The Oscar-winning actress stars in an updated production of A Doll’s House
In the 11 years since making her Broadway debut in The Heiress, Jessica Chastain has amassed a lifetime’s worth of achievements: lead roles in 23 movies and two TV series, one Oscar (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), one Golden Globe (Zero Dark Thirty), her own production company, and her own family of four. Now, in taking on the essential beleaguered housewife of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Chastain returns to a medium that exerted its own intense pressure.
For Chastain, the highs of nightly performance for The Heiress were mixed with the angst of dealing with the scrutiny that faced the sudden star, creating an aversion it took wunderkind British director Jamie Lloyd to overcome. “He is the only reason I’m back doing theater,” she says, calling one morning in late February, during the second week of previews for A Doll’s House. In the show, Chastain tackles Nora, one of the most coveted roles in theater, a woman who ultimately leaves her husband and children to figure out who she really is. When the play premiered in 1879, audiences were shocked, appalled—and empowered. Nearly a century and a half later, Ibsen’s work remains disconcertingly relevant. Lloyd’s production is stripped down—no period costumes, no props, no set to speak of—so that nothing interferes with the script, newly updated by playwright Amy Herzog, and the performances.
Chastain is arresting and arrested—almost literally bound to a chair—her radiance suffusing a character society refuses to see or hear. In this production’s indelible and unnerving opening, the actress, who is seated onstage as the audience files in, appears almost as a doll waiting to be played with: straight-backed, dimpled chin raised, green eyes staring blankly at the crowd. “I get the opportunity to look at every single person in the audience, and most of the time we make eye contact,” she says. “And I feel so much… Oh, how do I say this without it feeling cheesy? I feel like there’s this exchange of energy, and it creates this almost sacred space for our show to happen. As I look at everyone in the audience, I feel like they become part of my performance, and we’re doing it together. I really feel like we’re all creating the show anew each night, and it is a great privilege of mine.”
I just saw the show last week—it’s phenomenal. When did you first see A Doll’s House?
I never saw it, actually, and I still haven’t seen a production of it. Normally I would do a ton of research and see as many productions and videos as I can, but when I spoke to Jamie, his approach is very different. He did not want to approach it like a museum piece, so he didn’t want me to read anything else about it or see any other productions or learn about any other performances. He wanted me to discover it anew, almost like it was a new play that Amy Herzog wrote.
You were set to perform a different adaptation of A Doll’s House in 2020 in London, but the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. That delay afforded you the chance to bring Amy Herzog on board. What did you feel when you first read her adaptation?
Oh my God, I wish I could remember verbatim what I wrote to her. I was so excited, because to me everything was so clear. Sometimes, as an actor, you’re like, Ooh, this part is a little bit heavy lifting here, or, I’m doing a lot of exposition or explaining myself too much, or, Why am I saying this? A lot of times if I forget my dialogue, if I’ve had any trouble memorizing something, it’s because I don’t know why I’m saying something. And with her, it was just so clear from the very beginning, and I wrote that to her. I said, “It’s an absolute honor to be the one who gets to perform this.” I just felt like she was helping me so much with my performance.
She managed to update the script in such a natural way.
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes when people make a modern adaptation, there are cell phones and computers, and they set it in the modern world, but she still honors 1879. What she does is she makes it timeless. So it can really go anywhere, because it makes you kind of wonder, have we really changed that much from 200 years ago?
Which is, I think, the frightening thing about this play—in many ways we haven’t. In a time when Roe v. Wade has been overturned and women in Iran are protesting for their rights, it feels very timely.
Exactly. That’s what actually makes it kind of a devastating piece of theater, and it shows what a spectacular artist [Ibsen] was. I mean, what an incredible human being he was to write this. It was incredibly controversial when he wrote it—especially women were against it, because in that time, a woman’s value was really seen as what kind of mother you were, which it still is today in many situations [laughs]. A female character who rejects that role was threatening to a lot of women who really used that scale to measure themselves. I try to keep my ears closed to some of the reactions, because I really want to honor Jamie in what he’s asked of us—to try to keep it as pure as possible—but I can’t help but hear some things at the stage door. People really feel that the play has affected them directly in terms of their personal life experiences.
Since the play is stripped down, you couldn’t depend on costumes or makeup to help you get into character. How did you approach the role of Nora without any of that?
I just try to go line by line and understand the psychology of where she is at any given moment and how each thing affects the next. I know it’s a political play, but I couldn’t do it as a lecture. I had to do it as this woman who’s having this breakdown. It’s really a breakdown of self. She’s someone who is trying so hard to be light and to be agreeable, and it changes depending on who she’s with. She’ll be flirty with someone, she’ll try to be charming and intelligent and fierce with another person, and then she’ll be docile with someone else.
She changes depending on what she imagines they expect to receive from her, and the sad thing about that is she has no sense of who she really is. That was important to me—mapping out her emotional journey until she realizes that she’s, in some sense, kind of a nothing, and she has to start again from scratch.
I read a quote about Ibsen that said A Doll’s House is about “the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person.” When you came to The Juilliard School in your early 20s to study theater, were you striving to become the person you really are?
I really don’t know the kind of person I am yet. It’s always a quest of figuring out who we are. You could grow and expand 10 minutes from now by learning something or reading the news or whatnot. What’s so beautiful about that quote is it says being a human being is a constant state of evolution. So, yes, definitely going to school in New York was on my path of trying to find my roots and find my people and my family, and explore art and humanity, and get to see the most incredible museums and the most incredible people.
What about your early theater experiences? The first show you saw was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when you were 7 years old, right?
Yes, my grandmother took me to see it. I remember being in the audience. I didn’t know acting was a profession, and then she explained it to me, because she wanted to make sure that I knew that what was happening was a special thing. Then it started, and there was a little kid on stage, and she started narrating, and it was just this “aha” moment of, Oh, wow, this is what I am. This is what I’m supposed to do. It really felt like a signpost. It didn’t feel like, Oh, this is what I want to be. It was just like, This is what I am, and I can’t wait to start.
So when did you start?
When I was in middle school, we had this monologue contest, and the teacher gave me this monologue to do called “Please, God, I’m Only 17.” It was an editorial in The Sacramento Bee about this kid who was driving, and they were drinking, and then they died. So it was basically this kid asking God to let them live again. The teacher gave me that, and I memorized it. Then, I think because we were in Sacramento, all these schools and people traveled in to compete. I won the monologue contest, and I remember sitting on the grass with my little trophy for doing “Please, God, I’m Only 17,” and waiting to get picked up at the end of the day and just thinking, Wow, I might be able to do this with my life.
Did you immediately feel like you had found your place when you got to Juilliard?
No, it was overwhelming. I was incredibly anxious, very depressed. I just felt like I was on the other side of the planet, in some sense. Also, I didn’t realize that you could get cut from the program, and I was the first person to go to college in my family, and it was costing so much money, and I was taking out all these loans. So it felt very anxiety-inducing until my third year, when I calmed down a bit.
I did a production of The Seagull at the end of my second year. I played Arkadina, and I really felt like I blossomed. I could feel a confidence coming from me that had eluded me in the past. I’ll just be completely honest: I am a terrible actor when fear leads me. I want to do things that are frightening and scary, but I have to overcome the fear. If I’m not able to overcome that fear, whether it be a director who is volatile, or there’s a situation on set that doesn’t feel safe, or anything makes me feel scared, I close up. I’m like a plant without the sun. If fear is leading me, then I become almost like a zombie. My second year, I started to overcome the fear.
You overcame your fear of singing in front of a crowd while filming George & Tammy—the Showtime series on country legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette—with Michael Shannon. Your voice is amazing; you totally have the chops to do a Broadway musical. So, what’s your dream role?
Oh God! Well, it’s funny you say this, because the other day I was at rehearsal, and I was just singing, which I do sometimes on set. Whenever I work with Aaron Sorkin, we sing together, because he went to musical theater school, and he’s got an amazing voice. Anyway, I was singing, and Jamie Lloyd actually said, “You need to do a musical.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know… maybe. We’ll see.” And then I said, “Maybe something like Sondheim would be incredible.” For me, it has to be something where the acting is front and center. I don’t have the greatest voice. I’m not Patti LuPone. I can sing through a song. So if there was a project where the acting and the storytelling was of the utmost importance, and I wasn’t having to do these crazy showstopping numbers, then yes, for sure I would love to do it.
Which Sondheim? I need to know!
I don’t know! I don’t want to say, because then someone’s going to think that I’m requesting it. But I’ll tell you what: Whatever Jamie Lloyd is working on, if he calls me up and I’m available, I’m there. So if he tells me I’m doing a musical, then I’m doing a musical!