie with very little money and a lot of dialogue,” Chastain said. “So even before we came on set, we were talking about the pace of the film and how quickly we’d have to film the scenes. We wouldn’t have a lot of time, we wouldn’t have a lot of takes, so I knew from the beginning I was gonna need to show up with the dialogue cold in my brain, have it down pat.”

Fittingly, the rapid pace of the production mirrors the sleepless, pill-popping character she plays, despite the fact that she doesn’t even drink coffee herself, sipping chamomile tea during our chat.

“I saw it as this study of addiction,” Chastain said. “Just like someone can be addicted to drugs or sex or food or whatever, Sloane is addicted to the high. The more impossible the win, the bigger the high. … The pills feed the bigger addiction, and her bigger addiction is winning. So in this film, she takes on the unwinnable client and that makes her work even harder and it actually becomes self-destructive.”

That “unwinnable client” is a gun control campaign, a cause she says “solidified somewhere between Columbine and Charleston.” The British Madden says he was fascinated by the issue across the pond.

“We come from a situation where even policemen are not armed,” Madden said. “I understand a whole bunch better, as a result of making this film, exactly why it’s a unique issue over here. It has to do with historical context and the way this nation sees itself and its need to protect itself from an overbearing government, which we are the chief object of that [thanks to the Revolutionary War].”

Still, the gun debate is merely the conduit to explore the larger issue of Capitol Hill corruption, which is ever present in Madden’s reflections of the Watergate Hotel in windows near the Kennedy Center.

“We look at why it’s so difficult to get a bill passed,” Chastain said. “You realize it’s because senators and congressmen, instead of focusing on representing what a majority may want, their focus is on the fundraisers [and] on keeping their seat in office. That is a discussion we need to have as a country.”

Chastain says the lobbying industry was a foreign concept to her, requiring plenty of research.

“I didn’t really know much about lobbyists at all,” Chastain said. “I read Jack Abramoff’s book and I was surprised by what he did and how he was able to connect his clients with politicians and go on trips together and have a lot of money change hands, which is really just buying votes in my opinion.”

This isn’t her first time peeling back the curtain on D.C. “trade craft,” portraying two very different personalities in a determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty” and ruthless lobbyist in “Miss Sloane.”

“Maya in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ … she didn’t play well with others and she didn’t care that she didn’t play well with others,” Chastain said. “Sloane, even though she does things that you question … she’s a very smooth-talker. There’s a scene where you see her with a senator, smooth-talking him to get him to vote, a lot of laughing and smiling. She knows how to play the game in a way that Maya doesn’t.”

No matter the role, Chastain often looks for roles that speak to her own “rebel heart.”

“I like characters that challenge the status quo,” Chastain said. “With ‘The Help,’ she challenged the status quo in 1960s Mississippi. I find that really inspiring. I just did a movie about Catherine Weldon, a true story about her friendship with Sitting Bull in 1889. That’s 30 years before women had the right to vote. … These two groups [women and Native Americans] didn’t have voices in the nation.”

You can see this rebel spirit throughout her filmography in the rapid-fire Q&A below:

“The Help” (2011)

“Drinkin’ moonshine in Mississippi.”

“The Tree of Life” (2011)

“Playing tag with three boys.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)

“Kickin’ ass.”

“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (2014)

“Super depressed in New York.”

“Interstellar” (2014)

“Saving the world one equation at a time!”

“A Most Violent Year” (2014)

“Emasculating Oscar Isaac every day.”

“The Martian” (2015)

“If it wasn’t for me, Matt Damon would still be on Mars.”

“Crimson Peak” (2015)

“Don’t worry, dear. Drink your tea.”

“Miss Sloane” (2016)

“Changing the world … one pantsuit at a time.”

Jessica Chastain gets tough with WTOP's Jason Fraley recreating the "Miss Sloane" poster in Washington D.C. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)
Jessica Chastain and WTOP’s Jason Fraley recreate the “Miss Sloane” poster in Washington D.C. (WTOP/Jason Fraley)

Listen to the full conversations with Jessica Chastain and director John Madden below:

September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jessica Chastain (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
September 22, 2023 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with director John Madden (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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