- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2016

The actress Jessica Chastain enters the room with a brilliant smile, an affective manner that immediately places you at ease and an unhurried, easy presence that belies the whirlwind tour she has been on promoting her new film, “Miss Sloane,” which earlier in the day saw her in New York and, not even 24 hours before that, in London. She bears not an ounce of exhaustion, effervescently holding court in a hotel room in the nation’s capital for press day — the same city where “Miss Sloane” is set.

Nor does she wear the perpetual scowl and chilly temperament of Elizabeth Sloane, a lobbyist who will win at any costs in the new film.

“Her MO is different from mine, because I would have a lot of difficulty doing the things she does,” Miss Chastain, 39, said of her character, seen on the film’s poster glowering over a representation of the U.S. Capitol. “She justifies everything with the good of the many or the good of the few.”

More often than not, the “few” in “Miss Sloane” is its titular character alone. In a profession known for its callous practitioners, Elizabeth Sloane takes winning to another level — bloodlessly using anyone around her in Washington in the name of the “W.”

“I see her more as an addict,” Miss Chastain said of her Miss Sloane. “Just like someone fills an emptiness with drugs or alcohol or sex, she fills it with the win. The bigger the win, the more difficult the win, the more of a high she gets.”

Miss Chastain is no stranger to such singular roles, especially those of strong women. Maya, the CIA analyst she portrayed in “Zero Dark Thirty,” was likewise extremely driven, if somewhat disconnected from others. Her performance as the icy Maya earned Miss Chastain her second Oscar nomination.

“I think any kind of character that pushes against the status quo appeals to me,” she said of both Maya and Elizabeth Sloane, adding she especially gravitates to roles that challenge preconceived notions of how women “should” behave.

In researching “Miss Sloane,” Miss Chastain spent time in the District meeting with female lobbyists. It’s largely a man’s game, which all but requires women in the cutthroat field to be a bit “masculine yet sexy,” as the actress puts it.

“I came to D.C., and I was wearing light-pink nail polish, and I’m meting these women, and seven out of the 11 were wearing black nail polish,” Miss Chastain recalls of time spent on K Street, not far from the room in which this interview is conducted. “I thought about the deeper, maybe interior choice of” the black nail polish, she said. “It’s not soft and feminine. It’s very almost aggressive.”

Miss Chastain likened the lobbyists she studied to her own agent, Hylda Queally of CAA, a titan of Hollywood.

“You do feel in an industry that is predominantly male, she walks into a room and they’re like, ‘It’s Hylda Queally!’” Miss Chastain said. “They’re very aware of her.”

Trans-Atlantic tales

Behind the camera for “Miss Sloane” was English director John Madden, known primarily for such singularly British fare as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Mrs. Brown,” as well as the exotic “Marigold Hotel” romps to India.

“I don’t really consider nationality. Maybe I should, but I don’t because my job is a storyteller, and one of the incidental pleasures is to go inside a world you don’t necessarily know about,” Mr. Madden told The Washington Times of trying his hand at a tale on this side of the Atlantic.

Mr. Madden was drawn to both the labyrinthine storyline of “Miss Sloane“‘s script as well as its unsparing portrayal of its anti-heroine. The real-life scandals of Jack Abramoff and others of his ilk informed the original script by Jonathan Perera as well as its various later drafts after Mr. Madden came aboard.

“It’s an aspect of the political process that probably few people get to see or understand,” he said of drawing back the curtain on the lobbying trade.

Mr. Madden, who has taught drama at Yale, enjoys a reputation in the industry as an actor’s director, both for stage and screen — one who culls together amazing ensembles that add chemistry to the professionalism of the work of his hired players. In addition to Miss Chastain, his roster for “Miss Sloane” includes John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg and South African-British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a crucial role.

“I take casting incredibly seriously,” Mr. Madden, who directed both Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench to Oscars in 1999 best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love,” said. “I will always give an actor another take if they think there is something else to be discovered because, frankly, that’s the pleasure of it. If I can’t get the actor to a place where they can see what I think they should be doing, then it’s my job to listen to why they think they shouldn’t’ be doing that.

“Jessica is certainly an actor of that caliber and those smarts that we will sometimes bat around those ideas,” he said of his leading lady.

Mr. Madden said that, unlike actors, who see 100 directors work, he only knows his own on-set methodology. Thusly, it is important to him that making films is both professionally enriching as well as enjoyable as a work environment.

“I know that sounds stupid, but there’s nothing worse,” he said of fraught sets. “I know it doesn’t make it any different to the way the audiences sees it, but … I only want to work in that [positive] circumstance, because you know a sense of humor is kind of vital if you’re going to try to make this stuff work.”

Center of power

While most of the interiors for “Miss Sloane” were accomplished at a studio complex in Toronto, certain key outdoor scenes were filmed in Washington to better place America’s capital as the setting for a tale of power and its abuse.

“I don’t know how you make a film discussing D.C. politics without being in D.C.,” Miss Chastain said of the location work.

However, filming in the District presents many challenges, not the least of which are the whims of the federal government and a busy calendar that can tie up key streets and buildings the producers of “Miss Sloane” sought to capture behind Miss Chastain’s character.

“I shot so much in Toronto, and it was really cold and snowy, and then we … regrouped in D.C.” for a key wraparound sequence involving Elizabeth Sloane testifying before Congress that opens the film, Miss Chastain said.

“It was the most beautiful days here in D.C., and so you really get to see the passage of time in the film,” she said.

Miss Chastain believes the film — and the recent presidential election — puts a spotlight on such issues of gender equality and pay equity, as well as greater female representation in positions of power in Hollywood.

“When you read about the wage gap, you find out, in most cases, most women don’t ask for a raise, or they don’t ask for a promotion, because they don’t take those risks for some reason,” she said. “I think we have to change that about ourselves and say, ‘We can allow a little bit of Elizabeth Sloane to be present’ and get what we deserve.”

Miss Chastain said the reactions to her character often vary by gender, with men saying they find Elizabeth Sloane to be perhaps a bit sociopathic, whereas women are grateful to see a female character who goes for what she wants heedless of the potential consequences.

“I think it’s because it goes against our preconceived notions of what is acceptable for women versus what is acceptable for men,” she said. “We’ve all seen George Clooney play characters like this. But then you see a woman do it, it’s like, ‘Wow, I don’t remember seeing a female character like this.’ It doesn’t mean that every woman is like this.”

At the close of the press meeting, Miss Chastain again demonstrates how much like Elizabeth Sloane she is not when asked how long it took her to “lose” the Mississippi accent she applied for her Oscar-nominated turn as Celia Foote in 2011’s “The Help.”

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get rid of Celia Foote,” she says with a smile, before shifting suddenly, putting on the regional dialect that she based on “The Help” novelist Kathryn Stockett’s own mother.

“It’s probably my favorite accent and voice I’ve done in a film,” Miss Chastain said. “Every once in a while when I’m with my friends, after I’ve had a couple drinks, I’m just Celia Foote.”

Miss Chastain smiles again and shakes hands warmly as she exits the room, now headed away from the city where she and Elizabeth Sloane became one.

“Miss Sloane” opens in the District Friday.

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