Voice against sexual abuse

Actress Jessica Chastain wants to end the code of silence surrounding sexual misconduct in Hollywood

Watching her single mother struggle to feed her family sowed the seeds of feminism in Jessica Chastain's (left) childhood.
Watching her single mother struggle to feed her family sowed the seeds of feminism in Jessica Chastain's (above) childhood.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • Jessica Chastain, whose character runs an underground poker empire in new movie Molly's Game, is not afraid to put her cards on the table when it comes to sexual harassment.

She declares that she wants to end, for good, the code of silence surrounding sexual misconduct in Hollywood and offer a sounding board for its victims, after an avalanche of accusations felled some of Tinseltown's most powerful figures.

"I'm not comfortable with silence," said the 40-year-old actress, who stars as a ski champion-turnedpoker queen in Molly's Game, Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut and an Academy Award favourite.

"I believe that if you are in an industry that is unhealthy, then you are part of the problem and your inaction is complicity," she added.

The red-headed Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee for thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012), who is herself a producer, spoke of her outrage at the deluge of allegations targeting Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, now accused by close to 100 women of misconduct from sexual harassment to rape.

The Weinstein affair and its fallout are being seen as a watershed in the entertainment industry in the United States and beyond as powerful men - most prominently the two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey - are called out as abusers, and Chastain has been vocal on social media about the snowballing allegations.

"It's important for me to use any platform I have to amplify the voices of those who have risked everything to save others," she said.

"It feels personal because I am a woman. I have many friends who have been misused or mistreated."

Accusers have included some of the most celebrated stars in cinema today, including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lea Seydoux.

One of Chastain's own tweets caused a stir after she linked it to an article about sexual misconduct allegations against Bryan Singer, the producer of her next movie, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, which is due next year.

He has been targeted by several lawsuits alleging that he forced teenage boys into sex.

The cases have since been dismissed or dropped and a legal representative for Singer said raising past accusations without proof is "reckless and outrageous".

Chastain, who has long alternated between independent films such as A Most Violent Year (2014) and major productions such as The Martian (2015), said Singer was not on the set of X-Men and that she had learnt only recently that he was a producer of the movie.

"I do think people should look at who they are working with," said the actress, whose big break came with Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning 2011 movie The Tree Of Life. She played the wife of a bullying husband.

The Californian recounts how the seeds of her feminism were sowed in childhood.

"I grew up with a single mum and I saw her struggle to keep food on our table and I saw the injustice of what was happening around her," she said.

Early on, she was aware of the discrimination faced by women, including at New York's prominent performing arts school, Juilliard.

"Very early on, I realised there was in each class about two-thirds men and one-third women and I asked a professor: 'Why isn't it 50/50?'

"And he said, well, there are more parts for men than women," Chastain said.

"But how are you going to change the place unless you change that thinking?"

For her, it is not the film industry that is to blame, but a patriarchal system at large, whether on Wall Street, in the media or in Hollywood.

She advocates an effort to promote more diversity in powerful positions.

Actor Idris Elba, who plays Chastain's lawyer in Molly's Game, acknowledged that the phenomenon of the "casting couch" has "been known for a very long time", but he is hopeful for the future.

"As dark and horrible as some of the things we've discovered some actors have gone through, the light at the end of the tunnel is that we're going to have a cleaner industry, more transparent," said the 45-yearold British star.

"I'm thankful that people now have the liberty to speak up about that. It's no secret that Hollywood has been practically built almost on this horrible system.

"We can all breathe a little and I think the industry will benefit from that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Voice against sexual abuse'. Subscribe