By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—For moviegoers who haven’t had their fill of politics this year comes “Miss Sloane,” an intense drama that delves into the high stakes world of political powerbrokers. Jessica Chastain, a two-time Academy Award nominee, plays the titular character, a successful and highly sought after Washington, D.C. lobbyist, who also has sacrificed a personal life to reach the pinnacle of her career.
A top player at a powerful lobbying firm, she is called upon to help convince women to oppose a bill that would impose new regulations on the sales of firearms. In a rare moment of ethics, Elizabeth Sloane turns them down and instead joins a much smaller firm representing the backers of the proposed anti-gun legislation. Several of her underlings follow her to the boutique firm, but does she have what it takes to defeat the most powerful lobby—and her former colleagues—to win?
John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) directs the fast-paced drama from a script by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera. The cast includes Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston and John Lithgow.
Perera said in an interview that his mother inspired the Miss Sloane character, not because she is manipulative, but because she is strong, intelligent and driven.
“There was never a ‘Mr. Sloane,’” he said. “As soon as I knew I wanted to set something in the world of lobbying, it seemed intuitively right that the protagonist should be a female. Fewer than 10 percent of lobbyists are women, so to take a female and put her into that world immediately makes her more of an underdog and stacks the odds against her because it’s such an old boy’s club.”
Weeks before the Nov. 8 Presidential election, Chastain, 39, spoke about taking on the central role in “Miss Sloane,” playing a strong lead female character and gender bias in the media.
Q: How was your experience playing a character who herself is constantly playing characters?
Chastain: It’s a wonderful challenge to play a character where many levels of motivation are going on. She has the long game, which we don’t know until the end of the film. On second viewing you can start to see that unfold as you see her put the pieces into play. She also has a game she plays for each character, and you have to understand when approaching Elizabeth what she needs from every single person in the room.
She also has the mask that she wears in public. That was really interesting to me in terms of how she prepares herself for battle—going out into the world, what she wears, how she makes up her face. There’s an intimidation factor about Elizabeth that I think makes people step back a bit. Usually when people do that it’s because there’s a fragility to them, and you want to put someone off balance before you even enter the room. So there was that.
The one really fun thing to play also was the relationships in her personal life, how she dealt with intimacy. The great thing about Jake (Lacy, who plays her sometime escort) playing that role, he and Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays a co-worker) are the two people that actually are the ones who are able to throw her off-balance.
Q: “Miss Sloane” is so emotionally challenging, but also you had to be so reserved in this role at times. What was that process like and how did you find the balance?
Chastain: I like characters where you have to have some restraint, where there are opposite things going on. It’s a strange thing for me to talk about a performance that way, because I don’t know actually when I’m putting something together what people are going to see. I create a lot of secrets for the characters that I play that I don’t talk to anyone about. I just create this whole back story that I hope when people see the character, they will see things kind of bubble up. Also, it makes it so much easier in playing a role like this when you’re working with actors like Alison (Pill, who plays an assistant) and Gugu and the whole ensemble of this film.
Q: How would you describe your character?
Chastain: Liz Sloane is a loner, and she spends a lot of her time on her own. She’s kind of a one-woman band, but the group that John (Madden, the director) was able to put together just really forced me to step up my game. I felt a lot of intimidation because in the scenes I had to be barking orders at people and telling people what to do. It’s wonderful when you come prepared for work and you think you know what’s going to happen, and then when working with actors like these Alison and Gugu, they really turn you in a different direction.
Q: The character’s very masculine. She’s around a lot of white, older men in suits, like a boys’ club. Was that a conscious decision to make her stand out with her very severe look, the power suits, the dark lipstick, and so forth, to show, “I have to man up,” for lack of a better term.
Chastain: I actually didn’t see Elizabeth so much as masculine. I see her as just an honest portrayal of a woman. Sometimes I see Hollywood films not show women as ambitious, over-prepared, driven and perfectionists, but incredibly flawed. We see men play those characters, but we don’t get to see women play those characters. Also, in our society, we sometimes don’t allow women to be that. When we talk about the wage gap, it’s proven that women don’t tend to ask for promotions and pay raises the way men do. So it’s a great thing about this character that it challenges the status quo of what we think a woman should be and it shows what a woman can be and is, in many cases. I like that, because I like messy characters. I like women that don’t have to be perfect.
Also, in terms of the look of the character, a lot of that was informed by the women I met in Washington, D.C. Less than 10 percent of the lobbyists there are women and I wanted to present myself they way they present themselves in that world. Seven of the 11 women I met with were wearing black nail polish which, in the past, I would associate with rock ‘n roll or Goth, but it really forced me to look at how they were presenting themselves in the world and the strength that comes from that. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be masculine to be strong.
Q: Do you feel that popular media helps prepare for societal change such as gay rights and women’s rights? Do you feel you’ve been getting more complex and nuanced roles?
Chastain: The media is a great tool and it can help. Sometimes, in many cases, in most cases, it hasn’t helped. If you look at the (recent) presidential election and you look how our female candidate (Clinton was) treated compared to the male candidate (Trump), you see that there’s a huge problem in the media and talking about how much she smiles or how her hair looks, or her pantsuits. Or she’s over-prepared for the first debate. I’ve never heard any man being spoken to that way. I think that’s a major problem in the media. The one great thing I see about social media now is that everyone has a platform, so when a message is out there that I think is damaging to society, people can come forward and say, “Hold up. We need to reevaluate how we look at this issue.” I think the media can do a better job.
“Miss Sloane” opens in select cities on Nov. 25 and nationwide on Dec. 9.