I got to meet Jessica Chastain’s three legged dog on the ‘MAMA’ set and ever since I’ve mentioned at every opportunity how happy a three legged dog can be.
In Jessica’s creation of Annabel means listening to punk music (her character plays the bass, so her nailpolish is constantly chipped) and watching whatever horror movies Guillermo Del Toro and Andrés Muchietti recommend (she’s not a natural horror fan). Mostly, I watch Devin from Badass Digest questioning Jessica Chastain as we’re all in her trailer – I expected him to do something more crazy, but – curse him – he just reported like the rest of us.
Back in the windowless room mere hours earlier, our chat with Guillermo was finally giving us a picture of what this movie was about, what it’s goals were and how the story grew beyond the original short (all this in my previous post here). All of a sudden, a brunette that was a little shorter than me pulled up the empty chair to my right. She sat down and I did a double take, having last seen Jessica Chastain with her natural hair color on ‘The Debit’ press tour, I wasn’t expecting punk rock Annabel.
Annabel is the biggest difference to the story. When her boyfriend suddenly gets custody of his deceased twin brother’s children, Annabel becomes a mother figure against her will. At first she’s unaware, but slowly she realizes that there’s something else in the house that considers itself a mother.
Jessica, what’s it been like working with Andy, a new director, and of course Guillermo? Did Guillermo’s name help convince you to sign on for this project?
Jessica Chastain: Well of course. I’ve been such a huge fan of Guillermo’s and he’s one of the first people I met actually when I came onto this project that I was surprised, because I had knee problems. I came on to the meeting in crutches and was like “They won’t want me after he sees me in crutches…”
GDT: A broken leg. I said, “I will break the other one if you don’t do it.”
JC: And then I met with Andy and Barbara and I was really impressed with his ideas and how creative he was and how emotional he wanted the story to be and how important relationships in this story were to him and so I just… I always get a feeling about something and I had a feeling about Jeff Nichols with “Take Shelter” … I have like… I really just go on instinct and I loved the story. I think the script is really well written and of course I love Guillermo and I have a feeling about Andy and working with him, he’s been great. He is so collaborative, so inventive, and just good energy on the set. He’s a kind person.
Can you tell us a little bit about Annabel? I was not expecting this [look]…
JC: You weren’t expecting me like this? (Laughs) Did you know it was me when I walked in?
[Everyone says “No.”]
JC: Yeah, it’s really cool, right?
Of course it’s tentacles [as a tattoo].
JC: There’s this one and then I’ve got one on my back…
Do you get those everyday?
GDT: I’ve got one on my back, too.
GDT: You can see, but proceed at your own risk.
JC: No, Andy said I should get this in real life, just have it stenciled in and put his face right here. Yeah, it’s a fun look. I mean I’ve played a lot of… I love working with kids. Sometimes I like working with kids and animals more than adults, because they are so surprising and really playful and inventive and this was another opportunity to work with kids, but in a different kind of relationship. Annabel is a woman who, you know, when the film starts she is someone who never ever imagined she would ever, ever be around children. It’s not something she wants in her life at all and she becomes, I guess, the unwilling protector of these girls and by the end she kind of grows up. It’s like Andy said to me in our first meeting, he said “She becomes a hero of people.”
GDT: It’s the syntax that will get you.
Who is she? This is a character who isn’t in the short, so what does she do? When we meet her, who is she?
JC: Well she plays bass guitar in a punk band and she lives with her boyfriend who is an illustrator and she’s like… The way I’m approaching her, she’s this woman who doesn’t really ever want to grow up. She never really has any responsibilities. I mean with the octopus she probably sees herself like an octopus, when the tentacles get caught then they detach and then they grow back. She’s very anti-responsibility. I don’t know what to say without giving away much of the story, she is just stuck. She ends up stuck with these children that she doesn’t want in her life and it’s a complicated relationship, because the children are stuck with something else.
You are wearing a Purple Misfits shirt, which is like a milestone of punk rock, is there any kind of music that you are kind of listening to to get in the headspace of the character?
JC: Yes, you know I’m listening a lot to the Ramones and… God, I’ve got my trailer decorated with lots of posters. I can take you guys if you guys want to come see my trailer in a bit.
[Everyone say “Yes.”]
JC: Yeah, you want to?
JC: Of course in my free time I do listen to a lot of that kind of music, but what I found and it’s an experiment and we will see if it works, someone told me that Johnny Depp listens… I wouldn’t do this in other movies, but he listens to music when he’s acting like an iPod, because I did a movie with him and he was doing that and I thought “That’s so interesting” and then I thought, “If I’m doing this film…” In this genre, music is so important in the genre that I asked Andy if on some of the tests that they had put together that there was music, if they could feed it into my ear when we are doing some of those scenes and that has been so helpful, because I’m such a scaredy cat and even listening to like… They have this lullaby that they’ve worked on that is so terrifying and it just plays on repeat. No one knows that I have it. They will be like…
GDT: Now they do.
Jessica, I had interviewed you and Jeff Nichols at TIFF and asked Jeff if he thought of “Take Shelter” as a horror film and he said that he kind of took some elements of “Rosemary’s Baby” in terms of theme. What’s your background, if any at all, as a scary movie fan? I know that this has been described as a supernatural thriller as opposed to a horror film. What’s your background as a fan of supernatural thrillers or ghost stories or horror films?
JC: I’m the biggest scaredy cat ever. I even just got goose bumps when you talked about that, because I’m thinking of horror films…
GDT: (Laughs) You were thinking of going to the trailer with him, like “Holy shit, what did I do?”
JC: (Laughs) You know this is going to sound silly, because you’re right here, but I love “The Orphanage” so much and I love the elements of fantasy that are sometimes in those stories. I love “Pan’s Labyrinth” with the eyes… and “The Ring” I really, really like “The Ring.” I never thought, as an audience member, I never thought like “I’m going to grow up and be a horror film actress,” like that was never a goal of mine, I just wanted to be an actress that had the opportunity to try everything and learn as much as I could. But man I remember when I was really, really young watching “The Exorcist” with my mom and my sister downstairs and it was so intense for me watching that film and I remember like halfway through I was like “Okay, can I turn it off?” My mom was like “No, you could just go upstairs.” Then the feeling of walking up the stairs… So I try to pull that feeling… Every time we did a scene yesterday where I’m opening the closet door and it’s like me ten years old walking up the stairs. I really love it. When I first met with Guillermo, he was talking to me about the different style of acting like the great actress from “The Orphanage” What was her name?
GDT: Belen Rueda.
JC: It’s just this level of intensity that you really have to sustain almost to where your muscles hurt after, because of the tension. That really excited me to think like “Okay, this is an opportunity to learn how to do it or see if I can do it.”
GDT: And there’s a great tradition of actresses… I mean let’s say it’s not the norm. You can have just a scream queen or you can have a sexy actress in a horror movie, but there is also a very beautiful rarified layer of great actresses that find their best part in the genre like Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn… Belen for me is a fantastic actress for the genre and everything else. Naomi Watts… Nicole Kidman in “The Others.” It’s seldom thought about like that and I think when it’s done right and for the right reasons, on MAMA there’s a good chance it may come that way.
JC: It’s also, I was really surprised when it was first introduced to me, the script, because I thought “I am so not the expected choice” and even that gave me more faith in like “Well that’s really interesting. If you think I might bring something to this part…” Because you know like I’m also used to watching a lot of horror films like where you say when there’s the girl in the tank top in the rain and crying… So I thought this would be really interesting.
Does it make a difference to you when, especially lately, you are probably getting inundated with scripts after the year you’ve had, is a part kind of has to scare you a little bit to even consider it?
JC: Oh absolutely. There’s… Yeah, it has to be something where I think like “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to pull this off.” Like “We’ll see,” because when I have that feeling in me, then it puts the element of horror in me already and I have to try to rise to the occasion and I find with anything in my life when you are rising to the occasion, even if you don’t quite get there, you are going beyond yourself somewhat. So I absolutely do and it’s interesting, because this is a very vulnerable time for me to be talking to you guys right now, because this is just the third week we’ve been doing it and you know I was… now I feel like I’m starting to find my feet and get into the groove of it, but it’s a completely different way of working. The scenes are so short that I think like “Am I…” I’ve never worked like that before, but when I have great teachers and people watching my back like I have on this team then it gives me more confidence that it’s going okay.
Who’s responsible for the partial sleeve, the octopus tattoo?
JC: I think Andy [the director]. Andy is very creative. He’s not only…
GDT: He’s a great illustrator.
JC: Yeah, he’s an amazing… He actually does all of the storyboards. One day I came…
GDT: He did a mural.
JC: Yes, in his office. You guys should take them to the office, too.
After your trailer.
JC: Yeah, when I first got here I went to his office and there was this beautiful… He just draws on the walls, so there’s me and the girls, but I came in one day and I found out he had stayed up until like 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning drawing the storyboards, so everything he has his hand in. We just started filming in the girls’ room and Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau] said, “Well…” because Nikolaj’s character is an illustrator, he’s like “I feel like I would have done something for the girls,” so then Andy’s there. It’s great. He really feels like a renaissance man, You feel like this whole team, everyone is good at more than one thing.
I hope his school of film is given that you’ve learned… For “The Debt” you learned the physicality of that, the martial arts, and now you are running through the woods and what not. How physical are the roles in this one?
JC: it’s not as physical as “The Debt.” I don’t do krav maga on any monsters.
GDT: Although wrestling the girls to the ground…
JC: (Laughs) We do have this amazing girl who plays “Lilly” who is a firecracker. She is…
GDT: Tough to put down. (Laughs)
JC: There was a scene where we were wrestling and I actually said to her, “It’s okay, she can hit me in the face” like before I was taking her hand like “Look, it’s fine!” So you know, you normally have to talk the girl into…
GDT: And then she goes, bam!
JC: Like immediately later and I’m like just trying to pin her. I did find though in that very first take and Andy was laughing, because he comes over to me afterwards and he goes “Could you let her fight a little more?” “Okay.” After she hit me I put her in an elbow lock and I krav maga-ed her arm and she’s just looking at me like “what…”
GDT: The scene is one of the most beautiful ones in the movie, because how they react to each other as she is just trying to calm her down is fantastic. I found it very moving.
JC: I think it’s great.
You were saying that this is not like anything you’ve worked on before, but it seems like you’ve worked on so many different kinds of movies. I’m curious, is it the horror that makes this different? You are saying there are short takes. What is so different?
JC: Well the character is different and I think it’s easy for me to bond with children and I just love kids and so to play a woman who really doesn’t know even how to touch a kid. You know, she doesn’t want anything to do with them. That’s different, the character, but then definitely the genre and you know for example “Take Shelter” we shot that movie so quick and sometimes we’d have three takes for one scene with tons of dialog, so I’d come to set and it would be Mike Shannon and I talking about the structure of the scene and where we had to get and what that was, like a play. This is different in that it’s like “Okay, all we are getting right now is me walking to the closet and opening the door.”
GDT: With the camera pushing this way or the ballet of the camera and the actor, yeah.
JC: So it’s a different way of working in that I don’t warm into something like a play does where you just kind of follow this way, it’s as soon as it starts you have to be ready, you have to be where it is in that short moment and so that is really exciting and interesting thing for me to tackle, because it’s unlike anything I’ve done. We talked about it a little bit yesterday.
GDT: It seems like you and the ghost are both protecting the children, but are sort of at odds with each other. How do you get to the point where you are giving empathy to something that you are so scared of? Does that happen?
JC: You know it’s funny, because we haven’t really shot the scenes with me and the ghost yet and I don’t know how much you guys know, so part of me is like “What am I allowed to say?” It’s an interesting dynamic, because another really cool thing I remember Guillermo said to me the first time we met was you know the idea of a ghost is when the ghost dies, if they are in an extreme state when they die, they stay in that state. So if this woman was in a state of protecting a child or being like this maternal thing, the ghost that she is is that and so if anything threatens her connection to what she feels is her children, that will always be there. So it’s not like I think Annabel is fighting because she wants to be like the best mom, I think it’s just she becomes a threat, because in any way that the children start to connect with Annabel who’s actually alive and warm, then it pulls them away from her, so it becomes like that dynamic, but we haven’t shot yet.. I’ve seen… I don’t know what I’m allowed to say.
GDT: They’ve walked around the building.
JC: Okay, so you guys know Javier [Botet] is playing Mama?
JC: He is amazing. I saw him in his outfit and he is just… physically what he can do is beyond and we have one scene where I just kind of look in a mirror and I just kind of catch a glimpse of him and that’s all we shot. It’s like two seconds together and it’s so… it really makes your skin hurt.
As a self professed scaredy cat, are you concerned about your scenes with Mama eventually? Are you going to be terrified on set?
JC: Well I have to be, so yeah.
That’s how it works.
JC: I mean I do have… I’ve gotten a bunch of scary films that I’ve put in my trailer and I’ve taken a lot of them home and it’s like “I have half an hour? Okay, I’ll just put it on for the sound and the atmosphere.” I’ve been able to do that here, but then when I get home like I try… I’ve tried so many times to watch [REC], it’s just not going to happen.
It’s only like a 75 minute movie.
JC: I know, it’s just not possible!
GDT: That’s a great movie.
And you haven’t gotten to Javier’s part.
GDT: Javier is in it.
JC: I know, that’s why I know.
GDT: And when he shows up you crap.
GDT: You know what’s really funny is also at its base level I believe that horror came from fairytales and when you think about… At the most metaphorical level, the movie and what I loved about how clean it is, is a mother wrestling with a mother instinct in order to grow and I just was like… I told Andy, “This is so fabulous for me, like literally you are making a serious struggle that she is going through. If ultimately that’s the story of her making peace with or not, maternity… we are going to have her wrestling with the epitome of motherly instinct, which is great.” Like mud wrestling is terrible…
So ragged fingernails, is that part of the looks or is that just sort of what happened over the last couple of days?
JC: No, it was part of the look. Linda, who does my makeup comes in and she goes “Okay, what stage are you at?” and she starts to kind of bring them down a bit.
It’s an important detail.
JC: It is. Yeah, it’s very important. Also the idea of the makeup and where it goes, especially because Annabel wears a lot of makeup, so if I’m running through the woods or crying or whatever, we need to see it and it needs to kind of deteriorate.
You don’t have time to touch up when you’re being chased by a ghost?
JC: No and I’ve been working, because I had knee surgery like three months ago and my knee is in tip top shape, so we are all fine.
What’s your relationship then, Jessica, with Andy as a first time director and also I guess working with Barbara, his sister, as a tag team?
JC: It’s great. It was so moving actually to meet them, because family is really important to me and I just see a lot of sacrifices that they both have made and they are a really good team that supports each other.
GDT: They are like the dream brother and sister.
JC: I know.
GDT: My brother used to beat the shit out of me.
JC: I will give you guys a little bit… We were talking about Halloween costumes and what we are going to be and everyone was getting ready and she goes “Okay, so I’m going to be…” She was like “We are doing the brother and sister theme.” I said, “Great.”
She goes “I’m going to be Skywalker and Andy is going to be Princess Leia.” “That’s great” and as they were working it out Andy had no idea. He had never…
Oh he will…
JC: It really seems like the big sister and the little brother and she tells stories sometimes about dying his hair green or things that she used to do to him…
And then we were told we were out of time.
INTO ‘MAMA’ yet? Did you miss my GDT only part one?
Good news, horror fans, I’ve got more! Come back tomorrow for some more talk about this Mama Monster and how smart usage of practical effects will make her look unlike other recent film ghosts.
Also - Andrés Muchietti and his sister Barbara gave me confidence they know what they are doing as a first time director and first time feature producer respectively. I will attempt to assure you my perceptions are correct and you’ll get to hear (well, read) from them yourself.
Guillermo del Toro presents Mama, a supernatural thriller that tells the haunting tale of two little girls who disappeared into the woods the day that their parents were killed. When they are rescued years later and begin a new life, they find that someone or something still wants to come tuck them in at night.
Five years ago, sisters Victoria and Lilly vanished from their suburban neighborhood without a trace. Since then, their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), have been madly searching for them. But when, incredibly, the kids are found alive in a decrepit cabin, the couple wonders if the girls are the only guests they have welcomed into their home.
As Annabel tries to introduce the children to a normal life, she grows convinced of an evil presence in their house. Are the sisters experiencing traumatic stress, or is a ghost coming to visit them? How did the broken girls survive those years all alone? As she answers these disturbing questions, the new mother will find that the whispers she hears at bedtime are coming from the lips of a deadly presence.
MAMA hits January 18th.