Thank you to Focus Features for inviting me to this press event. As always, all opinions are my own.
There aren't many events that I would be willing to fly coast-to-coast on a red eye to spend 33 hours in a city for. However, for the opportunity on interview Jessica Chastain for her role in and Director Niki Caro for her work on the new movie The Zookeeper's Wife, I jumped at the opportunity. This may have been the tightest scheduling in the world, between personal commitments on the chaos of traveling in New York City on St. Patrick's Day weekend (I mean, what NYC cab driver doesn't know 5th Avenue is closed for the parade ON St. Patrick's Day, but I digress).
The Zookeeper's Wife is a real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II based on the nonfiction book by Diane Ackerman. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned—and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, Captain America: Civil War). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.
Director Niki Caro, known for North Country, Whale Rider, and McFarland, USA, hits this one out of the park. Jessica Chastain's delivers another award-winning performance. What she channels to portray Antonina is simply incomprehensible as a mother, as a daughter, as a wife. After screening it, I think there will be some Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actress. The Zookeeper's Wife is moving beyond words. It's heartwarming and gut wrenching all at the same time. It's the historical fiction that you didn't even realize needed to be made until you see it. It's so appropriate for today's political climate, a contemporary drama, if you will.
After the screening, I had the chance to sit down with Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro to learn more about their work onThe Zookeeper's Wife.
***SPOILER ALERT*** If you haven't read the book and you haven't seen the film, a couple of the questions may be spoilers. Read ahead with caution.
Jessica on her research for the role
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I started with the book, because the film is based on the bestselling, incredible novel, which is then based on Antonina’s journals. I went to Warsaw, met with Theresa. She took me to the Warsaw Zoo, and I got to ask her secrets that weren’t in the book. Things like, if Antonina was an animal, what kind of animal would she be? And she said, ‘Oh, definitely a cat. She’d be a little puma.' Which is why Jan calls her Punia, that was a nickname which means little cat. So all those little things. And then I went to Auschwitz. Of course, Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I just wanted to feel the energy of the space. And then I met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals. And that was so helpful when approaching this film, because the thing that I learned most from everyone was not to impose your energy onto an animal; not to treat an animal as though it’s your possession, or it’s an object. It’s a spiritual being—I guess, what this film is, too—whether human or animal, they are not ours to possess. And I knew, on this film—if I were to ever get hurt on this movie, it’s because I’m doing something wrong. It’s not the animals’ fault, it’s my fault. It means they weren’t ready for me to be in their space; they didn’t invite me in. And so I spent some time, when we got to Prague, being with the animals before we were even on camera. I wanted them to be happy when they saw me. I wanted them to feel safe, and to know that I wasn’t going to try to force them to do anything.
On the heaviness of some of the themes in the film regarding war and the treatment of civilians (rape, for instance)
NIKI CARO: Yeah. The character of Ursula is emblematic of all children who are hurt by war. And so as the director of this movie, I had to think very hard about what I could bring to this genre. And I recognized that it was femininity; that I could take my inspiration from Antonina, and be very soft, and very strong with this material. And so Ursula was a very, very important character because her experience had made her animal—it’s an incredible performance, obviously; young Israeli actress called Shira Haas. And the scenes between her and Antonina are wonderful because we see Antonina dealing with Ursula as she would with an animal, which is to say, very instinctively; not coming too close, but reassuring her that she’s there. It’s Antonina’s connection to animals that her humanity with animals that she brought to her human refugees, you know. And I think that sort of unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, and those two actresses, is a very, very special part of the movie, for me.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I was happy to be in a film that, for me when I watch the movie, I’m distraught about the rape of this young girl. But there’s no salacious scene that we’re forced to watch.
And I find that in a lot of films in our industry, it’s directed in a way that it becomes this salacious thing. And it was wonderful to work with a woman who had more delicacy with that.
Shira’s an incredible actress. And you know, I instinctively knew to not try to distract her in any way. You know, when we were filming that stuff, she was so in it, that I didn’t want to be like, ‘Hey, how was dinner tonight?' you know, and talking about things that didn’t connect to what the scene was. So I always held back. I was there in case she needed me, or I, you know, was watching her in between takes. But I never tried to do anything that would pull her out of it.
NIKI CARO: You know, it was incredibly organic, actually, the whole movie was. But in that scene, in particular, there was a bunny. And the bunny really shows us the healing power of animals, that it’s a little bunny that can break through for this girl. And that’s Antonina’s gift, really, without words, without overt action, just what to do in that moment. And Jessica absolutely has that gift herself, as a human being, which really made my job very, very easy.
On working with the animals
JESSICA CHASTAIN: The elephant might have been my favorite animal to work with. The first time I met – her name was Lily. And the first time I met Lily, we were in this field. It was before we started shooting. And there was this little tiny string that was kind of like the fence between us, but it was a string. And she knew not to cross it. And she was, you know, finding leaves and looking for food. So I was like, ‘Oh, okay.' So I was on my side. I was like, ‘I’m gonna find some for you.' So I went, and I was gathering leaves, and then I’d hand it to her. And then at one point, you know, she would put her trunk on my hand. And then she kind of wrapped her trunk all around my hand, squeezed, and then just went, ‘Ppft,' like that. And I had this feeling of like, ‘Ohp, I’m going under the fence,' and I just went, ‘Nope,' and I pulled back, and she let go. And I realized that was a very humbling moment, because you realize this is a very big animal, and she could do with me whatever she wanted, but also that she just wanted to play. Like, she just wanted me, ‘I can’t come in here.' And she was really funny. The scene that we did with the elephant, it feels in the film that it’s very anxious, and like, the elephant is really concerned. But it’s the magic of movies. I mean, she loved apples, that was her treat. And so right before ‘Action’ I would say, ‘Lily, Lily,' and I would give her some apples. And then I would have more apples, and I’d hide them around me. So I’d hide them under the puppet; we had a puppet, which was the baby. And I hid them under my foot, or whatever. And so when you see her with the trunk going all over me, she was looking for the apples. So for her, it was a game. And when she’s reaching for me, and we’re touching each other, it was a great experience, but the magic of moviemaking, and the audience knowing what the situation of the story is, would feel like the animal’s under distress, but it wasn’t. And that probably was the most fun I’ve had, because I had to be so trusting. She was behind me, but I knew she wasn’t going to hurt me.
On the responsibility of tackling a Holocaust film and the attention to detail
NIKI CARO: I took that responsibility as seriously as it’s possible for me to take, which is to say very. Authenticity and specificity has always been really, really important in my work. But this represented a much bigger challenge—to honor all of those souls that died, whilst celebrating 300 that didn’t, and the amazing work of the Zabinskis. I know that what I was trying to do at the time was to move the genre on a little bit; to make a Holocaust movie that expressed healing in some measure. I thought we were making a historical drama. And it’s only now that I realize we’re making a contemporary film, sadly. But in terms of the filmmaking, we were really tireless, and diligent in our research, which meant going very deeply into the reality of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was really tough, but we were—all of us—cinematographer, production designer, costume, makeup, hair—everybody— very, very invested in getting it right.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: For me, I think by starting to learn about Antonina, and by reading The Zookeeper’s Wife, you feel like you know her, because you hear her words; you read her words. That was very helpful for me. And there was a quality that she had, where she would not disappear, but she would put the caring of others ahead of herself. I mean, she wasn’t out there saying, like, ‘This is what I did. I’m a hero.' For her, it was all about others, animals, or people, or whatever it was, in terms of healing, which actually is, inherently, when I think of my mother, that’s what I think of. I was raised by a single woman. My grandmother raised her family, and my mother raised three kids. And I am where I am today because of the sacrifices they made. So it wasn’t hard for me to find examples of a woman who not sacrifices herself, but in a way gives herself to others. And also, what I loved about Antonina is in this: when everybody talks about Holocaust films, when you think of what we’ve had, we’ve really seen the darkness, and the hate, and the murder. But rarely do we see the light. And with people like Antonina, it’s important to celebrate that lightness. So that helped me get through it, too.
On getting involved with the project
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I was sent the script, and I was really inspired by the story, and I went online. I was like, ‘Is this true?' You know, the thing I normally start with first. ‘This is true, and why isn’t anyone talking about Antonina?' And then I met Niki in Milan. We had a fun coffee.
I was excited to meet Niki, because I so love her film work. And I can’t imagine anyone else directing this movie. She’s so honest. And she’s so authentic. Antonina says when you look into an animal’s eyes, you see exactly what’s in their heart. And I think we have a lot that we can learn from animals. And Niki is like that. She is so authentic and truthful and honest, and I noticed that immediately when we met. And for me, it was a quick yes. I didn’t have to do any soul searching. I was really inspired by her. And also, I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others. I don’t think we acknowledge women in history as often as we should. And so I’m excited to be part of this story that gets to share it with a larger audience.
On the scene where Lutz has Antonina on the bed, and she tells him that he disgusts her. How did you they approach that scene? Because so many lives, including her own life, and her children’s lives, are depending on her not doing that. So how did you decide to have her do that so deliberately?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: We kind of found that on the day, that scene.
NIKI CARO: These two, Jessica and Daniel, have great relationship, and a tremendous amount of trust. So we could really go there. They were absolutely prepared to go there, right into the violence of that. And I remember talking to you guys beforehand, and saying, ‘You know, that there were just two ideas in this scene. And the first was the ribbon. Do you remember, he takes the ribbon out of her hair? And the second was that she goes there, prepared to do what is necessary. So she goes as a woman, prepared to sleep with him, if that is what needs to be done to find information about her husband.' But for Lutz, he can’t do it because she doesn’t love him. He loves her; she doesn’t love him. And in that moment, where she says, ‘You disgust me,'—that’s her profound and accurate and authentic truth. And that’s what breaks the whole violence of the situation—that he just can’t continue after that. It was a very amazing, dynamic day, you know, physically quite difficult for you guys, like, over the back of that bed.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: It was harder for Daniel to have to pick me up over and over again.
NIKI CARO: Yeah. But what I remember most of shooting that day is the laughter. It often happens, right. I’ve done this a lot, these really heavy scenes. And when you have trust between the actors, and everybody feels safe and confident in the material, that it doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience; on the contrary, it can be amazing, and you just get amazing material out of it.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Yeah. What’s so incredible about what Daniel did—and I think it’s timely for now—is he was an ordinary man who put on this suit. And you see that he is very complex. I mean, at the end of the film she says, ‘You are not like that.' And I think she really believes he is a good person that is being contaminated by whatever that energy is. I don’t think when she says, ‘You disgust me,'—I don’t think she envisions what’s going to happen afterward. I actually think she thinks he is a good man, who has been misled. And I think that’s really important because there are so many questions as how this could this have happened, how could an entire country have done this. And many people were ordinary people who just got swayed by the power. And every time his character tries to do something or goes to do something violent, he can’t, he doesn’t, he can’t follow through with it. And I don’t know, I can’t help but think how important this film is today, especially looking around. You know, Ann Frank was denied a visa into the United States. We learned that, I remember being in school, and that’s required reading, her diary. But the teacher doesn’t say the reason she died is because the United States wouldn’t let her in. So it’s a very, very emotional, important film for me.
On being in a cage and not know what was going to happen with her son
JESSICA CHASTAIN: The big trick is you have to pretend you don’t know what happens, when you’re acting, right? And that was something, another thing on the day, where Niki said, ‘I have an idea. I think she should be locked in the cage when it happens,'—because so much of the movie also is, ‘What does it mean to be in a cage?' The Warsaw Zoo is a cage. You know, it’s kind of that idea of possessing others. And so there was a very organic way of shooting, where we have the script, and then also, too, it’s, ‘What is happening right now in this moment?' And it was Niki’s idea to do that. And I think it worked so well. When playing it, the trick, like I said, is just you have to just get it out of your mind that you know everything’s going to be okay at the end. And I had to play with Lutz, with Daniel playing Lutz, that he is a good person —he’s not, he won’t do— he’s not capable of this; it can’t happen. You know. And I have to wake him up, basically just wake him up, because this isn’t who he is. And then that’s what makes the shot. I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but you know, that’s what makes that moment so shocking, is because she thinks she couldn’t wake him up.
NIKI CARO: And the performance is—I almost don’t have words for it, what she’s able to do in any of these moments. But to become animal like that, to be in the cage, and then to hear that shot, and become animal— incredibly impressive. And so moving to me. I’m a parent. And I think parent or not, in that moment in the film, which actually happened to Antonina, it’s your worst nightmare.
On which parts of the movie are made up for the sake of moving the movie along.
NIKI CARO: It’s a really good question. This isn’t a documentary, obviously. You know, we have our responsibility to entertain and to move. That said, it’s really close. So the character of Urszula, the little girl, she’s fictional. About 300 people, just 300 people went through that system, went through the Villa. And we don’t have complete stories out of all of them. We don’t know details of all of them or many of them. But Urszula was somebody we felt was important to bring to the story. Lutz—all of that crazy, breeding, trying to bring back the auruck—totally true. What a nut case. There is evidence from his letters that he greatly admired Antonina; that there was definitely something there.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: And she said she thought he had a crush on her, in her journals.
NIKI CARO: Yeah. Yeah. So we expanded upon that, or we just drew that line.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: The shooting, the thing at the end with the child, it happened, but it was a different soldier.
NIKI CARO: It was a Russian soldier, actually. But everything else, the extraordinary circumstances of getting people out of the ghetto in trash cans, and having them pass through the cages and tunnels into the Villa—all true.