Jessica Chastain returns to the stage with nothing to prove

She reflected on what it means to be starring in a radical re-imagining of 'A Doll's House'

By Alexandra Alter

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Photos: Thea Traff for The New York Times
Photos: Thea Traff for The New York Times

Published: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 11:56 AM

Last updated: Thu 23 Feb 2023, 4:50 PM

Less than a week before she was set to appear in a Broadway revival of A Doll’s House as Nora, one of the most iconic female roles in Western theatre, Jessica Chastain confessed to a nagging worry.

“I don’t want it to feel like a TED Talk,” she said.

Chastain sat in the upstairs lounge at the Hudson Theater, where preview performances of A Doll’s House began February 13. She was fighting a cold and drinking Throat Coat herbal tea, dressed in a navy sweater and white sneakers, a fluffy tan coat pooling around her.

She was reflecting on what it means to be starring in a raw, radical re-imagining of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play — a work long celebrated as a profound exploration of how gender roles confine women, distorting their identities.

Chastain has fought for pay equity in Hollywood, pushed for support of Planned Parenthood and used red-carpet and talk-show appearances to champion causes such as the women protesting repression in Iran. In films as varied as Zero Dark Thirty and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, she’s embodied complicated, ambitious women who refuse to be constrained.

So she wondered if taking on the role of Nora, theatre’s most famous oppressed housewife, might seem too pointed, even preachy.

“I’m such an advocate, I’m so outspoken, so even putting me in the part, we’re already doing something, right?” Chastain said. “So how can I as an actor approach it in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m here to give everyone in the audience a lecture?”

The answer came as she began to realize Nora isn’t a victim dominated by her condescending husband, Torvald. She plays the role of the pretty, fragile, childlike wife for a reason.

“When denied, you work within a system to gain power, and we’re all responsible for that. So that’s not just, oh, Torvald is a villain because he’s put Nora in a cage. Nora has stepped in the cage to gain what little power she has,” Chastain said. “Because girls are taught so young to be smaller, right? So our voices get higher, we don’t want to be threatening, we’re docile and meek. That’s kind of bred into us. But that’s part of how we are helping it continue, women not being seen as equal. We’re playing a part so we’re palatable enough, so that people hopefully will listen to us.”

She stopped, wary of veering into TED Talk territory — “I know I’m rambling a lot” — then, a moment later, as if realising that she had cut herself off, finished the thought.

“I hope people will come to the theatre and go: How am I doing that?” she said. “How am I not being my authentic self in order to be palatable to others?”

Chastain last appeared on Broadway a decade ago, when she starred in The Heiress as Catherine Sloper, a dowdy, awkward aristocrat. Wearing petticoats, a bustle and a prosthetic nose she applied herself, Chastain immersed herself in the play’s 19th-century mannerisms and aesthetic, studying how to curtsy and properly hold a fan, even embroidering during rehearsal breaks to stay in character.

With A Doll’s House, an adaptation by British director Jamie Lloyd set to open March 9, Chastain has no theatrical set pieces or ambience to fall back on. There are no period costumes, no props, nothing resembling a set. There’s not even a door to slam in Nora’s infamous parting gesture. The play is stripped down to its barest essentials — Ibsen’s story, and the emotions it provokes in the actors and audience. It’s not a stretch to say that the entire production rests on the power of her performance.

Chastain seems to relish the challenge.

“She commits 100% every single second. Right from the first read-through, she was all in, totally committed to the psychological and emotional journey,” Lloyd said. “This is the key to Jessica’s approach. Yes, it is a deeply political play that resonates today, but it’s an intensely psychological play.”

Asked how it felt performing live in such an unvarnished way, Chastain was blunt. “Scary,” she said. “It’s very exposed as an actress working this way, because it really is all about the words and the feelings and the relationships. Jamie’s note is always ‘simple, simple.’ Simplify it, simplify it, simplify it.”

A meteoric rise, and the anxiety that came with it

Plenty has happened to Chastain since she last took the stage. She won an Academy Award for best actress last year playing the weepy, charismatic televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a movie she developed herself in an effort to humanize a mocked and misunderstood woman.

Chastain won a Golden Globe in 2013 for her role as a driven CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. She appeared in blockbusters like The Martian and Interstellar, and in art-house films and adaptations of classics like Miss Julie, a movie based on August Strindberg’s 1889 play.

She starred in prestige TV, including Scenes From a Marriage, which earned her another Golden Globe nomination, and George & Tammy, in which she played Tammy Wynette, modulating her voice into the country singer’s twang. The two series explore, in different ways, how women navigate marriage and divorce and its messy aftermath.

In 2016, Chastain started a production company, Freckle Films, which she has used to develop woman-centered projects. She married Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo in 2017, and they are now raising a family in New York City.

Along the way, she has gone from being called “the latest It Girl of thinking person’s cinema” (a label that implied her fame might be fleeting) to being something of a Hollywood power player. It’s emboldened her to try things that once terrified her — like anchoring a Broadway revival of a beloved classic.

“I don’t feel the angst and the fear that I did the last time I was onstage,” Chastain said. “Now I feel like I’ve put in a lot of work, and I feel like I’ve carved a place for myself in the industry. People know I work hard.”

Theatre, after all, was where she discovered her love of acting. Growing up in a working-class household in Northern California, she saw Richard III during a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was instantly hooked. Even though she didn’t graduate from high school, she was determined to attend Juilliard, so she earned an adult diploma and was accepted there with a scholarship, becoming at 22 the first college student in her family. Her second year, she was cast in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and a few years after she graduated, Al Pacino cast her alongside himself in a stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, which was later produced as a film.

It took years of bit parts on ER and Law & Order before her movie career took off, but in 2011, she was suddenly everywhere: She appeared in six films, including The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help, which landed her her first Oscar nomination.

The flurry of work and attention was thrilling but terrifying. When Chastain appeared on Broadway in The Heiress, an adaptation of the Henry James novella Washington Square, the expectations felt crushing. It didn’t help that some theatre critics were underwhelmed, including Ben Brantley of The Times, who said her delivery “sometimes has a flatness that I associate with cold readings of scripts.”

“I’m a sensitive person, and the last time I did theatre, it was so much pressure, and all the pressure took the joy out of it for me,” Chastain said.

“In the beginning, when I got all that attention so quickly,” she continued, “it just felt like this isn’t going to last. I felt so scared. It felt so unearned.”

Reviving an 1879 play with a new degree of nuance

Chastain wasn’t eager to return to the stage when she was approached six years ago by Lloyd, an acclaimed director whose minimalist restaging of Cyrano de Bergerac captivated audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year.

They met through a mutual friend, James McAvoy, who had worked with Chastain on the indie film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and starred as the title character in Lloyd’s Cyrano. Lloyd asked her why she wasn’t doing theatre anymore.

“I think my response was, ‘Oh, I’m too scared,’ ” Chastain said.

Over lunch, he convinced her to reconsider, then asked her to propose a play they could do together. By 2019, they settled on John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi but learned that a version of the play was about to be staged in London.

Then Chastain texted Lloyd — what about A Doll’s House?

It seemed exhilarating, and risky. For more than a century, A Doll’s House has occupied hallowed ground, revered as thought-provoking theatre that made a prescient argument for women’s autonomy. Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, initially seems naive and dependent on her husband, but she becomes disillusioned with how he controls and belittles her. She eventually leaves him with what playwright George Bernard Shaw described as the “door slam heard around the world.”

When it made its 1879 debut in Copenhagen, A Doll’s House was met with critical acclaim as well as condemnation, including from women. Nora’s decision to abandon her family was considered so shocking that some actresses refused to play her.

Over the decades, the character has come to be seen as one of theatre’s most demanding and rewarding roles. Liv Ullmann was nominated for a Tony for her performance in a 1975 Broadway revival. In 1997, the last time A Doll’s House was staged on Broadway, Janet McTeer won a Tony for playing Nora. In 2017, playwright Lucas Hnath won accolades for his brazen sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2, which explored the premise that Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf, who also won a Tony) returned home 15 years later.

'It went intimate very quickly'

Chastain, as it happened, had been thinking about A Doll’s House while working on Scenes From a Marriage, an HBO miniseries inspired by filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s exploration of a faltering relationship. (Bergman himself was influenced by A Doll’s House and released an adaptation called Nora in 1981.)

The TV show, which stars Chastain and Oscar Isaac, flips the gender dynamic of the original, so that Chastain is the partner who feels suffocated by the marriage and leaves her husband — a twist that echoes Ibsen’s plot.

One of the show’s lead writers was Amy Herzog, a playwright who had been obsessed with A Doll’s House since she was a teenager and had written a homage to it with her play Belleville. She jumped at the chance to work on an adaptation, and early last year, she began writing a version of Ibsen’s play based on a translation by Charlotte Barslund. Herzog and Chastain agreed that Nora should be played as a more ambiguous character.

“She didn’t go into it wanting to play a tragic victim. She went into it wanting to find those darker, subtler colours,” Herzog said of Chastain. “She’s willing to be unlikeable, and she’s kind of fearless in exploring all kinds of weird, gnarly stuff.”

Chastain, who rarely speaks about her private life, brought up her own family when she described how society judges women like Nora, who reject marriage and motherhood. “The idea of leaving my children would be horrific, and devastating,” she said. At the same time, she understood and wanted to capture how Nora bristled at the restrictions of her life. “Nora rejects it to become a human being first,” she said.

Chastain’s performance in A Doll’s House begins before the play even starts. On the first night of previews, the audience was still settling in when the curtain rose to reveal Chastain, wearing a simple long, dark dress, her copper hair tumbling down her back, sitting in a wooden chair as the stage spun her in slow, hypnotic circles.

For roughly two hours, with no intermission, she mostly remained front and centre, often affixed to her chair, a tangible manifestation of Nora’s paralysis, as she veers from doting to cowering to realising that she doesn’t know who she is. She delivered some lines under her breath, in hushed, frantic tones and ragged rasps.

Chastain appeared drained after that first public performance, her eyes still wet with tears as she bowed. Earlier, back in the lounge, when asked how it felt to be doing theatre now, she thought about it for a moment.

“I don’t have to prove myself as much,” she said. “Ten years ago, I had impostor syndrome, which a lot of women have, you know? And maybe now I feel like, no, no, I’m home.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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