'I want to learn about space travel'
Jessica Chastain shares about why she wants to be in Ridley Scott's The Martian
Double Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain joins a stellar cast for Ridley Scott’s action adventure The Martian where she plays Melissa Lewis, the commander of Ares 3, the first manned mission to Mars.
Matt Damon is Mark Watney, the astronaut who's left behind on the Red Planet when his crew mates mistakenly believe he has been killed during a fierce sandstorm.
Millions of miles away, NASA and an international team of scientists work tirelessly to try to find a way to bring "the Martian" home while Lewis and her team plot their own audacious plan to try to rescue him before his meagre supplies run out.
The Martian, opening here Oct 1, is based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel,and features a star-studded cast that includes Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover.
Here Chastain, 38, talks about learning about space travel, working with Scott and bonding with her "crew".
Ridley Scott is literally creating another world here. Was it a surprise to you in any way?
I thought he did a brilliant job of bringing Mars and life in space to the screen in a way that was unique but realistic. I loved those Martian landscapes. I believe they filmed those scenes in Jordan, which I wasn’t a part of, as I filmed all of my scenes in Budapest. So when I watched the film, everything on Mars was new to me.
Could you describe your character, Melissa Lewis?
There were two reasons that I chose this project, and of course, one was to work with Ridley – that was a huge deal for me. I also wanted to learn about space travel. It felt so incredible to get this opportunity to work with NASA and The Martian, while playing the commander of the first manned mission to Mars.
I met with astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson at Houston, and a lot of how I played Commander Lewis was based on what I got from her. A lot of, I think, her energy and her wit, how she’s very stable and always in control.
I asked her what a commander does, and she told me that in a space station the commander needs to make everyone feel like they’re part of a team, and that every single person on the team is a valuable player. She said that the team doesn’t function without everyone. There isn’t a feeling of dominance, I guess is the word, from the commander. That, I really used a lot when approaching this character.
When you met Tracy, did you get to look around NASA?
Oh yes! I told Ridley when I first met him, ‘If I do the movie, can I go to space camp?’ (laughs). I’m really interested in space exploration after working on Interstellar and being around Christopher Nolan; he kind of ignited that interest in me.
I went to JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena and observed the scientists in their robotic work, and I saw the Curiosity Rovers there. Then I went to Houston and met with Tracy, and we went on mock-ups of the space shuttle, and the space station. (Laughs) the prep for this film was as much fun as actually making it, for me. It was really phenomenal.
Is that part of the attraction of the job? Exploring, literally in this case, different worlds?
Yes that’s truly a big part of how I make decisions on which roles and films I’m a part of.
I have no control over the finished project, over what happens in the editing room, or how the audience is going to respond to the film – so the only thing I do have control over is what situation I’m putting myself in, day by day, and when I leave the making of a film, am I leaving that film having gained something, gained experience?
So that for me, for sure was a big part of this film. I knew walking away from this film, I was going to carry with me an experience that I would have for the rest of my life.
Was it a very physical role? And do you enjoy that side of the job?
It was very physically challenging in terms of the space suit. The surface suits were shockingly more difficult to wear – they’re similar to the ones we wore on the surface of Mars. The way that the helmets work, if you bent a certain way, it would cut off your oxygen flow, and the helmets were attached to the suit in a way that you needed someone else to come and take them off.
So during filming, sometimes the oxygen would just stop, and you’d get condensation because you’re just breathing carbon dioxide, and then also, during the storm sequence, we had so many wind turbines that we couldn’t even hear each other, so we would have speakers in our ears, and microphones, of course, in our helmets, and our own lighting system and our own air system, and on action, with all the noise, we would just be screaming, with low visibility, to try and hear each other.
It really did kind of create this panic, but a controlled panic that I’m sure the crew would have faced, so it felt kind of authentic in that way.
And Ridley likes to do as much as possible with real sets and keep CGI to a minimum…
Yes, he does. The end of the film was shot in a big, big area with a green screen, because of course, how do you create space, but otherwise I was in practical sets.
The scenes in the ship, they built those, and we were all on wires, doing the zero gravity work. Same with the scenes on Mars. They created Mars on that sound stage in Budapest, which was an incredible set.
You’ve said that one of the reasons you took the role was so that you could work with Ridley. Was he as you expected?
He was! He’s in a tent and he’s got everything around him, all the monitors and equipment, and he’s got his 3-D glasses on so he can actually see, while he’s filming, what it’s going to look like.
I love to collaborate with him, and it was the same with the guys who are playing the Ares 3 crew – Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate (Mara) and of course Matt (Damon) – we all spent a lot of time together and in between takes we would go over to the tent and hang out with Rid (laughs).
Rid would hand me a pair of 3-D glasses and would show me what it was going to look like, and he would show me the rehearsal of something that we’d just filmed so that I’d get an idea of it. He’s really very warm and very funny, but also what I appreciate most about him is that I can be impatient – I love to be constantly working on a set – I love to work and Rid is like that.
Any time in my head I’d been thinking, ‘Okay, what’s taking so long?’ I would hear him say, ‘Right, it’s time to move on.’ He would really push things along. He’s like Christopher Nolan in that way – you work on these huge films but you feel like you’re making an independent film because you are constantly moving.
You mentioned that you hung out with the actors who play the Ares 3 crew. Was that a conscious decision to try and build the bond that we see on screen?
Yeah, the actors and I were just hanging as a crew – we became like a big family, we had dinner a lot together, and it was important for us to create that bond.
I knew from reading the novel that there’s so much respect for Commander Lewis, and when Mark Watney is found to be alive, they’re constantly stressing over and over again that it is not her fault – they’re really protective of each other, and that’s why it was really important for me to talk to Tracy and to ask her what would make a very good commander in space, because it was very clear in the novel that Commander Lewis was.
The crew's respect for her was just a given, and it never needed to be addressed. It was important for me in the film, and for Rid, to show that.
NASA are very pro-this film. Is that because it depicts the science, the way they work, so accurately do you think?
Yes, absolutely that’s true. If you get a chance, I would recommend you watch a YouTube video called ‘Seven Minutes of Terror.' It was the seven minutes they filmed waiting to find out how the Curiosity Rover was landing. Because we’re talking about seven months to get to Mars, and then when it lands there’s a 12 minute delay, so we don’t know if it’s crashed, we don’t know anything, and we don’t have anyone driving it in real time. So everything it’s doing, it’s programmed to do on its own. It’s basically a robot that takes care of itself.
The people at JPL are able to invent these rovers and crafts. They are a remarkable group of people. You can’t believe what they can create and how they invent what they do.
Would you say that’s the central theme of the film – not leaving someone behind, doing everything to bring Matt’s character home?
Yes, Commander Lewis is responsible for these six people and she needs to get them back home, safe.
Every moment in space is a dangerous moment. And for her, it’s an absolute given – you do not leave anyone behind. That’s the number one thing you learn, no man left behind. So she struggles with the fact that she did leave someone behind, and how does she rectify that? But also how does she not wallow in that?
Because she still has these five people that she has to make sure they stay safe. I love that part of the film, too, that it doesn’t go into some melodrama with Commander Lewis. You might think, ‘okay, this is a moment where she expresses her sadness’ but we kept it as realistic as possible. She does her job because that’s what she’s trained to do and she does it very well.