Shot in India and Jordan by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, the film was penned by journalist-screenwriter Mark Boal. It follows Maya as she doggedly spends a decade trying to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The years-long hunt culminates with the successful 2011 Navy SEAL raid on a compound in Pakistan and the infamous terrorist's death.
Asked at a New York press conference in early December about her preparation for the role, Chastain replied, "In terms of research, there is a great deal of information in the script.
"Every scene gave me clues as to who this woman was. And, of course, our screenwriter is an investigative reporter, so that was very helpful. I nicknamed Mark 'the professor' and I had three months of going to school before we even started shooting," the actress said, adding she also read books such as "The Looming Towers" to educate herself about this new world she was exploring. "It was a full-immersion school."
The star of the critically acclaimed films "The Help," "The Debt," "Take Shelter," "Coriolanus," "The Tree of Life" and "Lawless," as well as the current Broadway production of "The Heiress," emphasized she spent no time with the woman on which her latest character was based because she is still working as an agent and her identity needs to remain protected.
"I never met Maya because she's an undercover CIA agent -- it would not have been a good thing to do," Chastain said.
"I had a lot of research from Mark. It really, really helps when your film writer is an investigative journalist. I had to approach [the role] like any other character I was playing," she continued. "So, any questions I could answer through the research, I did. And the questions I couldn't answer through the research, I then had to use my imagination, Kathryn's imagination and Mark's to create a character that went along the lines that respected the real woman."
The actress confessed it was a challenge to portray a woman who usually maintains her steely composure in high-pressure situations and who has very few ties to other people.
"I play a character who is trained to be unemotional and analytically precise and, as an actor, you spend your whole life trying to be emotional and keeping yourself emotionally open," she observed. "So, to find the humanity within that arc was a great feat that would have been impossible without Kathryn and Mark's leadership."
"Originally, we were working on another project. Still about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but it was about the failed hunt in 2001," said Bigelow, sitting beside Chastain at the press conference.
"While Mark was working on the screenplay, actually quite far along, May 1, 2011, happened and we realized after some soul-searching that it was going to be a little bit difficult to make a movie about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden when the whole world knew that he had been killed. So after much debate we pivoted and Mark being an investigative journalist set on his way to report the current story," Bigelow said of Boal, who was also her collaborator on "The Hurt Locker."
Pressed to talk about the end of "Zero Dark Thirty," which sees Maya crying as she realizes she doesn't know what to do with herself after accomplishing her professional goal at the expense of her personal life, Bigelow replied,
"That was beautifully articulated in the screenplay and we never deviated from that.
"So, that's a creation of Mark's and I think what is so interesting and so poignant for both Jessica and myself or all of us, is this idea that this woman has spent the last 10 years exclusively in the pursuit of one man," Bigelow said. "And, yes, at the end of the day, she triumphed. But it's not a victory, because finally at the end of the day you are left with much larger questions like where does she go from here? Where do we go from here? Now what?
"I think that was one of the human elements of it, and the sense of that kind of question and what the weight of the question on your shoulders is."
So, did the filmmakers get any help from the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense and did those agencies have any influence on the final product?
"As you are aware, there has been a bit of election year controversy about that. I probably won't go into that in great detail, except to say the movie was made independently. It was independently financed. We were very lucky to have Sony's support in distributing it, but I emphasize the independence of the film because there was no arrangement or deal of any kind with either of these agencies," Boal said. "As far as the research, we approached it as any reporter probably since the dawn of time has approached reporting a story. You work through every channel you can, including the public affairs departments of those agencies."
Co-starring Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini and Jennifer Ehle, "Zero Dark Thirty" is in theaters now.