Actress Jessica Chastain's portrayal of CIA agent Maya in Kathryn Bigelow's controversial film Zero Dark Thirty earned her a Golden Globe for lead actress in a drama on Sunday. Playing such an unemotional and "analytically precise" character was a struggle for the actress, who told Access Hollywood that she has spent her life training to be precisely the opposite of her character. She noted, "I don't know what Kathryn Bigelow was thinking of when she cast me ... but thank God she did."
In her Golden Globes speech, Chastain said, "I've wanted to be an actress since I was a little girl, and I've worked for a really long time. I've auditioned. and struggled and fought, and been on the sidelines for years. And to be here now in this moment, it's a beautiful feeling to receive this encouragement and support, and thank you so much."
Chastain thanked Sony Pictures Entertainment's Amy Pascal — who has defended the film — and the film's team, crew, and cast before thanking screenwriter Mark Boal "for writing a strong, capable, independent woman that stands on her own" and director Kathryn Bigelow.
"I can't help but compare my character of Maya to you: two powerful, fearless women that allow their expert work to stand before them," said Chastain. "You've said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles, but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you've done more for women in cinema than you take credit for."
Bigelow's gender has come up in interviews before. In a 2010 interview with MORE, a reporter asked the director how she responded to the fact that she is "considered one of the few female directors who can make a suspenseful, 'masculine' movie like [The Hurt Locker]." Bigelow said, "A filmmaker is a filmmaker. I tend not to look through a lens that is bifurcated in respect to gender or anything. But if what I do can serve for one person — let’s say I can be a kind of role model for other women directors to prove that if you’re tenacious enough, you can achieve what you have in your sights — then I’m proud to carry that mantle."
"When any film gets made it’s a bit of a miracle. Certainly a film with substance. It’s perhaps partially the sheer tenacity of the core filmmaking team and not gender-specific. Personally I don’t take 'no' well. I think that’s part of it."
Chastain's character in Zero Dark certainly reflects Bigelow's tendency to not take no well. Throughout the film, Maya's dedication to the task at hand — finding Osama bin Laden — borders on obsessive. While Maya initially stands on the sidelines during the torture scenes, her pursuit of bin Laden leads her to overcome her disgust or distaste and engage more fully. In one of the most light-hearted serial scenes of the film, Maya takes it upon herself to remind her supervisor that time is wasting by writing, erasing, and re-writing the number of days that have passed since they began surveillance of the compound in dry erase marker on the window of his office.
Maya, like Bigelow, is focused on the task at hand, not her gender. This doesn't mean that her gender doesn't come up; it does. To give but one example, in several scenes, Maya is called a 'girl' by her male counterparts, even when she confirms that the dead body is the corpse of Osama bin Laden. As Jessica Chastain told TIME, "Right in the moment where you think she’s going to get credit, he doesn’t even use her name. Even at the end of the film after everything she’s accomplished, she’s still referred to as the girl."
As a character, Maya is less than fully fleshed out, but she isn't necessarily meant to be. Rather, she serves as the embodiment of the raw, desperate, no-holds-barred American determination to find bin Laden, that uncomfortably parallel pursuit of justice and of revenge, which characterizes Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow calls the film a "portrait of dedication."
Even given the controversies surrounding the film, Chastain's character Maya has been praised as feminist icon. Zero Dark Thirty has been credited for bringing the hard work of women in the intelligence community to light. Former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow noted, "Right now the head analyst in the CIA is a woman, the senior person in the science and technology director is a woman, the number two in the National Clandestine Service is a woman, and the number-three ranking officer in the agency itself is a woman. So they're rising to new heights throughout the agency leadership."
For her part, Bigelow commented, "Women in defence, I think, are sort of the unsung heroes. I was first of all surprised to learn that women were at the center of this hunt. And I was sort of surprised that I was surprised. You don't think of a young woman being a terrorist-hunter."
But Chastain, not Bigelow, will be the central powerful, fearless woman taking home the awards for the expert work of Zero Dark. Indeed, the actress is reported to be very upset that Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker — and the first woman to win that award — did not receive a nomination for Best Director this year. As the film's co-producer Megan Ellison Tweeted last Thursday, "Kathryn Bigelow was robbed. So f---ed up. #recount."
The film received five Oscar nominations in total, including best film, best original screenwriting, best actress (Jessica Chastain, again), and two editing prizes. But some are displeased that the film was nominated at all, arguing that it glorifies or condones torture. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences insider and actor David Clennon has announced that he will not be voting for the film, stating "I firmly believe that the film Zero Dark Thirty promotes the acceptance of the crime of torture, as a legitimate weapon in America's so-called War on Terror." Ed Asner and Martin Sheen are among the other Hollywood insiders who have joined efforts to prevent the film from being honored by the Academy.
Responding to her critics last week, Bigelow said, "I stand here, and I'm a woman, and the film is obviously about a woman, but if you can somehow extract me from the conversation — because I'm not in any way referring to myself — but this movie is a real tribute to three or four very, very strong women."
"[Finding] a woman who could play somebody as tenacious as Maya, as dedicated and courageous and brilliant and vulnerable as Maya, who was willing to make the sacrifices it took to achieve what she achieved, I can't imagine of course anyone else playing this part. So it was this incredible confluence of fate and will that brought all these women together, and again, I'm not in any way conflating this story with myself, I just want to give you a little bit of background and say thank you — thank you to the women in this room, thank you to the women and men in this room, to the strong women that are kind of the unsung heroes certainly of this story, and perhaps, in a way, the industry."
While it has yet to make up its mind on Bigelow, when it comes to Chastain, the industry recognized the strong women of Zero Dark Thirty in a major way last night.