Jessica Chastain does not suffer fools gladly. A proud feminist, the twice Oscar-nominated actress isn’t afraid to act on principle, calling out the big-hitters in Hollywood, like Marvel (for offering her a “boring civilian” part in Iron Man Three), Russell Crowe (who said mature women had plenty of roles to pick from) and the so-called “Hathahaters” (a hate club formed against her Interstellar co-star Anne Hathaway).
She’s become known for portraying strong, no-nonsense women brimming with agency, whether it’s a Mossad assassin in The Debt or her CIA analyst who helped take down Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. “If the female character isn’t as interesting as the male character, I’m not interested,” she states, before explaining where her love of feisty female characters originated.
“Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 was incredible,” she says, eyes wide. “I remember the opening shot of her in that tank top doing those pull-ups, and I remember being a little girl watching her and thinking, ‘This is amazing. I want to be her.'”
For her latest role in The Martian (in cinemas now), Chastain is navigating uncharted territory. She plays Commander Lewis, the leader of a manned mission to Mars. When the crew lands on the Red Planet, their mission unravels, and fellow astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is left for dead. After discovering that he’s actually alive, Lewis leads the rescue.
When director Ridley Scott asked her if she had any questions after giving her the role, Chastain blurted out, “I want to go to space camp!” She got her wish, and there she met Tracy Caldwell Dyson (below), who served as her outer-space Obi-Wan.
Dyson, a highly-decorated female NASA astronaut who has completed three spacewalks, guided Chastain through a life-sized version of the International Space Station that she trains in, as well as the inside of a space shuttle. And she describes Chastain as an eager pupil.
“She asked a lot of questions ranging from how to eat, work out (and not lose your muscles), and how to stay human in space,” Dyson recalls. “What I’ve seen of her so far in the movie I’m beyond proud of.”
Needless to say, Chastain did her research. When I mention the letter Hillary Clinton says she sent to NASA when she was 13 -asking how she could become an astronaut – she shrieks, “F***, yeah! They replied, ‘We’re not interested in women astronauts. Oh really, NASA? But she can run for president!”
She references Mercury 13, the 13 American women who passed the same tests as male astronaut candidates in 1959, only to have NASA officials, including astronaut John Glenn, refute the findings. She’s fired up now.
Chastain and Dyson
“We were 20 years behind Russia in sending the first woman to space, and we still haven’t had a female president. Why is it taking us so long? We like to think we’re at the forefront of everything, but we’re behind in a lot of aspects. Ireland had the gay marriage vote before we did. We’re an incredible nation, so we need to stop lagging on certain things.”
Another area where Chastain feels the US is lagging behind is in the depiction of female action heroes in movies.
“If you look at films like Elektra and Aeonflux, the problem that studios have is that they try to make kickass women very sexualised. They have to be in some catsuit,” says Chastain. “But if you look at the most incredible female roles, like Ripley in Alien, she is a very sexy woman but she’s not wearing a lot of make-up. She’s in a T-shirt and jeans. What’s sexy about her is how capable she is. Same with Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games -she’s not wearing a catsuit, either.
“Studios have misjudged it in the past,” she continues, “and thought audiences weren’t interested in seeing a woman in an action role. In fact they are, but they’re interested in seeing a woman in an action role who’s a capable, intelligent woman and isn’t only leaning on her sex.”
Dyson sees this problem pervading space films, too – in particular Gravity, where Sandra Bullock floated about a space shuttle in a tank top and hotpants (below).
“That was the one moment where we as astronauts thought, ‘Oh, man!’ Because we can never live up to that,” says Dyson, chuckling and shaking her head. “When you’re done doing a spacewalk, you don’t look hot. You’re in a long-john outfit with cooling tubes running through it. You need two people to help you get out of this big suit, and you’re wearing a diaper! There’s nothing glamorous or sexy about it.”
Chastain and Dyson hope The Martian will inspire children – boys and girls – to one day participate in the first human mission to Mars. And the depiction of a respected female commander is key to that.
“Representation is important,” Chastain says. “People have become complacent and used to the way things have been up until now, but women have always known they’re capable of being an astronaut, or being president. Women are born with this desire, but their environment makes them struggle to keep it. They’re taught that they can’t, which is completely untrue.”