Jessica Chastain is an Academy Award-nominated actress whose work in such films as “The Help,” “Tree of Life” and “Zero Dark Thirty” caught our attention. As the zookeeper’s wife, she had to interact with real animals. In one powerful scene, she brings a baby elephant that is unable to breathe back to life while an adult elephant stands directly above her, often placing its trunk around her. Ms. Chastain showed incredible grace playing Antonina, studying extensively for the role, traveling to Eastern Europe, and even studying piano. Her performance is masterful.
Q: What attracted you to this particular story?
A: There was so much in this story that was really interesting to me. There are so many films about the Holocaust, but very rarely do you see it where it celebrates love and light. A lot of times we see death and darkness, hate and murder, and the most terrible parts of mankind. This was about an ordinary person, an ordinary woman, a couple who sacrificed their safety to save hundreds of lives. To me, that’s really inspiring. It makes me feel good about human beings, to know that when something dark comes, we can step forward and be the face of human kindness in the face of war. I was also interested in what it means to be in a cage, because that’s really a theme of the film — the Warsaw zoo as a cage, the Warsaw ghetto as a cage. Niki (Caro) found that people would go on dates outside the Warsaw ghetto and they’d stand in front of the fence and take pictures while people inside were suffering. It also relates to animals, because it is about possessing a living thing.
Q: What about the role you play as Antonina?
A: You find out that when reading the book and her journals, you see that she was quite submissive. She deferred to her husband a lot. In the film, you see that. You see her always in the shadow in the beginning, and shy to step forward. When Jan is away and she is there at the house, being responsible for so many people, trying to keep everything hidden when you have the soldiers nearby — she is organizing the whole thing. Throughout this film, you see them as equals, and you see her step forward. And the relationship is redefined at the end. That was exciting for me — to look at a woman’s place in 1939 and how she found her individuality within this loving relationship.
Q: At the beginning of the film, you interact with animals. In one scene, there is an elephant right next to you. Weren’t you afraid?
A: I have no fear. I’m not afraid of animals at all. I have people tell me, “Don’t get too close to the animal!” I know that if I get hurt by an animal in my life, it’s my fault. It’s not the animal’s fault. I just trust them so much. I know not to impose myself on them. I don’t try to own them. I don’t try to possess them. I don’t have them to do things they don’t want to do. I wait for them to invite me into their space. I wanted them to be happy when they saw me. I wanted them to be safe and to know I wasn’t going to do to them anything that scared them. I met with Lily (the elephant) many times before we even began shooting. We just got along!
Q: Antonina seems to some extent to be an outsider in Warsaw. She has a different accent than her husband.
A: Antonina is a refugee [from St. Petersburg] and she found her safe haven in Warsaw when she was an young woman. She also was helping refugees and I wanted to show that she had found her place in the world. In the book, you do sense that she defers a lot to her husband. There is this soft quality to Antonina. Then I met with her [real-life] daughter and asked that if her mother would be an animal, what would that be, and she responded that it would be a cat. Then she said that she never saw her mother in a pair of pants. There is something about this… that Jan didn’t like it. There is something about this time of war, of ugliness, of darkness. Antonina was very feminine. In the beginning, she shows a very submissive personality. She was very catlike. When cats move, there is this kind of sensuality, and I wanted that in the voice. I actually pitched my voice higher. I wanted little tiny elements that she was not from that place.
Q: Toward the end, we find you walking with other refugees. How was that experience? What were you feeling at that moment?
A: It was important to me that we really show that she was a refugee. So timely, isn’t it? History works in circles. We need to look at history to find out where we are today and where we are heading in the future. As a little girl, I was required to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” But what they should also teach us, when they teach that book, is that Anne Frank’s family was denied a visa to the United States. So children here say, “Oh, if only she were born here.” No. We shut our doors and the reason this young girl died was because we didn’t let her into our country. The more people learn, the more compassionate I hope they will be to those seeking safe haven. So I’m very happy that this movie is coming out now, because I believe it is very contemporary.