In The Martian, Jessica Chastain plays Commander Lewis, in charge of the space mission that mistakenly believes that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is dead and leaves him stranded on Mars. Chastain took her character’s role of authority seriously, learning everything she possibly could. She praises her director, Ridley Scott, for his enlightened thinking and casting when it comes to women. “Ripley in Alien was originally written for a man — [Scott] was the one who changed it. I mean, Ridley Scott made Thelma and Louise,” she says with a laugh. “He’s incredible. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to work with him.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get involved with The Martian?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I had just seen a cut of Intersteller and I loved that film so much. I loved my part but when I watched the movie I thought, ‘Annie [Hathaway] and Matthew [McConaughey] look like they’re having so much fun. I thought it would be fun to play an astronaut and do all that wire work in zero gravity. Then a week later I got a call from my agent who said Ridley Scott was making a movie and there was an astronaut character and would I like to meet with him. It was one of those moments when you’re like, “Maybe if you really want something you just need to say it out loud!” [Laughs.]
Did you speak with anyone at NASA in order to prepare?
I’m a huge researcher and when I first met with Ridley to talk about the film he asked if I had any questions for him. I said, “Yes, can I got to Space Camp?” I remember when I was a kid everyone was always talking about Space Camp and I never got to go so I thought this is a good way as an adult! I started at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, where the robotics are, and I got to shadow people there. I got to see 3-D virtual reality images of Mars where it felt like I really was on the planet. I went to Houston and met this incredible astronaut and asked her everything. I went on a mock space shuttle and it was so incredibly enlightening to be able to ask any questions I had in the script. I really love that about acting — I get to learn things that I wouldn’t normally learn.
A movie set as higher education.
Yeah! Every movie I do I think, “Okay, what am I learning from this?” Because I have no idea if a movie is going to end up good, or if people are going to see it or like it. I have no control over the result. But I do have control over what I can gain from the experience. And with this? It was the most wonderful experience and I walked away knowing about space travel and NASA
So how was the wire work?
I loved it. A lot. It was a kind of choreography you have to learn. I kind of love hanging around on those wire — I really did find it fun. There were times when I was in the space suit swinging around and it was really high up there. There were a few moments when I was very grateful that I’m not afraid of heights. It was tough but fun.
You and Matt Damon have only a couple of scenes on screen together which makes sense considering he’s on his own for most of the film.
I was just really impressed with what Matt was doing on set. I think this was kind of the role he was born to play. He’s so likeable — we have to root for him. Of course the whole world wants to bring him home. This movie is like three different movies: there’s NASA on Earth; and there’s the spaceship with the crew; and then there’s Mars. We started with Mars and the big storm sequence [that strands Matt’s character on Mars]. For that section they basically brought in so much dirt and really wacked us around with wind turbines. It was probably the most difficult scenes I’ve ever filmed. I was so happy to leave Mars. And Matt was there for the long haul. The cast had a lot of fun in Budapest — many long dinners and bottles of red wine. It was a very special group that Ridley brought together.
I’ve heard things move very quickly on a Ridley Scott set.
I love it. Especially wearing those heavy space suits — it’s not like we could take a quick trip to the bathroom. Sometimes I felt like a 2-year-old when people are getting you dressed and you have to ask them to scratch your nose for you. So, if you’re in one of those suits you don’t want to hang out waiting for people to light and the shot to be perfect. Ridley says what’s going on in my mind on most sets: “What’s taking so long?” Every time I’m thinking it, he’s saying it out loud. Yes! Let’s get this going.
So after this experience do you think you’d want to go to space?
[Laughs] As much as I love NASA and the idea of space exploration, it is from afar. It’s not something I want to do in my lifetime.
The Martian opens in theaters on Oct. 2.