The Crimson Peak collaborators discuss what Nightmare Alley and The Eyes of Tammy Faye have in common: “You don’t fool people, they fool themselves.”
In Reunited, Awards Insider hosts a conversation between two Oscar contenders who have collaborated on a previous project. Here, we speak with Nightmare Alley director Guillermo del Toro and Eyes of Tammy Faye star Jessica Chastain, who previously worked together on the 2015 film Crimson Peak.
Guillermo del Toro has something going on with women with keys.
When the Oscar-winning Mexican director and Jessica Chastain reunite in Los Angeles to talk about their work together—on both Mama and Crimson Peak—along with their current projects—Nightmare Alley and The Eyes of Tammy Faye—Chastain points out that at least two of del Toro’s films have featured a woman with keys.
First, it was in 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, in which Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is the keeper of the keys of the orphanage. And then in Crimson Peak, it’s Chastain’s character, Lucille, who always has a dangling set of house keys at her side. Del Toro himself realizes that Nightmare Alley also has a woman with keys, this time played by Cate Blanchett. “Freud would have something to say about that,” he jokes about this recurring theme.
“What is it about a woman with a ring of keys who could lock you into scary rooms that is so scary?” asks Chastain.
The pair have an easy rapport after having worked so closely on two films. After meeting to talk about Mama, the 2013 horror film that del Toro produced for director Andy Muschietti, the pair was brought back together for 2015’s Crimson Peak, in which Chastain got to really dig in as the baddie Lucille.
Chastain plays a very different character in her latest film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, for which she’s already earned a SAG Award nomination. But the televangelist whose husband swindled people out of millions of dollars does have something in common with the characters in del Toro’s noir drama: They’re all looking to get ahead by taking advantage of the faith of others. Vanity Fair explored this thematic connection with the pair, along with reminiscing about their early work.
Vanity Fair: What do you remember about the first time you met?
Jessica Chastain: I was on crutches.
Guillermo del Toro: On crutches, and you were wearing a super baggy T-shirt, and we met—
Chastain: —at Shutters.
Del Toro: Shutters at the Beach, to have breakfast and talk about Mama.
Chastain: Yes, that’s right. And he’s talking to me about doing a horror film, and I stumble in on crutches. You’re like, “What happened?”
Del Toro: But you had notes, even on crutches. “How is this going to be done?” And what was great is we were talking about horror as a possible genre for great stories or great emotion.
Chastain: I love this genre. Mama was my first horror film, actually. And I’ve said it in multiple interviews, that I love the genre, because it really is, for me, at the time, especially 10 years ago, it was one of the few genres that showed women as I believe we are, as really strong and heroic. And it was rare to find those kinds of superheroes in other genres.
Del Toro: Yes. And it’s so emotional. If you tap it with a story that has sort of a mythical dimension, which Mama did—that ending, I still don’t know how we got away with that.
Chastain: That was actually one of my notes: “Do you promise it’s going to end like this?” Because that’s what made the film so cool.
And then you reunited for Crimson Peak. What do you remember about where you were in your careers and why you wanted to work together on that?
Chastain: Well, I remember, I think it was an email, right? Basically, Guillermo said, “Hey, I have a project.” And I just said, “Yes. I definitely am interested.” I knew I wanted to work with you. I just wanted to be in one of your films. But I wrote back and I was like, “Can I play the not nice one, please?”
Del Toro: Yes. I said, “I was hoping you would say that.” Because to be completely, disarmingly honest, the reason I made Crimson Peak was Lucille. I love all the characters and all this, but to me, there’s a lead character, and there’s the character that is not leading the narrative, but it’s a character that the movie is sort of a plan about. And Lucille, for me, was that character.
Chastain: I love that character.
Del Toro: And I think it’s a character that we agreed beautifully, that her flaws were her virtues. Now we said, “Let’s play the flaws as musically as a symphony of amazing colors.”
Chastain: But what I love too, that you gave, was the whole character biography and background, and all the things about seeing Lucille as almost like an insect, this idea that her skeleton was on the outside of her body. And you see that even with the costumes, where there’s this shield. Or, like an insane asylum, where it’s the straitjacket. You’re tied in. And then, once it’s loose, she’s free in her chaos. And that was super exciting to play.
Del Toro: Look, the movie, to me, and unfortunately, it was launched as a horror movie. And it stumbled on that.
Chastain: I know. It breaks my heart.
Del Toro: But it has found a massive audience.
Chastain: Oh, a huge following. People talk to me about Crimson Peak all the time, and they’re obsessed with Lucille. There’s all this cosplay. I’m constantly seeing pictures of people, they spend hours making the costumes, and then you see Lucille. I’m like, “Oh.” It’s one of the few characters I’ve ever played that has that. It’s actually the only one, I think.
Del Toro: I love how she turns on a dime. There’s so many images on Crimson that I think is amongst the best stuff I’ve ever seen. I remember when we designed that wardrobe to open like the wings of a moth. She was taking a whole staircase, running with giant shoes, and a stumble-and-break-your-neck, flowing gown. And I’m coming on a little dolly. I go, “Action.” And you come flying down. I go, “Oh my God.” Like a Formula 1 race. And then you take the staircase, and that thing opens like the wings of a butterfly. I go, “Magic.”
Chastain: This shot makes me sound very graceful, but I had an ungraceful moment. Do you remember? I fell, but I had been running so fast, I kept sliding, and all of a sudden I stopped, and then I just see you running towards me.
Del Toro: Yes, yes. And I run very few times. [Laughs]
Let’s turn to your current films. They are very different, but I would say they both explore people who make ethically questionable choices in order to get to a better life.
Del Toro: Jessica, when you approach Tammy Faye, and she’s very paradoxical, she has so many sides that are sometimes in entire contradiction to each other, but at the same time, what she does, or what she’s complicit in, is very hard to relate from the outside. How do you reconcile those things?
Chastain: Well, I actually just found her being guilty of marrying the wrong person. Because she was never really even charged or convicted with any crimes. Her big crime is, I guess, televangelism. That’s the question, which still, there’s so much money in religion right now. It is business, and televangelism in some sense, every Sunday, they pass the plate around. But when it’s on TV, and there’s millions of followers, that plate is pretty big.
Del Toro: It is very big.
Chastain: Mostly for her, I thought of the girl that was locked out of the church as a kid, and that she connected faith with love. And that was the only way she really ever felt love, is if she felt like people were looking at her, if God had accepted her.
Del Toro: Yes. But what I like about that is, when you say, “What is faith and what does it do?” At the end of the day, Nightmare Alley says one thing. You don’t fool people, they fool themselves. But faith that suits you mostly goes unquestioned, and that’s the principle of Nightmare Alley. When you listen to a truth that is far away from reality, but it suits you on what you do or who you are, that’s not reality. That is almost like a palliative. That makes the ailment go quiet, but doesn’t cure you. It doesn’t connect you to the world. But it allows you to exist, like when you have misery.
I was raised Catholic, and it’s like a layaway plan for the future, or a Ponzi scheme. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it tells you pay now, and your suffering here, you give it to God, and it comes back as grace to you. In mentalism and spiritualism, there’s a thing called shut-eye, where you believe your own lies. And all of a sudden, you really believe you’re doing well, or you’re doing good. And that, I think the two characters, the central character on Nightmare Alley and Tammy Faye, would have in common. At some point, the lie becomes the truth. And I think that makes it really pertinent for our times.
What is life for you when a film you’ve been making, sometimes for years, is finally let out into the world? What do you do the day a film of yours is premiering? Do you read reviews?
Del Toro: No. No. I’m now 57, and—look, there’s a saying, if you believe the good ones, you’ve got to believe the bad ones. So what I do is I spend the day in abject horror.
Chastain: I know. Me too. It’s terrible.
Del Toro: And then I get to the premiere. I introduce, I leave, I come back. And at the end, I’m almost in an exorcising moment, where I’m listening to everything, and I’m rocking back and forth. “No, no, no, no, no, no.” And then whatever happens, happens. The movie is now going to walk onto the land and set its path. And I try not to read anything. I don’t go into Twitter. I don’t go into my mail. If I see anything about the movie—
Chastain: And then when will you?
Del Toro: Probably in about four, five weeks. At the end of day, it’s been very personal. I cannot imagine … Tammy Faye, you have to fuse with her.
Chastain: I went out and got [Faye’s liferights] myself in 2012, and I researched her for seven years before we made it on set. For me, it became incredibly personal, because I knew her kids. I felt so much pressure in wearing the producer hat and the actor hat. I noticed, as a producer, I’m like, “Let’s get this movie made.” And then as the actor, I was trying to sabotage it.
Del Toro: You were afraid?
Chastain: Terrified. And I was calling [President of Searchlight Pictures David] Greenbaum saying, “I’m not ready.” He’s like, “You’ve had seven years.” I was like, “I need more time.” He’s like, “I’ll give you three days.” He was kicking me out of the nest. I’ve never been this scared to do anything. I’m used to playing characters who are in charge of everything, the smartest person in the room, type A, and she’s the opposite. And she’s silly and goofy, and all these things. And I just thought, “Well, here we go. This is going to be the thing that follows me around for my whole life, and they make fun of me for.” That’s what I thought. I was shaking on the first day.
Jessica, you already produce but I’m wondering if you want to direct in the near future?
Chastain: I can’t sit next to you and say that. That, to me, feels the most ridiculous.
Del Toro: Why not? You should. What if I tell you that I want to act?
Chastain: Then I would cast you as the lead of the film, and I would direct it.
Del Toro: The two loneliest jobs in a movie set [are] director and actor. And if you’ve been on both sides, you learn more about both sides, and either, trying next time, is more complete.
Chastain: Yeah. You’re completely exposed.
Del Toro: My kids, when they were very little, they said, “Dad, what do you do for a living?” They’d say, “Everybody works, and you just say, ‘Action.’”