Like many kids growing up in the 1980s, Jessica Chastain’s first watch was a Swatch. “That was the big collector’s item, and we would wear more than one at a time,” she recalls. “I had a bunch of them. One was lime green, one was pink… I took pride in my watches. They made me feel like a grown-up, especially going to school where you feel like you have no control of your time, when your schedule is laid out in front of you each day. With a watch, I was master of my calendar.”
Her first timepiece instilled an enduring love of punctuality. “I actually set my watch ahead of time so I can always arrive early,” she says from LA, over a phone line crossing several time zones and, fittingly for this Space issue, as crackly as a radio signal to an orbiting space craft. That early sense of being in control of time, of being aware of its constraints, also informs Chastain’s film work. Drawn to playing strong, single-minded, driven women who want to influence destinies on a social, historic or galactic scale, hers is a career in which timepieces have added a special dimension to the story. “My characters definitely wear watches,” she concurs. Sometimes they are badges of personality or mission, such as the heavy-duty, functional watch she wears when playing an indefatigable CIA operative hunting down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. In the dystopian sci-fi Interstellar, a wristwatch is the device on which the entire plot turns.
Off-set, Chastain at 42 says she now simply wears a watch to complete an outfit. “In my everyday clothes or my eveningwear, I always think whatever I’m wearing could benefit from something on my wrist. I choose a watch to ground my outfit. Watches now are like jewellery pieces to me.” She took this watch-as-detail sensibility into Miss Sloane, the 2017 political thriller directed by John Madden in which her character is a ruthless, work-all-hours political lobbyist in Washington DC, a ticking timebomb of a powerbroker adorned with Piaget wristwear.
“It was important to me that we presented Elizabeth Sloane as someone who wore a watch all the time because she is very structured with her agenda,” she says. “She doesn’t allow herself any time when she is not moving forward in her desire to outsmart the opposition. Her wardrobe is sharp and elegant: the way she presents herself is the armour she wears in a man’s world. And she has really cool watches.”
Eagle-eyed horology experts will appreciate the Piaget watches. By day, Chastain/Sloane wore the Dancer watch in white gold, set with 36 brilliant-cut diamonds, with a sapphire caseback and white gold bracelet. For evening, she wore a traditional oval watch in white gold, set with 24 brilliant-cut diamonds, on a white gold bracelet. She is never without one or the other. As Chastain says, “The engine keeps running on this character.”
A life based around the rigours of film schedules calls for a certain amount of laissez-faire. Each film involves stepping into a time warp. “Everything gets turned on its head,” she says. “We could have our lunch break at 6pm or at midnight, depending on what we’re shooting. For me, it’s usually a question of ‘do I have enough time to do all the things I want to do?’ Last year I made four films and my personal and work life was very scheduled. It was important that it matched up and that there was time to do every-thing in a manner that would benefit the film and myself.”
To many, Chastain seemed to rocket into recognition in 2011 with the release of six films, including Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes, The Tree of Life opposite Brad Pitt, and The Help, a role for which she won multiple award nominations. The reality, she says, was a slow, steady ascent, fuelled by a packed CV. “It took a long time before I got the chances to audition for films that I was excited about being in,” she says. “Films hovered. Or stalled. It took a while for films to come out… And then I was busy, busy, busy making up for the opportunities I had missed.”
Around the same time as her Swatch-watch phase, Chastain recalls watching Alien. She has often described Sigourney Weaver’s performance as a kickass crew member aboard the spaceship Nostromo as a lightbulb moment: “I realised for the first time that there could be more than one kind of role for an actress—that a woman could be this fully realised, active, multi-dimensional character. And she couldn’t only be all of that, she could also be a hero.” Thirty-odd years later, Chastain got the call from Ridley Scott herself, for The Martian, and was cast as Melissa Lewis, the captain of a mission to Mars.
From being master of her school schedule, Chastain time-travelled to being a master of the universe, drawn to sci-fi roles in Interstellar and The Martian because of directors Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott. “I was already interested in space, but I knew those directors were going to tell a fascinating story and I was going to learn a lot,” she says. “Interstellar ignited my interest, opening my mind to the idea that space is the great unknown and there is so much we can learn about ourselves when we explore the galaxy.” She recommends The Science of Interstellar, a book by Kip Thorn, a theoretical physicist who helped with the concept of the movie. “It explains all the space-time theories in our film and how they interconnect, and I found it fascinating.”
By showing Einstein’s theory of relativity as a human story, Interstellar achieves the actress’s goal: to make you see the world in a different way. Professor Brand, the architect of the NASA mission exploring alternative planets for human survival (played by Michael Caine), is not afraid of death, only of time. The crew consider time as a resource on a par with food or oxygen: it will run out. Like all good thrillers, the denouement is a down-to-the-wire race against time or, in this case, a race to the gravitational flickering of the second hand of a wristwatch.
To prepare for her role in The Martian, Chastain met with “some incredible astronauts and scientists” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She was also dismayed by the low profile of women throughout the Space Age. “At NASA, there was a hall-of-fame type wall of all the astronauts who had left Earth and spacewalked. I was really disheartened to see how few were women. Like every industry, the space industry discriminates against women. That is pretty clear when you see the history, visually, up on the wall. We have a real long way to go to make that up.
“All you have to do is research the Mercury 13 programme,” she continues, referring to the 13 American women who were privately funded to participate in the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts selected by NASA in 1959 for Project Mercury.
“You discover that the United States actively discriminated against women. There were female pilots who were scoring much higher on the astronaut tests than the men, and yet they had to go and lobby for the inclusion of women in front of Congress. In 1962, John Glenn, one of the Mercury Seven [the military test pilots selected in 1959 by NASA as the nation’s first astronauts], testified against the women, saying ‘the fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order’. Great strides are being made now, but we have a long way to go to make up for the discrimination of women who were never allowed to achieve their ambitions.”
Chastain hopes that a young girl could see her in The Martian and be inspired to join NASA. “Or not just join NASA, but maybe be a leader, the commander of a mission to Mars,” she says. “When you see these depictions of strong women in the media then the idea of a woman leading a space mission doesn’t seem like it’s out of reach. I feel a responsibility in the roles I take. My goal is for a young girl to see that and step forward herself.”