Debt, The: Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain–Same Role, Different Age

With such actor-driven thriller in mind, director John Madden knew that the cast “would be central to The Debt. Inevitably these characters would be close to us, often very close. We watch them making a choice, see it ripple through a lifetime, and witness its profound effects.”

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Nowhere was this more important than with the lead character of Rachel Singer. The filmmakers needed an actress of a certain age to embody Rachel in 1997. She would have to be someone capable of conveying the uncertainty that haunts her, and embracing the physical challenges. With those prerequisites, Thykier states, “Who else could it be but Helen Mirren? We’d always thought of her for this role.”

Madden had previously directed Mirren in one of her celebrated Prime Suspect telefilms. He notes, “That was a fantastic experience for me. Helen is an actress at the top of her game, and she likes to test herself. She is fearless. Helen responded immediately to the challenge of this material.
“Here’s a role which required her to intimate the wounds and the corrosive effect of events suppressed over 30 years. The tension and pain of a decision made long ago are evident; she literally bears a scar from what happened back then. All this has to come across amidst the pace and excitement of a thriller.”

Mirren comments, “Aside from wanting to work with John again and the fact that this was a good thriller story, I was interested in exploring the notion of how every action you take in life has a result, a consequence, and sooner or later you are going to have to face up to it.”

“Having learned to live with compromise, Rachel is finally realizing that it doesn’t always work. She is not a person who reveals much to anyone, not even to the daughter who has written a book about her and her colleagues. Rachel has buried her true emotions and has existed for many years on a superficial level, not confronting the depth of her real feelings about things. She finds she has to do that, and much more.”

For that “much more,” Mirren rose to the occasion, learning the basic moves of krav maga, the renowned tactical defense skill that is rooted in hand-to-hand combat. Krav maga is the official self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces.

However, Mirren points out that “at this point in her life, Rachel is retired and hasn’t fought in some years, so I wanted to keep that realistic. While she was trained in krav maga, that was a long time ago. So when she is called upon to defend herself again, she’s far from a credible fighter.”

With their latter-day Rachel set, the filmmakers turned to casting the younger incarnation. Madden wanted to “not to be enslaved by the necessity to find a lookalike actress.

“But then we did find the perfect actress, who has an extraordinary physical affinity with Helen.”

Rising star Jessica Chastain was recommended to Madden “by an agent I trust, someone who didn’t even represent her.” Chastain had recently filmed The Tree of Life for director Terrence Malick, who when phoned by Madden offered an overwhelmingly positive recommendation. “He was happy to talk forever about her,” Madden says.

Chastain remarks, “When I first read the script, I didn’t even see it as a thriller. To me, it was a drama and a love story. It was so good that I felt, ‘I have to be in this movie.’

“I wanted to work with John Madden because he works both in theater and film, and that’s what I like to do as well.”

The actress reveals, “I do a lot of research, and I went into my first meeting with John very prepared. I had found out that Helen Mirren and I are the same height, so I said, ‘Just to throw it out there…’”

Impressing the filmmakers with her grasp of the character, Chastain got the plum part. “She is magnetic to watch,” says Madden. “She elicits an emotional involvement from the viewer. There’s no equivocation in the choices she makes, and emotionally she is absolutely clear.

“Helen has exactly that same quality. You can see the tiniest change of mood flutter across her face. That kind of transparency is rare, and it’s a gift. The baton of Rachel passes effortlessly from one actress to the other.”

Unable to share the screen, “the two Rachels” instead met to compare notes well before filming began. Mirren and Chastain read scenes together and worked out shared characteristics that would resonate within the film.
Chastain remembers, “Helen and I got together in London with [production dialogue coach] Joan Washington to work on Rachel’s voice. We also discussed gestures Rachel would make.”

Mirren adds, “We collaborated with John, and with the costume and hair and make-up departments as well. Between the two of us, Jessica and I came to a consensus about who we wanted this one person to be.

“In 1997, she is hidden, polished and reserved. But the younger Rachel is a very different person…”

Chastain notes, “Helen asked me about what I thought Rachel’s family history might be, and we talked about where perhaps Rachel would end up; it’s in the script, of course, but this way we could see that we were on the same journey.”

In 1965-1966, Rachel is the youngest member of the trio of Mossad agents sent to capture the war criminal Vogel. Thykier notes, “She has no experience as a field agent up to that point, and that has a significant effect on the way the story unfolds.”

The actress herself lacked experience in one key area; Chastain admits, “I could not be more different from a Mossad agent. Before The Debt, I had no idea how to even throw a punch; I had never been in a fight in my life.”

Accordingly, she trained with a krav maga expert four times a week for four months in Los Angeles before coming to London for rehearsal with her fellow actors. As a result, “she does all of her own fighting and stunts in the film,” Madden reveals.

Chastain reports, “I packed on a little bit of muscle, and, considering that I am a pacifist, I really enjoyed filming the fight scenes.”