The Debt Interviews: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, John Madden

The Debt, a thriller about three Mossad operatives in the 60s on an undercover mission to capture a Nazi war criminal is released this week. We caught up with stars of the movie Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain and the director John Madden (not the American football player).

What was the appeal for you?

Helen Mirren: Great story, you know, really interesting story. It’s a lovely role because we’re selfish and self interested and you want good roles to play. And then John Madden, who I’d worked with before on Prime Suspect – before he did Shakespeare In Love. But a great director, so that’s a combination you don’t say no to.

John Madden: Well, it’s extraordinarily compelling and challenging material. It’s thematically weighty. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to tell a story that is in one sense a very pure cinematic genre, the genre of thriller, but also one that actually allows a very complex emotional and psychological drama to unfold at the same time. Usually those things pull against each other in a project and you have to stop the thriller for a moment in order to fill in the character and catch up on who they really are. This film is very different in that way, you understand who these people are through the story that’s unfolding and it all pulls against itself in a very interesting way. So, an amazing challenge in terms of the material but a great opportunity as well.

Jessica Chastain: I was really excited when I read the script, with the character, because it’s rare I think to get a script where a woman is allowed to be very strong but at the same time vulnerable. It’s either like sometimes in a film, if the female role is strong that’s all she is. I felt with Rachel there was so much complexity and duality in her that was really exciting to explore. And of course working with John Madden, I was such a fan of his work and was so excited. I knew I would learn a lot from working with him. So, I was desperate to, and of course sharing a part with Helen Mirren. You can’t even get close to matching how brilliant she is, but I knew that I just wanted to be around her and just soak up her greatness.

Did you have to work with the younger actors to develop seamless accents and mannerisms?

Helen Mirren: John decided we should all do this with a very slight Israeli accent. It’s always an interesting question when you’re playing maybe a Russian or an Israeli or a French person, but you’re doing it in an English-language film. In theory, you’re actually speaking Hebrew to each other, but you’re using English because it’s an English-language film. Should you be speaking English with an English accent? Or American? John made the decision to really point up the fact that we’re actually Israelis, so just to use a slight Israeli accent and then we had a very good dialect coach. But she had a lot of different voices to deal with and she worked on bringing out our accents together so we became seamlessly one, at least from one country. And then Jessica and I did work together to find little habits, little physical things that we could do to give the effect of this being one person.

Jessica Chastain: I actually can give you an example of it, we were talking about the character at one point, and Rachel is twice in front of a group of people and they’re asking her the question: “What were you thinking, what was going through your mind when this incident happened?” She says: “I was thinking about my mother.” We both say that at different points in the film. And it was John’s idea actually. Helen said it’s interesting she’s telling the same story, it’s almost like being at a press junket. And when she said that we realised, in a way, that Rachel is telling the same story… she is putting on a character. So, when you watch that part in the film, it’s very obscure, but at the point when we say ‘I was thinking of my mother,’ both of us touched our heart at the same time. We assume that for those 30 years that she’s telling that story she’s doing the same thing because it’s almost like she’s living her life as a robot.

John, did you have to be aware of the sensitivities in dealing with this kind of subject matter?

John Madden: Well it’s a big responsibility, it’s the biggest theme in terms of recent modern history, and you owe a debt to take that seriously – particularly when you’re dealing with a story in a genre which is not famous for moral complexity. We were very, very concerned and vigilant about not reducing things to simple dimensions and just using the Holocaust or its aftermath or the pain engendered by it as a sort of useful hook to make people jump in the cinema. The chief way, I think, in which you can honour that material is by making the people real and making what they do truthful, in so far as you can judge the psychology and the emotional truth of it. We used to boot out any idea that was led by narrative or narrative requirements that didn’t feel true. As I said earlier, this film is unusual in the sense that character is story really, and mapping the vulnerabilities and fragilities in those characters is what produces the circumstance that is the centre of the film. So, you just need to be very serious about what you’re doing to make sure that you’re not doing anything cheap or gratuitous, or unnecessarily manipulative.

Have you continued your self defence classes?

Helen Mirren: I didn’t take any self defence classes, Jessica did. She had to do the fight stuff. I do have a fight in it, we called it the geriatric fight, between a 60-year-old woman and an 80-year-old man. It’s really hard to get up once you’re down. So, I didn’t do that fantastic fighting.

Is now the right time for a mature, female James Bond character?

Helen Mirren: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? What’s Dame Judi’s character? A movie all about M would be great.

What were your experiences in Tel Aviv like, both from a political and practical point of view, and were the locals at all upset that you were remaking a well regarded movie of theirs?

John Madden: Well, first of all the movie, though it’s a very good movie, did not receive a very big distribution even in Israel. It was not on for very long, and it was one of the big surprises to find that not that many people knew of it or had seen it actually. There was some surprise among the producers and financiers and so forth, that I should want to go to Israel to film it which I felt adamant that I did. As indeed I wanted to go to East Berlin, which proved way beyond our resources, to take it back to the 1960s, so we did that in Budapest. But I didn’t know what to expect politically, I didn’t know what the view would be of the film. Perhaps we’ll find that out, because we’re going to Haifa, to the Film Festival there next month. Obviously there are sensitive issues about the way Israel sees itself, and so forth. So, I can imagine feelings will run high, maybe.

But in terms of an experience of working there, everybody said it will be very difficult, ‘you’ll never be able to get access to what you’ll need’. For example, it was considered absolutely axiomatic that we couldn’t have filmed the sequence on the aeroplane, that the movie begins and ends with, in Israel thought that was what I wanted to do, because we’d never get airside given the security you have to go through. Which proved not to be the case at all, we sort of wandered onto the airport that we were shooting Helen departing in. The film crews there are fantastic, sophisticated, experienced and very relaxed. There’s a great spectrum of political opinion about Israel, about what Israel is and what it’s doing and how it goes about doing what it’s doing. So, I actually loved being there, I found it really stimulating, really interesting, Tel Aviv is an incredible city and the people are damned interesting.

Helen Mirren: So often you shoot in Toronto and it’s supposed to be New Orleans, or you’re in New Orleans and it’s supposed to be New York. Toronto is never Toronto, but you’re so often shooting in the wrong place that it’s invaluable to be in the right place. I don’t know what it is, it’s really hard to articulate. Obviously, for the filmmaker it’s great because you have the authentic background, and also the light and the feeling of the light is so important. But for the actor it’s just something that you’re soaking up some feeling from the people around you.

I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and it gives the film a feeling of authenticity and veracity that I think it needs. As I felt when I watched the Israeli film, I thought: “I never read about this in the newspaper, that story must have come out on a day that I didn’t read the paper.” It has this real sense of ‘did this really happen?’ and I certainly felt that watching the Israeli film and I think that’s one of the strengths of our movie, it has that feeling that this could have happened. And therefore to shoot in Israel gives us an enormous amount of help in that direction.

Tell us about the narrative structure of the movie? Were you involved in deciding that?

John Madden: Yes, I was involved in developing that structure. It’s not structured the same way as the Israeli film is, which actually cross cuts constantly between the present day and the past. And in particular because the movie begins with a very big question mark, which is this event that is pretty shattering when you see it, and surprising. Explaining and understanding how and why that has happened, and what that means, is the structural principle of the film, and governs Helen’s character’s journey through the film. I really like films that have that sort of acrostic quality, demanding that your brain works at the same time as your heart, and in this case your guts are working too. But it wasn’t a gratuitous thing, it just seemed to want to be told in a particular way. Obviously, one of the pleasures in a film, though not in life perhaps, is having the rug pulled out from underneath you. That structural principle was an important discovery in the film, and that doesn’t happen that way in the other film either. And actually that was a jump that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman made in the first instance which was very crucial to the way that the story was told.

Jessica, you seem to have a lot of new movies out in the coming months, how do you deal with that and keep yourself grounded?

Jessica Chastain: It really is feast or famine in this business, which I’ve learned recently. I’ve made 11 films over the past four and a half years and for me it’s all about the experience of making the film because I have no control over how the film turns out, if it’s successful or not, or if it comes out or not. How long it takes for it to come out. So, I’ve always tried to choose projects that were a type of master-class for me, that I would leave gaining something from arriving to it. It’s a very strange experience now for me to learn the other side of the profession, the press side of it. In fact, we were talking on the way over here that I’d never done a press junket before this year, and now all of a sudden within the last six months it’s like every day, meeting people and talking about the films.

So, I’m still finding my footing with it. In real life my normal, personal life is exactly the same, I never get stopped, I think I’ve been recognised twice. Sometimes I get recognised for Bryce Dallas Howard! [Laughs] So, it hasn’t been difficult for me to stay grounded, because no one really treats me differently. Another exciting part is I get to meet filmmakers and actors that I’ve always really respected, and that’s an exciting time as the door’s opening for that.

Have you been haunted by anything in your own past?

Helen Mirren: I think the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life is that bloody photograph of myself in a bikini, which in and of itself is a lie. I don’t actually look like that, and I know that is going to haunt me forever and I will be forever trying to bury it unsuccessfully.

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