Maybe the universe gave two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain bright red hair so the second people see her they get a forewarning that she is filled, from head to toe, with love. Indeed, so much so, that she’s convinced it’s the only way we can actually change the world.
Her latest film, The Zookeeper’s Wife—a movie written and directed by women, about an “unheralded female heroine”—is the perfect platform for her to embrace the feminist values she espouses. The film is adapted from Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book and based on the real-life story of Antonina Żabińska (played by Chastain) a working wife and mother who became a heroine during World War II. “The story takes place in 1939, in Poland, where Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński run the majestic Warsaw Zoo. When the Germans invade, the zoo is nearly destroyed in an attack as the entire country is invaded by the Nazis. The couple saves hundreds of lives by hiding people in the zoo, with Antonina risking not only her own life but those of her children as well. It’s nice that it’s true because it’s the kind of story that gives you hope for humanity.
Periel Aschenbrand: Congratulations on the film. It’s a very beautiful and inspiring story.
Jessica Chastain: Thank you. And directed by a female filmmaker!
PA: I know! Niki Caro. I read that you said something about one of the male directors you had worked with who said you talk about ‘women’s issues’ too often…
JC: It was a male director I had worked with in the past and he said, ‘Oh, you talk about this women’s stuff too much. You gotta calm down and stop talking about it so much.’
PA: I was hoping I could invite you to talk about it more.
JC: I talk about it all the time. I’ll never stop.
PA: I think it’s great and really wonderful and important to see and hear, especially for little girls out there.
PA: Having read other things you’ve said and, in conjunction with this story, of course, I’d like to ask you to talk a bit about this idea of being brave.
JC: I think in the past being brave—being powerful, being strong—were qualities that people associated with being masculine. And I think … no, I don’t think, I know that now we’re realizing they can be feminine too. The great thing about modern feminism is that women can define what it means to them: it can mean being ambitious, it can mean being emotional, it can mean being sensitive and compassionate and also a leader. It can mean all those things. And what makes me so excited about this film is that she is absolutely a hero, but she is not a hero because of aggressive qualities. She doesn’t use a gun; she uses love. I think that’s more brave. I think it’s more courageous to fight hate with love.
PA: Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt said you can’t imagine what it is to be brave. You can’t say, if I had been living back then, I would have done XYZ because what that meant was that they could have shot one of your children.
JC: And by saying that you’re also trivializing the sacrifices and the choices they made. I loved what Niki did with the film—it’s not an easy decision for them to make, to help people. We had to feel the weight of what it meant.
PA: How long did it take you to shoot the film?
JC: Two months.
PA: Were you traumatized?
JC: I wasn’t because the character had so much love. So even though we would shoot dark and emotional scenes, her heart was so big and she had so much compassion, so it was always positive. Daniel Brühl [who plays her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński] and I became very good friends and I admire him so much as a person and as an artist. The last scene that our characters have together was very difficult for us to do and neither one of us wanted to do it and after the scene, I picked up a bunny and started cuddling the bunny and then he came over and started petting the rabbit. We healed ourselves through this beautiful bunny.
PA: That’s really sweet. The animals looked incredible.
JC: They are so loving and so beautiful. Hopefully this will inspire people, when they see the film, to be compassionate not only to other human beings, but to all living things.
PA: I agree. And not to change the subject, but can I ask you about Krav Maga? I understand you’ve studied it?
JC: Yes! It’s been about six years now since I’ve done it, but I studied it for four months when I was training for The Debt. I also took German, I studied the medical experiments that were in the Holocaust, which were so, so disturbing, and I learned Krav Maga.
PA: For a non-Jew, you’re very steeped in our culture.
JC: I’m an honorary.
PA: To that end, I have a list of questions for you. What’s your favorite drink?
JC: Green tea.
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
JC: I don’t drink coffee.
PA: OMG. Why? Because you’re a vegan?
JC: Because I want to have a healthy day and I don’t want to have any dips. If I’m in Italy, I’ll have an espresso but I try not to get my energy from things like that.
PA: Does it work?
JC: It does! Green tea throughout the day is the healthiest thing I’ve discovered for me.
PA: Okay, so I can’t ask you how you eat your eggs. Do you have a favorite Jewish Holiday?
JC: I haven’t had much experience with Jewish holidays but I would have to say Passover because of the scene we film in the movie—when they were having Passover and the ghetto was being burned. It was such an emotional and shocking and upsetting experience and I’m always going to think about it now. I’m not a religious person and I don’t understand a lot of it, but I really felt a part of something that was bigger than me when were filming that.
PA: Hearing that will probably make a lot of Jews very happy. Obviously you did not have a bat mitzvah, so we can skip that question. What shampoo do you use?
JC: Loréal has a vegan shampoo that doesn’t test on animals.
PA: I’m going to have to rephrase this since you’re vegan. Have you ever even tasted gefilte fish or lox?
JC: No. I’ve been vegan for twelve years! But my senior year in Juilliard I rented a room in this woman’s apartment who was kosher and she was like, ‘Here’s the kitchen, but this is the deal, if you’re going to cook meat … and I was like, ‘You have nothing to worry about, I’m never going to cook meat!’
PA: You’re a kosher girl’s dream roommate! What are five things in your bag right now?
JC: Super boring. All necessities—My telephone, keys, wallet, that’s it.
PA: Favorite pair of shoes?
JC: I have a pair of black boots that I’ve been wearing every single day. I don’t even know what brand they are. They keep my feet super warm. I can’t stand having cold feet.
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.