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Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain team up for The Debt...
chastain and mirren
at the london premiere
At the London premiere: Marton Czokas, Tom Wilkinson, Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain and John Madden

ammann and tosar
baywatch and game of thrones

26.Jul.45 • Chiswick, London
Arthur (2011)Red (2010)
Brighton Rock (2010)The Tempest (2010)
The Debt (2010)The Last Station (2009)
29.Mar.81 • Northern California
The Help (2011)The Tree of Life (2011)
Coriolanus (2011)Take Shelter (2011)

B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
the debt A remake of and Israeli thriller, The Debt tells of a 1965 Mossad mission shrouded in a mystery that takes 40 years to resolve. It centres on three agents who we see in their 20s and then in their 60s. One of these is Rachel Singer, played by 2011's rising star Jessica Chastain and veteran actor Helen Mirren. In London to promote the film's DVD release in January 2012, they talked about the character they both played. Chastain walks into the press junket thoroughly enjoying the experience; Mirren has a wry smile that shows that she doesn't take any of this seriously...

What drew you to this project?
Helen Mirren:
It's a great story, a really interesting story and a lovely role. Because we're selfish and self-interested, and we want good roles to play! And then there was the director, John Madden, who I'd worked with before on Prime Suspect, before he did Shakespeare In Love - a great director. So that's a combination you don't say no to.
Jessica Chastain: When I read the script, I was really excited with the character, because it's rare I think to get a script where a woman is allowed to be very strong but at the same time vulnerable. Sometimes in a film, if the female role is strong then that's all she is. With Rachel, there was so much complexity and duality in her that was really exciting to explore. And of course working with John Madden: I was such a fan of his work and was so excited. I knew I would learn a lot from working with him, so I was desperate to. And of course sharing a part with Helen Mirren. You can't quite even get close to matching how brilliant she is, but I knew that I just wanted to be around her and try to soak up her greatness.

I just wanted to be around Helen Mirren and try to soak up her greatness.

Did you work together to make sure the characters were similar?
It's always an interesting question when you're playing maybe a Russian or an Israeli or a French person, but you're doing it in an English-language film. In theory, you're actually speaking Hebrew to each other, but you're using English because it's an English-language film. Should you be speaking English with an English accent, or American? John made the decision to really point up the fact that we're actually Israeli, so just to use a slight Israeli accent. And we had a very good dialect coach who had to work with actors from — well, Sam is Australian, I'm English, Jessica's American, Marton is half New Zealand and half Hungarian. She had a lot of different voices to deal with, and we all worked on bringing out our accents together so we became seamlessly one, at least from one country. And then yes, Jessica and I did work together to find little habits, little physical things that we could do to give the effect of this being one person.
Jessica: I actually can give you an example of it. We were talking about the character at one point, and Rachel twice is in front of a group of people and they're asking her the question: "What were you thinking, what was going through your mind when this incident happened?" She says, "I was thinking about my mother." We both say that at different points in the film. Helen said it's interesting that she's telling the same story — it's almost like being at a press junket, saying the same thing over and over again! And when she said that we realised that, in a way, Rachel is putting on a character. So when you watch that part in the film, it's very obscure, but at the point when we say, "I was thinking of my mother", both of us touched our hearts at the same time. We assume that for those 30 years that she's telling that story she's doing the same thing because it's almost like she's living her life as a robot.
Helen: Yes, the difference is that when Jessica does it, it's how it should be: it's genuine and it's heartfelt and it's real, even though it's a lie. No, thinking about her mother is not a lie, so she's telling an absolute truth. And then many years later here's Rachel Singer telling the same story. She does the same gesture, but it's hollow. It's affected. Well, I hope! That was the effect I wanted.

Jessica, you had something like seven films out in 2011?
It's funny! It really is feast or famine in this business, which I've learned recently. I've made 11 films over the past four and a half years, and for me it's all about the experience of making the films. Because I have no control over how the film turns out, if it's successful or not, if it comes out or not, or how long it takes for it to come out. So I've always tried to choose projects that were a type of master-class for me, that I would leave getting something from. It's a very strange experience now for me to learn the other side of the profession, the press side of it. In fact, I'd never done a press junket before this year, and now all of a sudden it's been like every day, meeting people and talking about the films. So I'm still finding my footing with it. In real life my normal, personal life is exactly the same. I think I've been recognised twice. Sometimes I get recognised for Bryce Dallas Howard! So it hasn't been difficult for me to stay grounded, because no one really treats me differently. But the exciting part is that I get to meet filmmakers and actors that I've always respected.

I do have a fight in the film, we called it the geriatric fight.

Helen, there was a rumour that you took self-defence classes for this role.
I didn't take any self-defence classes! Jessica did. She had to do the fight stuff. I do have a fight in the film, we called it the geriatric fight. It's between a 60-year-old woman and an 80-year-old man. It's really hard to get up once you're down! So no, I didn't do that fantastic fighting.

How was it to shoot the film in Tel Aviv?
So often you shoot in Toronto and it's supposed to be New Orleans, or you're in New Orleans and it's supposed to be New York. But Toronto is never Toronto! You're so often shooting in the wrong place, and it's invaluable to be in the right place. Obviously, for the filmmaker it's great because you have the authentic background, and also the light and the feeling of the light is so important. But for the actor it's just that you're soaking up some feeling from the people around you. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and it gives the film the feeling of authenticity and veracity that I think it needs. I think that's one of the strengths of our movie: it has that feeling that this could have happened. And therefore to shoot in Israel gives us an enormous amount of help in that direction.
Chastain: Actually, I didn't get to go to Israel. My scenes were shot in Budapest. And the shot at the Israeli airport was in Budapest with this much snow on the ground!

Have you been haunted by anything in your own past? Maybe a lie that you've told?
I think the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life is that bloody photograph of myself in a bikini, which in and of itself is a lie. I don't actually look like that, and I know that is going to haunt me forever, and I will be forever trying to bury it, unsuccessfully.



© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall