Anyone following Jessica Chastain’s remarkable career trajectory would not be surprised to hear she lept at the chance to play Antonina Żabińska, the real-life hero at the center of The Zookeeper’s Wife. Known for her portrayals of strong women, Chastain immediately recognized the importance of this role. Based on Diane Ackerman’s historic novel of the same name, the film tells the tale of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, the caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo who provided safety and shelter to hundreds of their Jewish neighbors during WW II. "Here was an incredible arc for an actress to play," says the two-time Academy Award nominee, Chastain. "I wanted to portray Antonina because I love the compassion she exemplified and the heroism in that compassion."
Focus is proud to salute the star of its new film, who turns 40 today, March 24th. With Zookeeper's opening next week (March 31), we know her busy schedule doesn’t allow much time for celebrating. We’d like to take a moment to applaud some of the remarkable qualities of this extraordinary leading lady.
“I like characters that push against society,” says Chastain in a recent interview with Yahoo’s Katie Couric, which is a description that can be applied to nearly all of her best known roles. From a hyper-determined D.C. lobbyist fighting for gun control legislation in Miss Sloane to the Southern bombshell challenging racism (in 60’s Mississippi) in The Help to a C.I.A. agent fighting Al Qaeda in Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain has a knack for creating characters whose bravery is awe-inspiring.
Of her character in The Zookeeper's Wife, Chastain says Antonina's heroic acts went well beyond saving the lives of over 300 people. "She bolstered spirits and fostered hope and created love in an environment that was very dark," she tells Couric of the celebrated Polish wife and mother she portrayed.
The Juilliard-trained actress has a reputation for conducting extensive research. "I’m obsessive. I work for months before I even show up on set," she told Variety.
For Focus Features’ espionage thriller The Debt, Chastain not only trained in Krav Maga, the official hand-to-hand combat system of the Israeli Defense Forces, but also studied her co-star Helen Mirren, who portrays the older version of her character in the drama. "I'm a crazy researcher and read her biography. I did so much to try to get to know Helen, as much as I could," she told Collider. "I watched all of her interviews on YouTube."
In The Zookeeper’s Wife, Antonina plays the piano in several significant scenes. Chastain, not a trained pianist herself, embarked on two months of piano tutoring before shooting began, and then continued her studies on set.
Her research for the role was not limited to learning new skills. Chastain also spent time with the Żabińskis’ daughter, Teresa, and visited the real Warsaw Zoo as well as Auschwitz — the largest Nazi concentration camp complex. "I knew Antonina wouldn’t know necessarily what was happening in the camps, but I also knew that the story was bigger than just about one family," Chastain said about visiting Auschwitz. "I wanted to be in that space. I wanted to feel the dirt beneath my feet and acknowledge the lives that were lost in that time."
Wild animal whisperer
Chastain, the daughter of a vegan chef and an animal rights advocate herself, says working with creatures was one of her initial attractions to the Zookeeper's project.
Director Niki Caro says, "I had no idea of the depth of her affinity with them. In that regard Jessica and Antonina share a very, very rare gift. Many times during shooting, Jessica would calm the animals, make them feel safe. This was a joy to watch and certainly a joy to shoot.”
Producer Kim Zubick concurs. "It was remarkable watching her with the animals, it was like there was a silent communication between them," she says, recalling one specific anecdote from set.
"One day we were filming this scene where she sat in a cage with these two little monkeys, sharing grapes with them. It was enchanting. She would eat half the grape and then they would reach up and take the other half. She was in there for about a half an hour. And finally she signaled, 'Okay I am done,' at which point she divulged they had been peeing on her the entire time. You would never had known!"
Champion of women
In addition to continually portraying strong, heroic women on screen, Chastain takes time to champion them in real life. Recently she attended an International Women’s Day rally in Warsaw, Poland, and proudly joined the Women’s March in Washington on January 21. While filming The Zookeeper's Wife, she raved about the joy of working on a female-dominated film set. "It's a very collaborative experience, and it's been heaven for me. We all hang out all the time — there are no strange power plays or egos. We know how rare making this kind of film is. We're giddy with happiness," she writes in The Hollywood Reporter.
As she enters her 41st year, we are grateful to Jessica for her commitment to raising the bar on gender issues and can't wait to see what's next for her. "There have always been women that have been courageous and brave and ambitious and strong and great leaders," she says to Yahoo's Couric. "I want to do whatever I can to celebrate those women in history and to inspire young girls."
The Zookeeper's Wife opens nationwide March 31st. Sign up for Focus Insider for more updates on this film and others.