Zookeeper’s Wife, The (2017): Interview with Star Jessica Chastain

Focus Features released The Zookeeper’s Wife in April of 2017.

Director Niki Caro explains they key to her conception: “At the script stage, I was always thinking about the tension of being caged – whether as an animal or human – and the visual storytelling was colored by that. It meant we shot through iron bars a lot, which is more difficult than I ever imagined…

Truth of the Holocaust

“What we always came back to was the truth of the Holocaust, and how it was impacting the world and in particular this community. We researched documentary evidence on the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto; the children, the starvation, the poverty, the sickness, the overcrowding. Somehow you have to express it in a way that people can handle. There can be no flinching from it.”

Jessica Chastain: Star and Executive Producer

To play the lead role of Antonina Żabińska, the filmmakers needed an actress who would not flinch from the range of emotions required to honor the subject. Jessica Chastain was at the top of everyone’s list.

She was sent the script and then met with Caro. Chastain committed to the project, and would remain so through the several years that it took to roll the cameras. To that end, she became an executive producer on The Zookeeper’s Wife. She amassed her own research on the period and the character, and visited the Warsaw Zoo – which reopened a few years after the war ended – to get a sense of the environment.

Compassion and Heroism

She says, “Here was an incredible arc for an actress to play. I wanted to portray Antonina because I love the compassion she exemplified and the heroism in that compassion. I also responded to the character trait in the script of how she read energy in people and also in animals. She had to be wary yet confident.

“I was fascinated at how the healing that she tried to provide for the guests included a strong musical component. She was a classically trained pianist, and I wanted to convey how she was keeping that as a beacon for people, the pride and the culture.”

Antonina and Jan’s daughter Teresa Żabińska remembers, “Several of our guests played as well, when concerts were held in the evenings.

Piano: Film’s Main Character

“The piano held a special importance in the house during the occupation because it was used to play an alarm signal. It was my mother’s idea to choose the Offenbach operetta excerpt as the warning that everyone who lived there had to get to their designated hiding places.” As heard in The Zookeeper’s Wife, that excerpt is “Pars pour la Crête (La belle Hélène)” [a.k.a. “Beautiful Helen”].

Chastain, not a trained pianist herself, learned to play excerpts of classical music especially for The Zookeeper’s Wife. She had played a small Chopin piece for an earlier movie, but this time she needed to master at least a minute each of several different composers’ works. Accordingly, Chastain undertook two months’ worth of piano tuition before shooting began and then continued her training even after filming began.

Producer Workman remarks, “I don’t think Antonina ever called herself a hero. That she would not speak to this makes her an interesting subject, and is one of her contradictions – that’s ‘contradictions’ rather than ‘faults,’ which are not the same things. What particularly fascinated me was that she felt compelled to make a sanctuary for frightened, persecuted people.

“Antonina, I feel, was extraordinarily vulnerable; it’s what made her so tender with animals. But still, she found her will, her strength, to act with immense bravery, in spite of that vulnerability, or maybe as a result of it. She understood a fearful animal. We needed to look at how frightened she was, how her strength had to come from a deep reserve. Jessica was interested in exploring that dichotomy in her character.”

For Chastain, “there was a lot in the script to work with, and one thing I noticed was that she never really questions her husband in the beginning of the film. She’s quite submissive. But as events progress, she is able to be equal with humans, as she is with animals. She becomes stronger.

“I get very possessive when playing a character; I want to access their secrets and fears. Niki would work with me to elevate a scene and try things out but we would never go for something that was not real for Antonina, that she would not have done or been.”

Set Dominated by Women

Chastain adds, “I’ve never been on a set with as many women as we had working on The Zookeeper’s Wife, which made for a richly collaborative experience. It was great to have a female camera operator, Rachael [Levine], and stunt coordinator, Antje Rau.”

Having made movies revolving around specific cultures, Caro is attentive to more than just the top-billed actors on a project. She explains, “This movie was huge, so there were over 60 people that I chose for not only their talent and skill but also for their personal connection to the material. This ensures that when we get to the set, I am working with people who have a mainline into the truth of the story. On The Zookeeper’s Wife, I was determined to avoid anything sentimental.

“It was a privilege on this movie to collaborate with actors who inhabited their characters, and the reality of the time and place, so effortlessly and passionately.”