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Jessica Chastain's Long and Rocky Road to 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood October 7, 2014 at 12:48PM

Jessica Chastain and director Ned Benson talk 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby''s long journey to the screen.
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'

NB: Then it became this whole thing where I was writing the new script and giving pieces to Jessica and building it from there. When we finished, we felt like, "Oh, this actually works."

JC: I've never done anything like this. James and I played two different characters. I played Eleanor Rigby, and I also played Conor's perception of Eleanor Rigby. In his film, she's more distant and mysterious and cold. She's so confusing. 

Did you have in your head where Eleanor had 'disappeared' to when you wrote "Him"?
NB: There were certain ideas I'd had about where she was going but we built new stories, new ideas.

JC: The scene between Conor and her mother wasn't in that original script. Once he had "Her," he was able to put in that crossover.

There are all kinds of nods to French cinema in the film, not least having Isabelle Huppert play Eleanor's mother.
NB: Jess is a huge Isabelle Huppert fan...

JC: ...and French film fan, which just comes from being an actor in a time when no one wants to make dramas - although that has changed now. Then you look over at France and they make the most incredible dramas with very complicated characters who aren't heroes. When Ned was writing it, it was like, "Wouldn't it be amazing if it was Isabelle Huppert in that role?" None of my movies had come out at that point [laughs].

NB: We had all these little pipe dreams.

JC: Then I went to Cannes for "Tree Of Life" and I became friendly with Isabelle so it was nice to know I could make the phone call.

The film is very self-assured, both visually and in its storytelling. It doesn't feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker.
NB: I think when you have the group that I had around me believing in me, it's so much easier. We had such a difficult road getting to that first day of shooting that once I got there, I felt free. All my neurosis -- because I'm kind of a neurotic guy -- literally disappeared because I was overwhelmed by creative excitement.

At TIFF, the sequence was changed for different screenings. We watched "Him" followed by "Her." What's your experience of how the running order changes perceptions?
NB: The last time I saw it before we sent it here was "Her/Him" and I loved it that way. There's something so mysterious about watching "Her" first. I'm so happy that it can be experienced both ways.

If it didn't contain the name of a famous Beatles tune, some people might think it was a horror film. Can you explain the title?
NB: It's a bit abstract but I'd actually been listening to that song when I started pulling things together, and the idea of this lonely woman struggling with herself. It's also a cultural reference to the prior generation: her parents are struggling through something that's sort of analogous to what Conor and Eleanor are going through, so I wanted to play with that sort of generational disconnect. In terms of "Disappearance," we're looking at a woman who's trying to erase herself.

JC: She's doing everything she can to disappear who she was; what the past was. When you see both films, you realize you can't underestimate any line because it will lead somewhere else.

How did James McAvoy come on board?
NB: We'd gone to him years before and we sent the script to him at the wrong time. He was just not in the right place to do it. When we sent it to James again at the last second, he responded to it in the way of being free from that moment.

JC: It was a thing, too, because I was about to sign on to ["Iron Man 3"] and it was this moment of, "Wait, do we have an actor now?" The fortune and timing was wonderful, because if you had called me a week later...

NB: A day later.

JC: Yes, a day later! That was a tough weekend.

You're obviously great friends but, Jessica, what was Ned like on set?
JC: You know, every single week he would send an email to the entire cast and crew, every assistant, every PA, about the wonderful things that had happened that week. He would mention people by name, not just the actors but he might mention an incredible thing that a runner had done that week. It inspired people. I've only been on one other set where everyone worked so hard because they loved each other and because of the director, and that was "Tree Of Life." Terrence Malick is also someone who expresses his gratitude.

There you go, Ned: you've earned a comparison to Malick.
NB: That did not come from me!

JC: [Laughs] Can I tell him that story? Ned was on set for "Tree Of Life" working on this script and he came to see what we were doing and Terry goes, "Ned, Ned! Come here!" And he takes his monitor and hands it to Ned.

NB: The entire crew are set up and about to shoot and Terry has a portable monitor that he walks around with. He sees me and goes "Ned!" in front of his whole crew and says, "Here, take this." It was one of the great geek-out moments of all time.

Are you planning to work together again?
JC: I hope so. We talked a couple days ago about something I would like Ned to do.

NB: I would be very lucky to work with Jess again.

JC: I know what it's like being an actor and no one wants to take that first chance on you when you haven't been cast in a lead before. And then once you start to work, the jobs start coming in. I know that for the longest time it was difficult to get this made because it's a first-time filmmaker and people are nervous about that. But I don't think they're going to be nervous anymore.

This article is related to: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Viola Davis, Ciarán Hinds, The Weinstein Co., Toronto, Toronto International Film Festival, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.