Jessica Chastain isn’t waiting around for men’s sloppy seconds.
Jessica Chastain has rightfully earned a reputation for being one of the most outspoken actresses in Hollywood, especially when it comes to how she chooses her projects. She has taken on an array of truly strong, complex female characters in projects as wide-ranging as Zero Dark Thirty, The Zookeeper’s Wife, and Molly’s Game, just to name a few.
So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to hear that a project Chastain is pitching to international buyers at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is, as reported by Deadline, a spy flick fronted by a diverse group of international women stars — Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Fan Bingbing, and Lupita Nyong’o. Indeed, what is truly surprises about the project is not that it stars a bunch of awesome women, but that it is an original project, not a gender-swapped reboot of a previously beloved, male-fronted franchise.
The film is called 355, taking its title from a universal slang term for a female spy that has been around since the American Revolution and that Chastain discovered during her research for Zero Dark Thirty. Scripted by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Simon Kinberg, 355 will follow a group of top female agents from organizations around the world who unite to keep a major weapon from being acquired by some bad guys. Kinberg describes 355 as being tonally similar to the Bourne franchise in that the film will be as grounded in reality as possible — but instead of a Jason Bourne standing solo at the center of the film, the women will all share the spotlight equally.
According to Chastain, she had wanted to do another predominantly female ensemble film after The Help, while her work on Zero Dark Thirty made her hungry to explore the action genre further. Not content to wait around for a script like this to fall into her lap — because let’s be real, the odds of that are slim — Chastain took matters into her own hands to get a project off the ground that fulfilled both of these wishes. She pitched the idea to Kinberg on the set of X-Men: Dark Phoenix and phoned up the actresses she envisioned as her co-stars to convince them to sign on. Everyone was eager to participate and to join Chastain at Cannes to sell their vision for the project.
But while a sweeping global action thriller starring some of the most famous women in the world might sound like guaranteed box office gold, films like 355 still remain the exception to the rule in Hollywood. It appears that most studios would rather continue funding female-fronted reboots or spin-offs of franchises like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven than take a gamble on anything original. And what women deserve are original stories, not recast and recycled versions of stories that have been told before.
As Daniel Craig prepares to (reluctantly) take on the role of James Bond for the fifth time, the rumor mill has been spinning with ideas as to who could eventually replace him as the iconic spy. And naturally, in this new era of gender-swapping, many have proposed that the new James Bond be a woman. This strikes me as lazy and insulting. Women shouldn’t have to take over roles that have been played by men for decades just to get the chance to kick some ass onscreen. We shouldn’t need to accept men’s sloppy seconds in order to star in our own action movies.
Instead of recasting James Bond as a woman and having her winkingly deliver lines about martinis being shaken, not stirred (or having Nyong’o star in a gender-swapped remake of John Woo’s The Killer), Hollywood should be focused on creating original female characters who can lead their own franchises and potentially spawn their own catchphrases.
That’s why what Chastain is doing with 355 is so important. She’s not settling for a recycled role in a project that doesn’t share her values as an independent, feminist woman. She’s using her clout in Hollywood to push through an original passion project with roles for several strong women — not just herself.
That 355 is an ensemble piece is key. Too often, when women are given action roles — even leading action roles — they are the only woman in the entire film. To see a bunch of women teaming up to save the world, instead of playing into stereotypes about women who don’t get along well with other women and fight to be the queen bee, is fantastic. You know it will definitely pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, even if many of us can also agree that the test isn’t always the best and most accurate way to determine how well a film treats its women.
By shepherding 355 and its intersectional ensemble cast to the big screen, Chastain has proven yet again that she is not a feminist who is all talk (and tweets) and no action. She is pushing gender equality forward in Hollywood, both onscreen and off. The film industry needs to take note and give other women the same power to tell their own stories so that original projects like 355 are no longer big news, but the norm.