Entertainment & Arts

Jessica Chastain: Hollywood has a diversity problem

Jessica Chastain Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jessica Chastain: "I'm part of the industry so I'm part of the problem"

Actress Jessica Chastain talks about Hollywood's need to address the issue of diversity, and admits: "I have a capacity to overwork."

Chastain received a special honour at the 2015 Critics' Choice Awards in Hollywood last week.

Picking up her award on what was the birthday of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, the Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar star used her acceptance speech to urge those in the room to "stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist agendas".

Hours earlier the Oscar nominations had been announced, with the Academy facing criticism that all 20 contenders in the main acting categories were white and there were no female nominees in the directing or writing categories.

A few days later, Chastain is in London promoting her latest film, JC Chandor's 1980s-set crime drama A Most Violent Year, and happy to expand on the issue.

"The industry has a diversity problem, absolutely," she says. "I don't see it as a situation where there are some bad guys over there and you need to fix this.

"I'm part of the industry so I'm part of the problem."

She points out that only 3% of directors of photography are women. "That's insane to me. Asian-American actors aren't being represented in films. There are a lot of problems in the industry."

Image copyright Film
Image caption In A Most Violent Year, Chastain plays Anna, a gangster's daughter married to a New York businessman (Oscar Isaac)
Image copyright Film
Image caption The film also features British actor David Oyelow as a district attorney
Image copyright Film
Image caption Jessica Chastain's character Anna has been seen as a Lady Macbeth figure

After several years working in mainly TV roles, Chastain came to global attention in a string of high-profile films released around 2011-12.

They included Terrence Malick's epic The Tree of Life, opposite Brad Pitt, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes; spy thriller The Debt, and drama The Help which earned the actress her first Oscar nomination.

In 2013, she earned a second Oscar nomination for Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty.

"I know I'm very lucky," says Chastain. "I get sent incredible scripts. I'm reading the best material that there is, but when I go to the movies as an audience member I'm longing for many colours. I like a palette that I can learn about life.

"Sometimes I only get one point of view. I'm sad that when I go to a movie I see 20 male characters to every two female. So I would like that to change."

She adds: "I do not think that people in the industry are sexist and racist and homophobic. But there still is this status quo - the stories haven't changed - so the more we in the industry talk about it and say, 'This isn't right,' and do what we can to bring in more female points of view - that's the way to go."

In A Most Violent Year, Chastain plays Anna, a gangster's daughter married to businessman Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, who comes under pressure when his oil trucks keep being hijacked on the streets of New York.

Chastain and Isaac trained together as students at Juilliard School in New York City, but this is the first time they have worked together.

In one of the film's key scenes their car strikes a deer on a road and Anna takes control as they decide how to deal with the injured animal.

"That's when she breaks free from the role she's been playing," explains Chastain. "Anna has a capacity for violence unlike anybody else in the film. I think she gets turned on by violence and probably grew up in a violent household."

'Lady Macbeth'

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Media captionChastain on gangsters, and her grandmother's Oscars outing

Some have compared the character of Anna to Lady Macbeth.

Chastain agrees up to a point: "The difference between Lady Macbeth and Anna is that Lady Macbeth goes mad. She's a lot colder. She doesn't have the vulnerability that Lady Macbeth has."

With almost 20 films on her CV since she stepped into the spotlight in 2011, what's been the biggest change she's had to deal with?

"There's been no real big change in terms of fame," admits Chastain. "Since Interstellar more people recognise me. Now when I go to a restaurant sometimes one person from each table will look at me and then they go on with their dinner. So not that much of a deal."

But she does identify one problem in her professional life. "The one thing I need to work on is that I have a capacity to overwork. I have an affinity for work - I love it.

"I've been given so many opportunities to work that it's very difficult for me to say no. I need to figure out how I can see my family and my friends and be healthy and work where it doesn't shadow my other life."

A Most Violent Year is out in the UK on 23 January.

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