Zero Dark Thirty: Casting Jessica Chastain

The keystone of the casting in Kathryn Bigelo”s brilliant thriller was Maya, the CIA targeter who devotes her very existence for nearly a decade to finding Osama bin Laden, ultimately tracing him to a Pakistan suburb.

Maya is a woman who to some degree falls into the classic category of obsessive cinematic sleuths, those who cannot rest until their man is caught. But there is a distinctively contemporary take on motivation: The film offers no clear explanation for her evolving personality, leaving viewers to reach their own conclusions about what makes Maya tick and what makes her change. While there is no doubt that she is extremely focused, intelligent, and resolute, she remains essentially mysterious–an enigma.

Not a Freudian Scenario

“I’m not a huge fan of Freudian backstory and exposition,” says Boal. “I like characters who are defined solely by what they do, in the existential present tense. At the same time, there was the practical consideration. I had to limit biographical detail for the sake of protecting identity.”

Nevertheless, Maya is clearly a woman with impressive aspirational qualities, and to play the role, the filmmakers chose one of today’s most versatile and magnetic actresses, Jessica Chastain, who last year appeared in at least five films, earning a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for “The Help.”

Real Gravity and Intensity

“We needed a tremendously talented actress with the verbal agility to handle the complexity of the dialogue, as well as the fearless approach that the role demanded,” director Bigelow says. “Jessica possesses a real gravitas and intensity. She can channel depth and nuance into even the subtlest of moments.”

Chastain remembers being drawn to the role. “By page 20 of the script, I knew I had to play Maya,” she recalls. “I immediately understood why she was so completely consumed and obsessed by this search. I thought it was one of the best parts I’d ever read; I just loved her strength and tenacity.

“The character made me laugh with how focused she can be on getting what she wants. The detail of the screenplay was amazing. Everyone in my generation remembers where they were when they heard bin Laden was dead, but none of us knows what it was like to be in the CIA hunting him. This story brings heroes like Maya, people who made a difference, into the light.”

Maya was also compelled by Maya’s metamorphosis from a shell-shocked new recruit to a steely navigator of the fog-shrouded world of counter-terrorism.

Identity Crisis

“I was really moved and excited by Maya’s arc,” Chastain notes. “In essence, you see her grow up through the film, as finding bin Laden becomes a more and more personal mission to her. You see her start to lose her old self and become someone new. The very end of the movie is so interesting to me because it’s almost like she doesn’t quite know who she is anymore. And to tell that kind of emotionally complex and very real story about a character is why I do this.”

Shooting in India and Jordan
Working in India and Jordan also gave her further insight into what women like Maya go through trying to slip unnoticed into a foreign culture. “You really feel that you are on the other side of the world and cut off from all the things you are used to,” Chastain notes. “I imagine it felt similar for Maya when she first arrived. All your relationships become very intense–very close, very fast, and that was something you only understand by experiencing it. I don’t see how we could have made this film in this way anywhere else.”