NEW YORK – Jessica Chastain counts her performance as Nora in the current Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House" to be one of the “hardest things” she has ever done.
Coming from the actor who has played televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and country singer Tammy Wynette, that's saying a lot.
The two-hour play was so emotionally draining to perform, she said, that she wanted to skip the final bow.
“I’ve come out for the curtain call, not ready for the curtain call, and that’s been difficult,” Chastain said.
But after speaking with director Jamie Lloyd, she rallied and decided it was important for the audience.
“There are times I go out there and I’m like, trying to hold it together. And I’m still feeling like the play course through my veins,” she said.
The Oscar-winning actor is currently appearing in a limited run of the groundbreaking 1879 Henrik Ibsen play that challenged the sacredness of marriage, gender roles, and women’s rights. It was so controversial for its time that many actors would not perform the play’s ending.
Chastain saw the subject as a worthy reason to return to the stage because it still resonates today with conversations about representation and authenticity.
Earlier this week, Chastain sat down with the Associated Press for a special interview where she spoke about the emotional demands of the play, the importance of examining people's struggles, and what she's thinking about, sitting on stage when the audience enters the theater.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: How challenging was it to perform in such a scaled-down version of the play? Jessica Chastain: Oh, it’s so difficult. The director, he was very smart in the way that he, like, held information back from me because we knew we were doing this for a long time. And then as rehearsals came closer, he started to give me a little information about, like, maybe no props — and I was like, what is happening?
AP: It’s quite minimalist. Chastain: I remember one time, very early on, I said to Jamie (Lloyd), ‘I don’t understand how to do this. I mean, in the play it says that I enter the stage and I’m eating cookies, and then (turn) right immediately.’ I said, ‘I say to someone (a castmate), I would never do that.’ So that’s important that the audience knows that. Like, obviously in the beginning I’m not being truthful because I go, ‘How do I do (pretend I’m eating) if I don’t have the cookies?’ (Lloyd says) ‘’Because you do it with your acting.’ It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This idea of, like, trapping me in one place and stripping me from any kind of tool. It feels quite bare.
AP: When Ibsen wrote this play more than a hundred years ago, it was controversial and some actors would not perform the ending. Does it go beyond talking about woman’s oppression in the 19th century, to relate to today? Chastain: Absolutely. It’s this great piece of feminist literature, but it’s I think the way Jamie has staged it and thought about it, and the way Amy’s adapted it, it goes beyond gender. It really speaks to anyone who is playing a part to please a person, in order to have power in a society that denies them freedom and agency. And in doing so, you’re upholding the system that denies you freedom and agency. I learned a lot about myself by playing Nora. Like, in what ways do I deny my feelings or deny who I am to try to make others happy in order not to cause any waves? And I think many people could probably relate to that.
AP: The show begins when we walk into the theater and you are already sitting on stage. What are your pre-show thoughts? Chastain: I’m going into the character of Nora. I’m already starting to feel a little trapped and stuck. You know, I’m in the house and I’m also connecting to the audience. So, I’m looking at everyone in their eyes. I’m connecting to them energetically. It’s the beginning of creating almost like this sacred space. I’m letting them know: I can see you. I value you. You’re in this with me. And we’re going to go on this journey together. This is a joint experience.
AP: As an actor that always seems to be working, why was this play important to dedicate your time to, eight times a week? Chastain: I think anything that I put my energy into, I’m asking myself, ‘What am I putting into the world?’ What am I putting out to the world, in terms of this message to the public that maybe, hopefully, inspires people when they come to the play. Are they going to reexamine their lives and how they’re living their lives? And then thirdly, what am I going to learn about myself? It’s going to be really challenging for me. And this for sure, checked every single box.
AP: Nora goes through a lot in the performance, how emotionally draining is it to play her? Chastain: Thank goodness I get to start in a quiet, up, energetic, happy, playful way. She really does go through some kind of a mental breakdown in the middle of the play, and then she rebuilds herself from that. It’s such a beautiful journey, as an actress, to get to do that. But there are often times I’ve come out for the curtain call, not ready for the curtain call, and that’s been difficult. I’ve actually asked the director if it was possible for me to not do a curtain call because I felt like I needed a moment to calm down from the last scene. I've wondered about Nora just leaving. And Jamie helps me understand that the curtain call is not for me, it’s really for the audience. So there are times I go out there and I’m like, trying to hold it together. And I’m still feeling the play course through my veins.