At the risk of exposing my bias too soon, I admit I’ve always found something magical about Jessica Chastain. From the moment I saw Jeff Nichols’ gorgeous Take Shelter, watched her perfect dovetail with Michael Shannon, I was utterly captivated by her onscreen power and presence. As she’s unceremoniously navigated her way through lead female roles, Chastain has clearly been taking notes, and not just what’s happening in her own industry. In an essay written on the set of Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, the actress discussed how powerful being on a set with a higher than average female presence (director, producers, writers and crew) felt, as well as how who you know affects opportunity in most fields.
“If you look at the studio system and the American film industry, people want to work with their friends. If men are predominantly the ones working, they are the ones being given the opportunities more than women.”
Chastain speaks about how the friend thing — and I see this all the time with the mister’s and friends’ careers as well; who you know gets you in the door — not just in film. Knowing the right people can work in your favor, but just as easily, it can keep people out.
“I read this incredible article Chris Rock did where he talked about race in Hollywood, and he said that if there is an African-American who needs help, he’s going to be way more into helping them because he understands they don’t have the opportunity that other people do…It’s like Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.
I read…Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit. She talks about sexism in the technology world and that it’s so bad you don’t even realize it’s happening. People want to hire their friends and people they get along with, and if there is a company that has a lot of men, and the men are always hanging out together, those are the men who are going to be promoted.”
The actress, who’s made it know she’d love to play a superhero, also calls out that particular genre for putting the onus on female directors to make it known they want to head a blockbuster.
“It’s not a valid excuse to say women don’t call asking to direct superhero movies. Every female director I’ve asked if she’d be interested in directing a big movie like that says, ‘Hell, yeah.’ And if that’s true, it shows how deep-seated the problem is. I don’t think the problem is women; it’s the representation. It goes to the agents. It has to change. This is 2015.”
She argues against categorizing types of film and which gender should or can direct, and notes that better gender-balanced sets make a huge difference in the production experience.
“Look at Kathryn Bigelow: She can do incredible action films. Or Anthony Minghella, who directed the most beautiful, sensitive romances. For me, sex really isn’t the qualifier in the way someone directs — but I just know that when you have a set with predominantly one gender, whether it be all men or all women, it’s not going to be a healthy place. I imagine it’s the same thing in the workforce or other environments: When you have both genders represented, then you have a healthier point of view. The energy is great, you all are working together as a community, and everyone is participating in the exchange of ideas. You don’t feel a hierarchy; you don’t have anyone feeling like they are being left out or bullied or humiliated. Sometimes being the only girl on a set, you can feel like a sexual object.”
In one of the most moving parts of the essay, she describes the “giddy” feeling of being on such a set.
“I’m in Prague filming a movie called The Zookeeper’s Wife with director Niki Caro. I can’t tell you — it’s amazing. I’ve never been on a set with so many women. We’re not even 50 percent of the crew — we’re probably something like 20 percent women and 80 percent men — but it’s way more than I’ve ever worked with on a film before. There are female producers (Diane Levin, Kim Zubick and Katie McNeill), a female screenwriter (Angela Workman), a female novelist (Diane Ackerman), a female protagonist and a female director. I’ve never seen a female camera operator like Rachael Levine on one of my films. And I’ve never, ever seen a female stunt coordinator like Antje “Angie” Rau.
We know how rare making this kind of film is. We’re giddy with happiness.”
As a person who has worked in two male-heavy professions and been in that situation where I was often the only female in a (sometimes large) crowd of males, I know the feelings Chastain describes. There’s an added pressure to almost transform oneself into one of the guys, to somehow prove yourself an equal whether or not your skills are exactly the same. You’re put in a position where there’s an unspoken expectation to overcome perceptions of your gender and whatever historical connotations are attached to that. Unlike the rest of the males in such a situation, as a female, often you can’t just be yourself; you must first find a way to demonstrate that you are equal regardless of the fact you are. That added factor can stand in the way of people simply getting a job done.
It’s exactly that insidious undercurrent that Chastain’s essay so eloquently addresses, and that we all should continue to expose. For the one-gender heavy industries, it doesn’t have to be an accusation thrown like a weapon toward the opposite side. Instead, we can allow unveilings like these to be a welcoming opening of closed doors, of cigar smoke-filled boardrooms and of superhero and action film sets.
Please, do read the entire piece at THR