Jessica Chastain: Stars Needn’t Let Studios Decide Which Women Are Valuable

When I spoke to the actress Jessica Chastain for my project about the future of movies, the “It: Chapter Two” star called on Hollywood to employ more diverse voices. “Audiences have really demanded inclusivity in their storytelling,” she said. “I truly believe that if we keep seeding this inclusivity and flowering it into learning about the stories of others, not only does the industry change, but society in some way becomes more tolerant.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.

What’s something that’s changed recently in the movie industry that you think will only continue to develop over the next 10 years?

One big difference is the freedom women have to speak about the industry. In the beginning, I did feel a little bit of nervousness about criticizing an industry that I was very lucky to be involved in. After working my whole life to try to create a career, perhaps I was damaging it. I even had male directors say to me, “You’re talking too much about this woman stuff.”

But I’ve noticed that things are different for women coming into this industry. I just did a press tour [for “Dark Phoenix”] with Sophie Turner, and the freedom that she has to express herself and talk about injustices that she may see, it just comes naturally to her without a second thought. That means women now feel they can speak out without having their careers harmed.

Do you think that empowerment will affect which films are made over the next decade?

It will definitely affect them, but I don’t want to give too much credit to the studio system. I actually give all the credit to the audience, because for years it’s been a known fact that movies with female ensembles had a greater chance of making their money back than male ensembles. The studio system wasn’t listening, and they kept saying that films about women aren’t marketable.

You’re producing one of those female-ensemble films, the action thriller “355,” where you’ll star alongside Lupita Nyong’o and Marion Cotillard. How did that come about?

When my career was taking off, I had all these ideas for movies. I shared them with people who could make them, but they just weren’t doing it.

So I talked to these actresses about my idea. We’re all favored nations, so the pay gap is eliminated, and it actually was an incredibly easy thing to do, which is why it shocked me that no one had done it before. I’m hopeful that other actors will understand that it isn’t that difficult to put something together where the control can go to the creatives instead of to an executive who’s deciding which women are valuable, and before which age.

You mentioned the pay gap. Do you get a sense that’s changing, especially after stories like the disparity in salaries between Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams on “All the Money in the World”?

My sense of it is that shame is a powerful tool. With all of us having a sense of our own platform where we can amplify these issues, people can be called out. I think it was wonderful that Mark Wahlberg donated his salary to Time’s Up after that came out, and I truly think that other actors don’t want to be in another situation where it comes out that there was a huge pay disparity.

You made headlines recently when Octavia Spencer praised you for insisting on equal pay for a movie you both will star in.

With Octavia and I, this whole thing came from our conversation about the pay gap, and how men were getting so much more money. While we were talking about this, she shared with me her experience. Without her being open about what her salary had been, I never would have known she was coming from that place. When things are hidden, that’s when abuses of power can happen.

What’s your sense of how streaming services will transform the industry?

I’m all for it. I was going to the art house to see foreign cinema so I could see Isabelle Huppert and watch these really complex, female-led films that, for some reason, the studio system wasn’t making.

So I’m all for streaming platforms and the competition that brings, because now all of a sudden, people are interested in stories that are not just from one demographic’s point of view. I think it’s going to bring to the top some very interesting creative talent who would not have had the opportunity to work in the system of old.

Give me an example of that.

Well, look at “Russian Doll.” That series was everywhere — I would be walking down the street in New York and it would be written on the menu. It was a phenomenon, people love this show, and Leslye [Headland], this wonderful filmmaker [and one of the show’s creators], is being recognized. In the past, in the studio system, they would say, “Oh, the only female filmmaker we know is Kathryn Bigelow,” and now they’re going, “Hey, here’s another one who’s getting a lot of attention, and we can watch all of this series at once.”

Leslye Headland’s last film, “Sleeping With Other People,” should have led to more big-studio filmmaking gigs, yet it was Netflix that took advantage. But are things changing fast enough? Paramount has 20 upcoming movies on their slate, and only one is directed by a woman.

I truly feel like something like “Russian Doll” makes more of a difference for Leslye than her last film, because it’s a cultural phenomenon. Executives at the studios can say, “This is what the audience wants.”

I’ve seen a lot of female filmmakers get opportunities at Netflix and Amazon that they haven’t gotten through the studio system. So I’m very, very happy about the new shape our industry is taking.

Do you think that 10 years from now, a film will still need a theatrical release to be Oscar-eligible?

I don’t think it should. Listen, I’m a member of the academy, although I’m not on the board. But there were so many people around the world who got to see [“Roma”] that wouldn’t have if it had played solely in a movie theater.

Meryl Streep said once [at the 2007 Golden Globes] that if your movie theater isn’t playing these small films, you should demand it, but the realities of our industry have changed. It used to be that studios would make “The Deer Hunter” or “Sophie’s Choice,” and now they don’t. The pool of what we are looking at has shifted toward spectacle films, and as studios have become bigger corporations, the movies have become very large-scale.

So what happens to these beautiful, small, dramatic stories? Are other studios going to make them so that we don’t lose part of our art form? It’s a complicated thing, because a lot of the people who’ve spoken up about this were very active making films in the 1970s, and when I look at the films that not only won best picture but were the top box-office hits of that time, it’s a very different landscape than what is happening now. The industry has already changed, and the Oscars haven’t caught up.

Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan

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