This weekend, Jessica Chastain, the beloved, ethereal star of "The Tree of Life" and "The Help" (and currently Oscar nominated for her fiercely brilliant performance in Kathryn Bigelow's dazzling "Zero Dark Thirty"), goes to the dark side with the Guillermo del Toro-produced, Andy Muschietti-directed chiller "Mama." She plays a woman struck with a double-whammy: dealing with having to raise her two nieces who were recently recovered from a cabin in the woods where they'd raised themselves for years, and the maternal ghost (dubbed "Mama") who is still very possessive.
We got to sit down with the star to talk about what drew her to such dark material, where her tentacle tattoo in the movie came from, what horror movies make her go bump in the night, and what other genres she's eager to get her hands on.
I had just done "The Tree of Life." That was coming out and "Take Shelter." And so many people were talking to me about how they saw me as this "perfect mother" and I got this script and I thought, "This will really throw people for a loop." Because it's a woman who refuses to grow up, she plays bass guitar in a punk band, she's not good enough to ever be famous, she's got a sexy boyfriend who's an illustrator, they live in a loft. She doesn't want any responsibility. In the beginning, when she's forced to deal with these children, she's a little selfish and even unlikable. That was exciting for me to play! And I loved the arc throughout the film. For me it's definitely a hero's journey or someone becoming a hero and Guillermo del Toro. I love "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth." Also Andy, the short film is so scary. I thought, well, this is great. I'll do this.
How did you come up with the look for this character? I imagine Guillermo gave you the tentacle tattoo.
No it was Andy! At first he said, "I want to put an octopus down your arm." And I said, "Okay, I love the idea of the tattoos but why an octopus?" He said: "Because, when a tentacle gets stuck, it detaches. I think Annabelle must see herself like that." I said: "That is genius, I love it, let's do it!" And the haircut was Alice Glass inspired. [Alice Glass is the lead singer of the Canadian electro-punk band Crystal Castles.]
What is scarier – ghosts or the Oscar campaign?
The thing is, because I'm doing "The Heiress," I'm on stage every day. So there isn't much that I can do for an Oscar campaign. I can go to a lunch and do press but… I think a ghost is probably scarier.
I was Carolyn Stoddard in "Dark Shadows." It's never been seen before. Which I thought, when I was right out of school, "Oh this is my big moment!" And then the pilot was not picked up. [sighs] Sadly. I love "The Exorcist." I love "Jaws." And I saw those when I was far too young to see those films. It must have cemented something in me. There are a lot of great actresses in horror films – "Rosemary's Baby," "The Others." You think about Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Mia Farrow, Jamie Lee Curtis. So many women I really respect have done these great characters in horror films. And I'm excited. I hope to do even more! I love it so much.
Is there any genre you're really looking to do?
A western. I want to hold a gun.
And you want to be a James Bond villain?
Yeah, it's like… Enough of the graceful characters… I want to get my hands dirty.
"Mama" is in theaters now.