Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy on ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ First Heartbreak, and Robin Williams
The actors sit down for a conversation about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, a gripping portrait of the struggle inherent in the loss of a great love.
It was, all things considered, a leap of faith. Two years ago, Jessica Chastain, fresh off her Oscar nomination for The Help, and James McAvoy, just after the release of X-Men: First Class, signed on to a sprawling New York love story helmed by a first-time director by the name of Ned Benson. Now, Benson was a longtime friend of Chastain’s, but still, his filmmaking chops were unproven, to say the least.
The end result is The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby—a 3-hour-plus story of Eleanor Rigby (Chastain) and Conor Ludlow (McAvoy), a young, married couple in New York who become estranged following the death of their infant child, and Eleanor’s subsequent suicide attempt. The film is told from the individual P.O.V.’s of each character, as Eleanor tries to reacclimate to the world by taking classes with a Cooper Union professor (Viola Davis) and receives advice from her concerned parents (Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt), while Conor tries to take his mind off things by diving headfirst into his struggling restaurant, all the while pining for Eleanor and trying to win her back.
And, in classic Weinstein Co. fashion, the film has a unique release strategy, with the compressed two-hour cut of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them opening Sept. 12, followed by the individual films The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, opening Oct. 10, for three films total. I had the pleasure of seeing the full, 3+ hour cut, and it’s a gripping portrait of the struggle inherent in the loss of a great love.
What made you jump onto this project with this random dude at the helm? James McAvoy: Random dude managed to secure my amazing services…
Jessica Chastain: Oh my God…
McAvoy: … because his script was so touching and moving. It wasn’t just a romantic movie, but a mature romantic movie about not just how great love is, but how hard love is. It was a really grown-up approach to a romance—or the end of a romance. The film is, to me, more about two people trying to heal themselves than fall in love. I didn’t even meet Ned before shooting. He sent me the script two years before making the movie, and I didn’t do it then, and then he sent me it again.
How long was the shoot, and where in New York did you shoot?
Chastain: I’ve known Ned for over 10 years, so he’s my good friend. We did a read-through for a week before shooting and then met at a coffee shop and discussed the character’s motivations, and then shot the film for two months in the East Village, Alphabet City, and also filmed some scenes in the suburbs that stood in for Connecticut. The best thing about shooting in New York was “Radio Man.”
Were there any “New York Moments” while filming?
McAvoy: “Radio Man” was pretty cool. I had a bit of a New York moment while filming. We were talking about how my favorite actor is Sam Rockwell, and five minutes later in Alphabet City, Sam Rockwell walks by walking his dog. [Jessica] was like, “That’s Sam Rockwell! I know him!!” and then she yelled, “SAAAAM!”
Chastain: And then we went over to him and it’s funny because [James] is chatty, but he became so shy, just like, “Yeah, you’re my favorite actor alive…”
McAvoy: He was like [in perfect Rockwell voice], “Oh, that’s really great. We should do something together.”
Chastain: Aren’t you glad I called him over? [Laughs]
Was it a nice respite from some of the bigger films you’ve done to do a film that’s so intimate and character-driven?
Chastain: I feel like I do a lot of small films. I know I’m in Interstellar, so…
McAvoy: …so you’ve sold out. I’m so joking!
Chastain: Nooo! [Laughs] Nolan’s like an independent film director working for a studio. And I just did a film called Miss Julie directed by Liv Ullmann, which is an adaptation of a Strindberg play, so I’m pretty out there. This is almost more mainstream than my usual fare.
McAvoy: For me, I do the X-Men films, but I had real good time making Filth, a real good time doing this, and a real good time making Macbeth. It’s the weirdest thing, because they’re the most fucked up people I’ve ever played, and also the most damaged people, but I’ve had some of the most fun I’ve ever had on these jobs. It’s strange—this correlation that the more fucked up the character is, the nicer time I have. [Laughs]
Did you have any wild nights out in the city while filming The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby?
Chastain: No, but Jess [Weixler] told me you had some wild night out with dancing? No, wait, that was in Toronto. James is a phenomenal dancer.
McAvoy: Oh, no, it was Cannes! There was some crazy dancing in Cannes. We didn’t have a lot of time to party during this gig, however my character was meant to be quite fucked a lot of the time and quite hungover, and had black eyes because he gets beaten up quite a lot—which is what happens when small dudes get into fights—and there was a couple of nights where it was, “I’m meant to look and feel like shit tomorrow, so I’m stayin’ out!” We were partying in McSorley’s for a bit.
Do you know how to do the trick with the three beers? Since they have the smaller mugs, there’s a trick where you can hold all three in one hand and drink them, because each one pours into the other if you angle it just right.
McAvoy: Holy shit. I did not know that. So we went there, and then we went out a few other times. And at the wrap party, we had a fucking massive one at Conor’s bar, because it’s just something we built on a vacant lot in Alphabet City. I don’t think I slept until I got onto the plane at 12:30 p.m. the next day.
This film is, of course, about heartbreak. Do you remember the first time you ever had your heart broken?
Chastain: I remember being a teenager and having a boyfriend—this guy I thought I was way better than, and completely out of his league. He was a year younger than me. And he broke up with me. It was so shocking, and I couldn’t believe it. He said, “I want to date other people,” and wanted to date a friend of mine. I remember my Mom picking me up from the house where all my friends were at, and I was silent the whole car ride, and then she asked me what was wrong and I said, “Travis broke up with me!” and began sobbing. I cried all night long. It was the worst heartbreak because you’re 15 years old and you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you. You’re like Romeo and Juliet. And then, of course, four days later we were back together and he was making me a mixtape. There was a lot of Beatles on it.
McAvoy: Oh my darling! I met a girl on holiday in a caravan park—which you guys call a trailer park—and she was from Northern Ireland. I was 13 at the time, and I split up with the girl I was dating back home, and went out to Belfast to meet her and stay with her and her family for a week. I slept in her bed, and she slept upstairs in the attic. But she never went near me for the whole week I was there, and we never kissed once.
Chastain: Did you try, though?
McAvoy: It might have been my fault, it might have been hers, but we were both too scared to do it, and by the end of the week we just said goodbye. So, I was in her house for a week just slowly having my heart broken by the fact that neither of us were brave enough to say, “Hey, let’s have a kiss.” It was like something from fuckin’ Jane Austen!
At this point, McAvoy bows out of the conversation gracefully. He’s running late for The Late Show with David Letterman.
You and Jess Weixler go way back, right? To when you were roommates at Juilliard?
Chastain: I love her. She’s like my sister, and this is the first time we’ve shared the screen. At Juilliard, we did every play together—not by choice, it was just luck of the draw—and we were roommates. I met Ned 10 years ago when we were all living together—him, Jess, and I—out in L.A., and Ned had been writing this. It’s an interesting thing, this film, because it was written for me; my favorite actress, Isabelle Huppert, plays my mom; Viola Davis, who I love and starred with me in The Help, plays my friend; and Jess plays my sister, and she basically is my sister. Ned gave me the script for this when I was shooting Tree of Life back in 2007, but it was just Him—Conor’s story—and Ned asked me to play Eleanor. I said I’d love to, but I wanted to know more about her since it seemed to be all from the male perspective, like most Hollywood movies. So, Ned went and rewrote the script and added Her. That’s how the second movie came to be.
I’d been reading a bit about Juilliard in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing, including his epic friendship with classmate Christopher Reeve, and I read that you were able to attend thanks to a scholarship provided by the late Robin Williams.
Chastain: And they were roommates at school! Robin was very generous with Christopher Reeve’s medical bills, and if anything ever happened to Jess, of course I would take care of anything. Robin Williams was the kind of generous person who would do things but not want to receive public credit for it. His generosity was always behind the scenes, which is the purest, most beautiful form of being generous because it wasn’t about him—it was purely for the other person.
I’m so excited for Interstellar. It looks like Christopher Nolan’s 2001, so to speak. What can you tell me about your character?
Chastain: I think some people online have sort of figured it out, but I respect Chris so much that I don’t want to be the one to spoil it! But this was my first time in the blockbuster world, and working with Christopher Nolan was like working with an independent film director—he just happens to be working for a studio. There aren’t huge trailers and lobster on set; it’s like making a normal film, and he moves very fast. Sometimes you get three takes and that’s it, but he never seems stressed at all. I just talked to Matthew [McConaughey] about it, and I’m very excited.
There were all those rumors of you being cast in True Detective…
Chastain: …Am I still linked to it? I’m not going to be in it. I loved the first season, and I would love to play another incredibly strong, badass character. How good is Jodie Foster in Panic Room? So great.
Al Pacino discovered you, right? How did that happen?
Chastain: I was actually in Australia and I got a call from my agent saying, “We have a call for you to audition for the lead in Salome opposite Al Pacino.” I thought, “How did this happen?” because I wasn’t getting great auditions, and they said, “He requested you.” What I found out was Marthe Keller had seen me in a play off-Broadway and suggested me to him, because they were friends, and I went in and auditioned and it was one of the great moments of my life; it completely changed my career. I went in and Robert Fox, Al Pacino, and Estelle Parsons were there, and I read with Jeremy Strong. It’s like the moment in Mulholland Drive where she has the audition and everything clicked. As I was auditioning, I could hear out in the audience, “Oh, wow… what am I seeing?” I could hear [Pacino] loving whatever I was doing, which made me even more confident. He changed my life because I did the play with him, and then I did the film version with him—which comes out in London Sept. 21. Salome is the first film I ever shot, and it’s finally coming out. But I got to see a project through from the stage to the screen, with Al Pacino as my mentor. It doesn’t get much better than that.