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Jessica Chastain takes on 'A Doll's House' in new Broadway adaptation


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: "A Doll's House," the classic 19th century play by Henrik Ibsen, features one of the most iconic characters in theater history, Nora Helmer, a young wife and mother who is forced to question everything in her highly structured life.

It's now getting a new Broadway adaptation starring one of today's biggest stars, Jessica Chastain.

Jeffrey Brown has the story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jessica Chastain, Actress: It feels like you're incredibly exposed as an actor, because you're not given -- you're not able to hide behind anything.

Jeffrey Brown: In "A Doll's House," Jessica Chastain takes on a famous character in a new way, in a stripped-down, no props or period costumes production, envisioned by director Jamie Lloyd.

Chastain recalls an early meeting to talk about his approach.

Jessica Chastain: He mentioned something about no props. I was like, what do you mean? And it was very difficult for me to even imagine. The play, as written, begins with her eating cookies, right?

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Jessica Chastain: And then, in the very first scene, her husband, Torvald, asks her: "You look guilty. Have you been eating cookies?"

And she says: "No, no, I would never do that to you."

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. You have no cookies.

Jessica Chastain: There's no cookies. I'm not miming eating cookies. There's just no cookies.

I said to Jamie: "How -- I don't understand how to do this."

Like, we say in the very first scene that I'm not honest, I swear that I would never do that to my husband. And the audience has just seen that I have. So, we're not given that opportunity to do that now. And he goes: "You will do it in the acting."

I'm like: "Oh, my God."

When I saw that clipping with my face on it, I thought for a second you were proud of me.

Jeffrey Brown: For Chastain, it's just the latest in a string of high-wire, attention-getting, often award-winning roles, including an Oscar for best actress last year in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," and a recent Screen Actors Guild award for the series "George & Tammy."

Jessica Chastain: I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it's 100.

Jeffrey Brown: She's been a top Hollywood star at least since 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty," but her love of acting began on stage growing up in Northern California.

In rehearsal here, she began to find her Nora, a young wife and mother kept in place by society's strict rules of behavior, who suddenly faces a crisis that forces her to see the world anew, and make decisions that will change her and others forever.

It's an old story, but, says Chastain, still plenty relevant.

Jessica Chastain: She is playing within the system to try to get what she needs. And that's Ibsen. I mean, that's 1879. He was incredible what he wrote back then.

I think it's just, on the paper, the obvious version is this poor woman who's been victimized. But, also, I wanted to say, how is she participating in it, and how scary it is, because we all participate. It's not even necessarily associated to one gender.

Jeffrey Brown: The original play has been adapted by playwright Amy Herzog, a co-writer on the recent TV series "Scenes From a Marriage"...

Jessica Chastain: If I don't leave right now, I know I'm never going to.

Jeffrey Brown: ... in which Chastain also starred, alongside Oscar Isaac, in a story of another troubled marriage.

Herzog credits Ibsen as a major influence on her own writing. Here, she says she sought only to pare down language and scenes, matching the pared-down style of the production, to bare the essential quality of the characters.

Actor: What is going on?

Jessica Chastain: Sit down. This could take a while.

I tried to dial up the ways Nora was in control of the situation. So even if she's playing innocent or playing a victim or playing helpless, it is still a choice she's making. And she is still sort of in significant ways the director and stage manager of the proceedings, even if she gets what she wants by playing a sort of traditional woman.

Jeffrey Brown: You saw that in the original?

Jessica Chastain: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: Because I'm not sure that's the way everybody reads it or has seen it in the past.

Jessica Chastain: I think that's -- I think you're right. But I don't think that's because it's not there. I think it's just the way the play has been received as this kind of feminist polemic has flattened some of the subtleties of the original.

Jeffrey Brown: Chastain says she wanted to avoid presenting a polemic or TED Talk argument.

The unusual staging helped. Even before the play starts, she sits alone on stage looking at us.

You don't have the props. You're often sitting in a chair. Where does the energy come from?

Jessica Chastain: It comes from the audience. This is a whole different way of working for me, because, in the theater, you create, like, the fourth wall, right?

And, in some sense, I had fear of the audience. I was nervous. I felt like they were an obstacle to what I needed to do.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean this is you in the past in the theater?

Jessica Chastain: In the past, the past.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Jessica Chastain: Even though I had started in the theater and I'd done a lot of it, I was aware of every cough. I was aware of every single person who opened up their food and started eating, or their phones were going off.

And I felt it all like -- almost like an assault. And, in this production, it's been fascinating because I feel the exact opposite.

Jeffrey Brown: What is it that you get from acting?

Jessica Chastain: There's an immediate intimacy with acting. I find that, in many cases, even if we pretend we're not, we're all sensitive beings that are very tender and have a lot of emotions.

And some people work very hard to protect themselves and put up this wall, right? And we see that on the subway. We see it talking to people sometimes at a coffee shop. How are you doing today? Fine. Thank you. How are you? Fine. Thank you.

But we're never really connecting on an intimate level with strangers. And acting really changes that for me. I mean, I show up on a set. It could be someone I have never met before, and there's an immediate connection and an openness, and we're not allowed to be guarded around each other.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to her acting, Chastain is known for her activism on behalf of women, in Hollywood, on issues such as pay equity and beyond.

When we met, her mind was very much on the ongoing women-led protests in Iran.

When you think about having all this choice now about what you do, what's important to you?

Jessica Chastain: I'm drawn to characters that see women as three-dimensional human beings. So, that could mean that they do complicated things.

They can subvert the stereotypical gender roles, which is very interesting to me, because I find anything that pushes the status quo of what a woman is supposed to be or supposed to do, that, I think, is a step forward, because we have always accepted men as being able to do multiple things. And I think we need to see women also as human beings.

So that's what I'm drawn to, characters that treat women as human beings.

Jeffrey Brown: Simple as that.

Jessica Chastain: Simple as that.

Jeffrey Brown: But not so simple.

Jessica Chastain: It's actually -- it sounds so easy, doesn't it? But I think, with some people, it's still not super easy.

Jeffrey Brown: Jessica Chastain inhabits "A Doll's House" through June 10.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

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