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Jessica Chastain was terrified to return to the stage.
Though the Academy Award-winner was trained at Juilliard and began her career in theater, with a staged reading of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé led by Al Pacino, she rejected any attempt to return to it in recent years. That is until she had lunch with director Jamie Lloyd (who also brought Betrayal to Broadway with Tom Hiddleston) and they eventually landed on the title of A Doll’s House and the lead role of Nora Helmer, which Lloyd assured Chastain she was more than capable of handling.
This revival of the classic Henrik Ibsen play, in a new version by Amy Herzog, still explores the life of Nora, trapped within and fighting against the confines of her marriage. But Chastain had not initially realized Lloyd was envisioning a bare-bones revival running close to two intermission-less hours, with no props or scenery, not to mention a turntable on which she sits alone for several minutes even before the play begins. If she had, Chastain jokes that she might not have gone forward with the project.
“I’m glad no one told me. But it’s terrifying. I mean, what I would do for a prop,” she says, laughing.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday, after being nominated in the category of best performance by an actress in a leading role in a play, Chastain says this part is the hardest she’s taken on, as her character essentially experiences a mental breakdown every performance in this stripped-down environment. But it’s pushing her to new levels and making her want to do more theater.
There’s still fear involved. Chastain says returning to the performance eight times a week requires a certain amount of “amnesia.” But now the Eyes of Tammy Faye actress has told her agent she wants to continue doing more stage projects.
“I want to do a play at least every other year. I don’t want to be away from the theater any more. I love it so much,” she said.
Chastain spoke with THR about being a theater kid, the psychological journey of playing Nora and what it takes to get through a performance.
Before the show even begins, you’re seated alone on stage in costume on the turntable, staring silently at the audience. What’s the intention behind that, and are you aware of the audience?
Oh, I’m very aware of them. I mean, I look at them. I try to look every person in the eye. I mean, I don’t always catch their eye, sometimes they’re doing other things, but most of them are looking at me. What it does is it connects them to Nora. I mean we’re used to going to the theater, and the audience sees the actors, but they don’t really imagine that the actors see them. But all of a sudden it makes the energy cyclical.
It also gets rid of any kind of weird, celebrity energy. Sometimes at the stage door, I meet people who’ve traveled from all over the world to come see the show, and they’re very excited because maybe they love the movie I did or whatever. But that pre-show allows that energy to dissipate. So tons of people take pictures. They get that out of their system. And then by the time the curtain starts, I’m Nora and the play begins. And then the other thing is it helps me get into the character of Nora because I feel in some sense observed and a little bit like an object.
You’ve said that you were nervous about just the idea of coming back to Broadway and getting back on stage. How’s it feeling now?
Terrified. I mean, people would offer me plays, and I would respond in email like “Thank you so much, but I’m never doing theater again,” which is insane because theater’s my first love. It’s so complicated. I was just terrified. I don’t know how to explain it. Working with Jamie Lloyd, he approached me on a film set, I was doing a movie with [James] McAvoy, and one of the first things [Jamie] said is, “Why aren’t you doing theater?” Because he knew that I loved it. My first response was “I’m really scared.” Then we talked and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you. I’m gonna help you, we’ll do this together. You won’t be on your own.”
I don’t know why I was just so afraid. (This is like therapy right now.) Because I was this little girl who was recording the Tonys and stuff on our VHS in Sacramento, California. And getting a subscription to American Theatre Magazine and reading about Ralph Fiennes playing Hamlet. I was also the president of my theater club in school. I just always felt like New York was such a utopia of what that was. I always wanted to live in New York. And it’s my dream come true that I am here. And to do a play on Broadway, I just finally feel like I’m where I always wanted to be. And Jamie helped me do that. And also the audience helps me every night by the energy that they give me in that pre-show.
Now that we have you on Broadway. Do you want to come back in other roles?
Yes, I already told my agent, Joe Machota, I want to do a play at least every other year. I don’t want to be away from the theater any more. I love it so much.
The staging of A Doll’s House is very different from what we’ve seen before. How does it feel to be working within this bare-bones production?
I say Jamie has given me the biggest gift, but also… (laughs.) If someone had told me six months ago, OK, this production, this is how it’s gonna be, I might have tried to back out. I’m glad no one told me. But it’s terrifying. I mean, what I would do for a prop.
Jamie has far more faith in me than I could ever have in myself. I feel sometimes like a butterfly that’s been mounted; I’m pinned to the space. I want to move around, and it can feel excruciating. A lot of the time I’m not even allowed to look at the other actors, so it just feels like he wanted the audience to have complete access to me.
This play is one of the most important feminist pieces of literature, but more than that, it’s not a TED talk about how to live an authentic life and demand your own agency and all of these things. It’s a psychological journey. Basically, [Jamie’s] directed me to have a nervous breakdown every performance. And that’s a lot. I mean, I did say to him once in rehearsal, “I don’t think this is sustainable. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” And he just goes “You can do it.”
So really he’s given me the greatest gift, but he’s also believed in me, I think more than anyone else has. What he’s expected me to do every performance is really beyond what I even thought was possible.
How do you come out of the role after you’re having a mental breakdown every performance?
It’s not easy. A week ago, Sam Rockwell, who’s a friend of mine, and Leslie, his partner, came to see the show. I’d been texting with him a lot about how scared I was to do theater, how nervous I was to do this play. And they came backstage and they were kind of shocked by our production. And I just started crying. I just couldn’t get it together. I just was still emotional from having performed it.
I don’t want to let anyone down, so I want to show up every day and do it to the best of my ability, but it’s very difficult. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done, no one expected this much from me, demanded this much from me. I’m so grateful that Jamie actually thought I could do it. But you know it is a lot, and every day I get to the theater with like amnesia.
I imagine it’s like giving birth. You show up and you’re like this is going to be amazing, there’s a very difficult experience and then you have the best gift you’ve ever received. And then there’s amnesia, because you do it again, like if you want to extend the family like this incredible, difficult journey.
At the end of that, what are you hoping that the audiences are leaving with or taking away from it?
This play is so relatable in 2023, even though it was originally written in the 1870s and performed in 1879. Men can go away thinking “Am I like that?” and women can go away thinking “Am I pretending to be someone else?” More than just women could do that, anyone who’s within a system that denies them agency, if they can ask themselves, “How am I upholding the system? How am I playing the game to please people to get power within the system? And is there a way that I could just say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore’ and I’m walking away and finding my own voice?”
If people walk away with that, that’s the most beautiful thing and that’s why making eye contact with people and connecting them with Nora, I’m hoping that we go on this journey together and that they walk away feeling like this is beyond a gender story. This is a story for anyone who is denied freedom and equality and isn’t allowed to be their authentic self. And I’m hoping, I’m willing them to walk out of the theater, creating a new system.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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