Jessica Chastain on the Art of Audio Intimacy

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Jessica Chastain / GEORGE V MAGAZINE
The day after the Tonys, where A Doll’s House was nominated for six awards, Chastain spoke with George V Magazine from Los Angeles about going from the stage to the recording booth, audio intimacy, and not thinking about an EGOT. Fresh off of her run in A Doll’s House, the actor takes on another complex character—this time sonically—in The Space Within, a new series from Audible that blends sci-fi, mystery, and thriller.
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“Right now, it’s so strange. I was talking to Audra McDonald, and she told me, ‘Your body is gonna go through withdrawals.’ I’m like, what does that even mean? I don’t even understand that,” Jessica Chastain said Monday, after finishing 17 weeks in A Doll’s House on Broadway. “I’ve never done anything that was this long of a run and this emotional. I’m crying for, like, an hour every show, and I never missed a show. I was almost monastic in my way of living.”

With her role as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s three-act play behind her, Chastain takes on another complex character in The Space Within, an Audible original podcast out Thursday. In the eight-episode series—for which Chastain also serves as executive producer—she plays Dr. Madeline Wyle, a PTSD and trauma psychiatrist who risks her family, career, and reputation as she treats patients grappling with repressed memories of supernatural activity. The project, which mixes sci-fi, mystery, and thriller, features a cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Carmen Ejogo.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

George V Magazine: You’ve spoken a lot about how much you love being onstage. How do you switch gears to go into the world of audio storytelling?

Jessica Chastain: It’s fascinating, because I didn’t really think of it that much as switching gears. I really loved the character. I loved the story. I loved the mystery about it. It kind of takes you in areas you didn’t expect, unless maybe you read the spoilers ahead of time. I had so much experience doing ADR, which is additional dialogue recording, which is what we do on movies and television when there’s a problem with sound. You kind of go and you match it to picture, and that actually can be quite difficult. You’re in a sound booth, and you’re looking at yourself, and you’re trying to say the lines in a way that matches your lips. This is just like, you get to be at a sound booth and you don’t have to worry about matching a performance. It was actually my most enjoyable experience of being in a recording studio in that way.

As I was listening, I felt like every breath on the mic had a place in the world you were building. And every little detail, every sigh—it made me feel like I was listening to a real person, like I was sitting in on her counseling sessions.

Oh, that’s good. The intimacy of it, I find really exciting. And also perhaps it connects to, in some way, even though I did it before doing A Doll’s House, but A Doll’s House. It was so important to have audio intimacy, and I think that’s been something that certain projects I’ve had, the creators really relied on—like The Tree of Life with Terrence Malick, he kept bringing it so low in the mic. So we could hear breaths, we could hear as though we’re almost inside the person’s head. I think working on Tree of Life and doing all of that additional narration, in such an intimate way, probably helped prepare me for something like this.

What did you do to prepare?

I don’t know how to talk about this without spoiling it for people. Dr. Wyle has stumbled upon something that she’s trying to unlock and figure out. She’s really kind of on the back foot. I didn’t do a lot of research into the world that she stumbles into because I really wanted her to be as kind of open to it, and almost clueless to it, as possible. Especially when she comes from a world that’s so cognitive. There’s logic, you know? Yes, there’s emotion, but she can find the map and solve problems. I feel like I am like that. I love to problem-solve. I try not to wallow. I like to try to help people get through. I can understand that character in that way. Then it was just kind of trying to forget what happened in the upcoming episodes because I really wanted her to feel like it was surprising, and like that she was never front-footed. She was always on the back foot.

There’s an underlying theme in The Space Within that just because someone doesn’t believe you, it doesn’t mean your story isn’t true or valid.

So many people talk about: What is the idea of truth? How can it be defined? Because the truth for one person is different from the truth to another. And the idea of what is possible for one person is different than another. I really like that there is no sense of right or wrong—no one is ever wrong in terms of Maddie’s world. She’s just trying to understand. When she’s going on the journey, she’s not judging the things she’s discovering. She’s just trying to understand what each character’s truth is for them. And I think that’s why she’s probably such a good psychiatrist.

The Space Within is being released days after you wrapped A Doll’s House—how do you disconnect from these characters? Is there anything that you do to clear the decks and reset?

I try to just put my head in a completely different space. We just did the Tonys yesterday, and now I’m sitting in my hotel and I’m looking at the ocean and palm trees, and I’m talking to you about the podcast. And then later on, I’m gonna support my friends. My best friends [The Flash producer] Barbara Muschietti and [The Flash director] Andy Muschietti have a film [premiere] tonight. Then I have George & Tammy stuff, and then I’m on vacation for a week. I don’t allow myself the time to wallow, maybe that’s what helps me. It’s like a clean break in some sense.

Is there anything right now that’s really inspiring you in terms of your work or just in general, something that’s really bringing you joy?

I’m inspired by the WGA, what they’re doing. We’re all kind of taking a moment right now. I’m inspired by the solidarity of unions and the people fighting for fair wages. Work-wise, I really haven’t had an opportunity to explore much or even watch much. When I come back from vacation for, like, a week and a half, I’m planning on seeing every show in New York that I can get my hands on. I haven’t been able to go to the theater because I’ve been performing. So I’m hoping it’ll be a very exciting and inspirational moment.

Do you think you’ll take A Doll’s House to London?

There’s a lot of talk about it. Honestly, I’d love to take the show to Dubai. I’d love to take it to parts of the world where, like, a woman walking out at the very end can be discussed. I like to be provocative in my work. I mean, I would love to do it in London, for sure. It would be amazing to do it in Paris. It’d be amazing to do it all over the world. But also I would love to do it in someplace like Dubai as well. I do know this isn’t the end for this production and for my version of Nora, because it’ll have another life somewhere.

There’s a lot of talk about EGOT status. Is that something that you think about?

Oh, no.

No?

No. I’d never think about it. I saw something recently, and it actually put so much in perspective. I don’t know if you’ve seen the documentary on Katharine Hepburn on Netflix. It’s called Call Me Kate. It’s amazing. I’ve read her biography before. I read a book about her and Spencer Tracy’s love affair because I’m also so inspired by Spencer Tracy’s work. I’ve always just assumed that she had been Kate the Great from the beginning, which she was…but the reality is, she won an Oscar early on, and then it wasn’t until after her 60s that she won three more. That was so exciting and inspiring to see. She was a producer. She produced, got the rights to plays, and then sold them to studios and made movies.

I think about my career and how it’s shaping up. She really was working in a way that I aspire to. I know it was a very different system, too, and not as friendly back then as it is now, so it’s even more difficult for her.

When people talk about stuff like that, it’s more about the headlines and more about, like, I don’t know, maybe it becomes like a sporting event. I think we’re such a society that loves sports and loves competitions and all of that. But then when I think, like, Okay, one of my favorite actresses, she had some great success in her 20s. I wasn’t even making films in my 20s. She had great success and then she struggled, and then she became this icon after she turned 60. And how inspiring is that for women everywhere? There’s no expiration date on us.

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