Powerhouse Jessica Chastain is no stranger to playing characters whose incomparable strength and intelligence inspire. ZERO DARK THIRTY, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and the tragically under-seen MISS SLOANE are her ringing examples of capable, empowered women in cinema. In her latest film, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, she plays another badass – real-life heroine Antonina Zabinska, who, along with her husband, helped rescue over 300 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, using their zoo as a safe house. She and her family put their lives at tremendous risk and director Niki Caro’s feature spotlights their bravery and activism, hoping to embolden modern audiences.
But don’t just let us tell you about how much of an incredible woman Antonina was. Meet her below in this featurette:
On a recent conference call during her press tour for the film, Chastain told me she was first introduced to her real-life counterpart through screenwriter Angela Workman’s adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book.
I read the book, which was amazing because it basically is in Antonina’s own words. It’s from her journal that was discovered. I found a lot from there.
However, it was Chastain’s meeting with Antonina and Jan’s daughter, Teresa Zabinska, that really provided the clarity as to how to portray the heroine authentically.
I met with her at the Warsaw Zoo and I asked her many questions about her mother – things that I was shocked by. She told me in her whole life she never saw her mother wearing pants. There was this femininity to her – the things that even weren’t in the book but I could get from the personal stories from being actually at the place and being with the family.
The twice Oscar-nominated actress also travelled to Auschwitz for greater understanding.
Of course Antonina would have never been that close to what was going on – she was very removed from it. But the energy of what the history was, I just wanted to be in the area just to understand. I don’t think anyone completely, fully comprehends the atrocities that happened at that time, but I’ve read a lot about it but I had never visited a camp like that. And so it was important for me to do so.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE marks Chastain’s second narrative feature that she produced (her firsts were the connected films THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HER/ HIM/ THEM). It was a rewarding and challenge other hat to have to wear during production, specifically in the pre-production phase. She told me that it was a disparity that stirred activism in her to put change in motion.
Sometimes there are some challenges in casting because a lot of the time when you have a film with a female protagonist, [the] financiers and such, want big movie stars to play the male actor. I happen to notice this, I don’t know if you notice very often, but female movie stars will play supporting roles in movies with male protagonists. But it’s very rare to play a big male movie star play supporting roles in a movie with a female protagonist. And so that was always like a big problem with casting and wondering like, ‘Are we going to be able to get the movie financed?’
Having that kind of creative control also led to her championing the right actors for the right roles. She continued,
I am so happy with where we ended up because I think like we got the absolute best actors for the roles. Johan Heldenbergh, who I saw in THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN. He’d never acted in English. I was so moved by his work and I just remembered him. Years later, when we were making this movie, I suggested him to play Jan and I think he’s brilliant in the movie. Also Daniel Bruhl is, I think, so underutilized in every movie he’s in. He’s brilliant.
One of her biggest joys was not only just being able to explore the idea of “what it was like to be in a cage,” on thematic level, but also on a creative level. She elucidated,
What’s wonderful about the film is I think it actually puts actors first, rather than movie stars. I feel like there’s sometimes a difference between the two. Every day I was on set, I was with these people that were really keeping me on my toes and it was so exciting to be in scenes with them.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE opens on March 31.