Miss Sloane is all about Jessica Chastain. As the titular lobbyist, Elizabeth Sloane, Chastain throws herself into the world of big-money lobbying, and director John Madden injects us into Sloane’s psyche with an almost uncomfortable closeness. And yet we’re always a step behind this brilliant D.C. plate-spinner, as she works every angle and serves up opinions-to-have for senators and congressmen on behalf of her corporate clients. It’s a showcase role for Chastain, who reunites with Madden after one her earliest feature film roles, The Debt, released six short years ago.
You worked with John Madden on The Debt. Had you been looking to work together again?
Yeah. I knew I wanted to do this by page 10. John’s one of the warmest, most nurturing, human beings. He’s an incredible director and we had been trying to find another project to do together. Finally we settled on Miss Sloane. There was no decision making. It was just like, yes, of course.
Is the character you imagined on the page the same as the one you ended up playing?
When I thought of someone work-obsessed I just assumed she wouldn’t care about makeup. She’d wear the same clothes over and over again. And that’s why research is so important, because it really can change your stereotypes of what you think a woman like this would be. If I were Elizabeth Sloane, I wouldn’t be wearing makeup. I’d just be focused on getting the job done.
But when I went to D.C. I realized that how these women present themselves is their battle cry. It’s their suit of armor. Less than 10% of lobbyists are women. It’s a boy’s club. I love the scene in the beginning of the movie where there are these three men in the room, and one of the guys who hasn’t met Elizabeth says, “Well, should I shake her hand? I hear she’s not one of these women who like the kissy-kissy stuff.”
But that’s why she dresses the way she does. It’s why you can hear her heels clicking along the marble hallways before she enters the room. She intimidates them before she even enters.
The movie is almost disorienting in placing you right in the middle of this world. Were you surprised by what you learned about the world of lobbying?
Yeah, there’s never a moment where you go, “Oh, OK, I’m ahead of Elizabeth.” I’ve yet to meet one person who saw the twists before they came. When we first meet Elizabeth, she’s saying, “It’s about making sure you surprise them and they don’t surprise you.”
I was surprised about the level of money involved and by how much lobbyists could make. I was surprised about how many fundraisers congressmen and senators go to. Elizabeth says in the film, it’s not necessarily about representing the people; it’s about keeping their butts in office. I talked to congressmen who really hate having to go to the many fundraisers, but they see it as a necessary part of their job.
In John Lithgow’s character, you see this very moral human being who’s forced to be part of some kind of circus to keep his place in office. I think it’s a system that’s broken.
Did you come out with any clarity about how it can be fixed?
I wouldn’t even know how to fix something like that. The good thing is, the movie starts a discussion. It’s not about lecturing anyone or making propaganda. But I hope that, in addition to being entertained by this political thriller and incredible character study, people are also informed in the way that I was when I read the script.
Is that a key driver for you in choosing projects? It could certainly be applied to films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Debt.
I look at any kind of art as a way of beginning a conversation. That’s what it’s supposed to do. I sometimes go to a movie and eat my popcorn and turn my brain off. I love those movies. But the movies I like to be in, for the most part, are the ones that challenge you. I want to create some kind of reaction in a person. You know that, when you come out of the movie, you’re going to see the world in a different way than you did before.
You’re producing now, through your company Freckle Films. What are you looking for?
I like characters and stories that challenge the status quo. Lately I’m really interested in history, because I find that in my public school education I didn’t learn about women in history. I want to introduce the world to some great stories and incredible heroes.
I’m also interested in creating platforms for other people. Those voices we don’t normally hear from. I’m very interested in diversity. I don’t want to see the same movie over and over again.
Are you hopeful about the future in terms of equal representation? The Oscar field this year seems stuffed with interesting and diverse movies, but my hope is that it’s not just a one off.
That’s a good point. It’s an incredible year this year, but I think it doesn’t mean we should be congratulating ourselves right out of the gate. We often have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back and say things like, “Look at this movie I made. It’s so diverse. I’ve got a female director, aren’t I wonderful?” When that stops—when we stop congratulating ourselves for being decent human beings—then I think we’ll have finally corrected the problem.