By BARBARA CHAI
Jessica Chastain is one of Hollywood's most in-demand actresses, but after recently moving from Santa Monica to an apartment near NYU, she's also become another New Yorker hungry for a good deal.
"To be honest, what I love so much is in my area, every time I go to a restaurant, I'm like, 'It's so inexpensive!' And then I realize it's because it's all students," she said.
Ms. Chastain trained at Juilliard on the Upper West Side before bursting onto the scene in 2011, starring in seven films and earning an Oscar nomination for "The Help." But her breakthrough to super-stardom may yet be around the corner. In Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which opens in wide release on Friday, she plays Maya, the strong-willed CIA agent who uncovers a trail of information leading directly to Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. Ms. Chastain has already nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for the role, and may well receive her second Oscar nod when those are announced on Thursday.
In the meantime, she's currently on Broadway in "The Heiress," playing the demure daughter of an unkind, affluent doctor. The play, an adaptation of Henry James's novel "Washington Square," is set just blocks from her new home.
Ms. Chastain, who will miss four upcoming performances of "The Heiress" in order to attend movie awards shows, recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal over a supper of lentil soup and green tea at SoHo's Mercer Kitchen.
How did you research your role in "Zero Dark Thirty," since it's based on a secret CIA agent?
I love this woman so much that Maya's based on. I love her story. I've never met her. Of course, I never want anyone to find out who she is because she's an undercover CIA agent. But it makes me happy that in some way this film acknowledges her existence. I asked [screenwriter Mark Boal] a lot of questions about the CIA, about this woman, everything about the scenes….You don't think there are that many questions but there are thousands that come up. I read "The Looming Tower," by Lawrence Wright. Michael Scheuer's book, "Osama bin Laden," which I found to be fantastic. I learned so much about him which I could never have learned from reading articles or following regular news. Then I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks of what I couldn't find in the research about this woman.
The film has drawn criticism from some, including three U.S. senators who wrote to Sony Pictures to complain that the film is "perpetuating the myth that torture is effective."
That's not what our film is portraying. I'm a pacifist. I would never choose to be in a film that supported violence against others. I believe that if you can listen to someone with compassion that has hurt you, usually that solves more problems than revenge. I just find it very confusing why some people are focusing on that part of the film. I know that Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow worked very hard to research the story and try to create something that was as truthful as possible along the lines of how America participated in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. That does include torture. To say it wasn't part of our history, I find that to be the greatest wrong. It would have been to sweep it under the rug.
Does the film imply that torture helps capture terrorists?
The torture in our film doesn't work. When we do torture—yes [the detainee] had been tortured before he gave the [courier's] name. All information we tried to get from him about the attack on the Khobar Towers, that we used through force and intensive interrogations, i.e. waterboarding, doesn't work. He keeps saying, "I don't know, I don't know." In the scene where we trick him, and we give him hummus and treat him like a human being, is when he says a name. He doesn't feel like he's really giving something up. Also, there's another intense interrogation scene where Maya is with Abu Faraj. He will not give her anything, no matter what she's doing. She can't get anything from it. I feel like if we had the film where those scenes happened and then a character came out and said, "This is wrong. You can't be doing this. You can't treat people like this," we would not hear any of this confusion. I think it's so subtle, because we don't come out and say "This is wrong." We just say, "This is what we did in our history on this hunt. Do you think it was right or do you think it was wrong?"
Some might be surprised that so many of the CIA analysts involved in the hunt for Bin Laden were women.
To be a targeter, you have to be really smart. I believe Maya's the smartest person in the room. I believe she's always been the smartest person in the room, maybe when she was a little kid. I don't think she thinks in terms of the glass ceiling and the CIA and the sexism. It's more about, "Just listen to me." That was constantly in my head the whole time I was playing the role. I just kept thinking, "Just listen to me. Why is no one listening?"
You're performing on Broadway until February. How do you juggle that with promoting the film?
It's always been my dream to be on Broadway, so I'm just really excited to have the opportunity to do it. I can't wait to get back to a schedule where I have the days to just have a normal life and then do the play at night. I haven't experienced that yet because even when we started previews, I was constantly doing ADR [additional dialogue recording] for "Zero Dark Thirty" or ADR for "Mama," or magazine shoots because magazines are three months ahead from the release. So the days were always booked. But that's OK because I love my job. I think the month of March I'm going to go to Europe and just disappear for an entire month.
What's next for you?
My top priority is just to spend some time, when I wake up in the morning, just asking myself, "What do I feel like doing today?" I haven't done that in a very long time. I'm excited to get to know myself again.
Write to Barbara Chai at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page A24 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Chastain Heads Into the Darkness.