Interview: Jessica Chastain On How ‘The Tree of Life’ Changes the Way Cinema Is Made

By  · Published on June 3rd, 2011

The Tree of Life is a film that, as most of you have surely already noticed, will be hailed for its beauty and visual ecstasy. Everyone will discuss how every frame could make for a great photo or whether or not Terrence Malick is actually saying something with all those incredibly long non-narrative shots, but thematically, Malick backs up his eye-candy.

While the headline title and statement made by actress Jessica Chastain could be read as being very hyperbolic, it couldn’t be closer to the truth. The Tree of Life does not hit the standard narrative beats, something that will either excite or annoy viewers. When there’s a 20-minute sequence of seeing the beginning of time unfold, you’ll quickly realize you’re not watching your typical drama.

Here’s what Jessica Chastain had to say in our quick conversation about the film’s truthful exploration of childhood memories, the film’s structure, how Malick’s scripts read, and her interpretation of the ending.

Note: While no heavy spoilers are discussed until the end, I suggest seeing the film completely fresh. If you’re looking to avoid plot details, it’d be wise to read what Chastain had to say after viewing the film.

To start off, I’d say this is definitely one of those films that shouldn’t be given a knee-jerk reaction.

Absolutely. It’s a film that asks way more questions than it answers [Laughs]. When people tell me they’re going to see the film, I always tell them it’s not the film you go see after a hard day of work and want to turnoff. This is the film you have to open your heart and mind to. You have to actively participate in the film-going experience. It’s okay if you don’t understand every single image or exactly what the story-line is. Just let it seep into you. It could be something you have a reaction to the next day, the next week, or even in a year. The first time I saw it was a year ago, and it was constantly popping up in my mind.

You kind of have to meet it halfway.

Yeah. To me, it changes the way cinema is made. It changes the language of cinema, because it’s a memory of this man’s life from childhood. When I think of my childhood and being 10 year sold, I don’t think in terms of a beginning, middle, and end. I have memories of snippets; I see my mother’s smile; I see my sister running through the grass by a sprinkler; the dog playing with its toy. I see those little images. As far as I can recall, maybe there’s another film, but this is the only film I’ve ever seen that really expresses the memory of someone’s life. I feel like it’s honest.

At the beginning of the film, Mr. O’Brien comes off very cynical. Would you say, by the end of the film, most of what he says comes true for Jack and his brother?

He tells them not to be like their mom, because she’s “naive” and too good, and the good people get squashed in this world. He’s absolutely trying to teach his boys the way he feels you succeed in the world. At the same time, he struggles with not succeeding in the world the way that he thinks of what success is. I think it’s Brad who says, “The grace that surrounds her [the mother],” and you see her walking down the street and people smiling, you absolutely feel the love and happiness she has in her life, even though she’s not rich or has a great job. She is a success, in the way she’s living. When it comes to the idea that good people get squashed, she believes if she lives her life a certain way, then no bad will come to her.

Do you consider her naive?

I don’t feel she is naive, at all. I watched this documentary on religion, I forget the name of it, but it’s on a religion all about love and how you constantly give love. This interviewer asked this woman about what she would do if he hit her, and she said, “I would smile at you,” and he asks what if he hits her again and she says, “I’d smile again, but then I’d cry.” [Laughs] I thought that was so powerful. I do believe if you give someone love and forgiveness and passion, no matter what they’re doing to you, it will absolutely defeat aggression and hate. I find that far more powerful than a stern, aggressive force.

Isn’t Mr. O’Brien right about the world and what’s going to happen to his boys, though?

Well, it’s interesting. Jack is very successful when he’s older, but he’s also absolutely cutoff from the world he was living in as a child. There’s no child-like wonder or happiness. He is living the way his father taught him. You see him struggling at the beginning of the film when he says, “The world has gone to dogs.” He’s living the lessons his father has taught him. There’s a moment at the end of the film where you see his face, and it’s as if he’s starting to have this awakening and realization on how to maybe find happiness.

It’s interesting how robotic-like Malick shoots those city landscapes with Jack, but obviously approaches nature the way that he does. Did he ever discuss that contrast?

Not really with me. Most of my stuff was [about] the ideal Eden for the boy’s childhood. I was not a part of the modern, concrete steel world. I was more a part of the spiritual world of grace.

When it comes to certain ideas and images, how is Malick as a writer? Is he very detailed?

I think The Tree of Life script should be published. I say this to everyone, because I hope someday it will be. It was one of the best screenplays I had ever read. It’s not written like a screenplay. There are sometimes 25-pages of all prose, no dialog, but just subtext. The dialog is written as the character’s thoughts. A lot of the time Terry would say to me after a take, “That’s great, Jessica. Now, can you do this speech without any of the words?” [Laughs] It is a huge leap of faith an actor takes with a director.

I know he had a cut that ran over four hours at one point. Do you remember what was in the script or what you shot that didn’t make it in the film?

Oh gosh. The way the script is written is that it was more about ideas than just “this has to happen.” I talk about this a lot, but the scene where I am dancing in the air was an accident, and that wasn’t written in the script. There are moments in the script that talk about the lightness and grace the mother has… I’m sure in the editing room, when going through the script and trying to find different examples of what he’s written, he’s able to place that as an example of her.

It’s always that kind of a thing. As an actor working on it, you never know what is going to be in the film, because you’re telling the same story in many different ways. Like, Terry would have me say the same thing, but he’d give me 20 different ways to say it. That would go across three months, then three years, and just figuring out what’s another way to say “love everyone”. We would always look for new ways to say something. It’s hard to say what didn’t make it in, because I feel like everything made it in.


Do you have your own interpretation on the ending you’d like to share?

[Pause] I cannot speak for Terry, but for me, I feel that death and birth are so directly connected in this film. When something ends, something begins. By saying that, nothing really ends. At the beginning of the film, we’re immediately confronted with a loss, and the mother asks questions about where were you and why would you take him away [referring to God]. The universe responds with creating something. At the end, it goes to show, I believe, there really is no loss. Even in the situation with the dinosaurs [Laughs], when something ceases to be, something else is created. It’s beautiful because, really, nothing ever stops. We’re all connected and we’re all a part of something.

The Tree of Life is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.