The Debt - Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington
Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

Could Jessica Chastain be the new Meryl Streep? According to the rave reviews she receives in every role she plays, she just might be. This year alone she has had parts in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Tate Taylor’s The Help and now the espionage thriller The Debt in which she portrays Mossad agent Rachel Singer in 1966 – Helen Mirren, Jessica’s idol, play her in 1997.

Based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov, the story begins in 1997, when three former Mossad secret agents, Rachel (Mirren), Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) receive shocking news about a mission they embarked on in 1966 when the trio (played respectively by Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) tracked down a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).

I spoke with Jessica at the press junket for the movie about her anxiety and then ultimate joy of working with Helen Mirren.

What was your first reaction when you found out you’d be playing the same character as Helen Mirren in this movie?

The Debt - Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas
Secret agents disembark: Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) © 2011 Focus Features

At first when I found out I was playing the same woman as her, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, how am I going to do this?’ because she’s one of a kind. She’s a force to be reckoned with; everyone is going to be like, ‘Jessica doesn’t do justice to Helen Mirren.’

There was just so much anxiety about how to connect to this woman, and I found a great interview on YouTube of Helen when she was my age. You actually see her in her youth, and she doesn’t have the confidence [that she has now], her voice was a little higher.

I said, ‘Okay, it makes sense then that I don’t need to do an impersonation of Helen Mirren, as I’m going to be playing Rachel at 25.’ That interview really opened the doors for me that, okay, I know where Rachel ends up, but Rachel when she’s in her youth is more unsure of herself, as I am, as I think we all are in our youth.

What did you learn from Helen working with her so closely on this role?

The Debt - Helen Mirren
Retired secret agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) © 2011 Focus Features

She was really generous with me. We met in London first with all the heads of the hair and make up and costume departments, to get a sense of what [Rachel] was like. Then we met at her place here in Los Angeles and we started talking about a back story for Rachel, and perhaps what her gestures would be, that we could have similar ways of moving.

I was really impressed by her attention to detail, but of course she comes from the theatre. I also read her book and I watched all of her YouTube interviews. She is one of my idols.

I can only hope to have the kind of career that Helen has forged for herself. She gave me the confidence to continue with my research and all that stuff that I was trained in when doing theatre. Sometimes you come and do a movie and you meet a big star and they don’t really do that, and you go, ‘Oh darn,’ But Helen does all of that, she’s really involved.

What are some of the things you discussed together?

The Debt - Jessica Chastain
Secret agent Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) © 2011 Focus Features

It was very important to know what happened to our family, why we joined the Mossad, how our parents were killed. We talked about that together. We talked about how Rachel might hold herself if she’s comforting herself, it was like she was hugging herself, closing herself off. We decided on certain gestures that we might do that she could pepper throughout.

You had one dramatic scene after another in this, was it draining?

Actually, filming the movie was easier for me than the research before. Months before I was taking krav maga, I was taking a beginners course in German, I had accent coaches, and then on top of that I was reading about medical experiments in the holocaust, which I really didn’t know much about.

It was right around Christmas time, we started filming this in February, and my family was like, ‘What is going on with you?’ I was just so depressed watching all these documentaries.

But once I got to the set, I could throw all that away, it was still in me, and I could just play what the scenes were. And I was exhausted through the filming, but thank goodness I had such good relationships with Sam and Marton, and Jesper, we laughed so much.

Every time Jesper was incredibly funny or kind or sweet, I’d be like, ‘Don’t be like that, you’re making my job so hard!’

Can you talk about working with Sam, because you guys went on and did another movie together, Texas Killing Fields?

The Debt - Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain
David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) © 2011 Focus Features

I loved working with Sam. We had dinner, all of us together about a month before we started shooting, and you always get nervous as an actor. You go, ‘Okay, I’m doing a movie, it’s a love triangle and I’m going to go and meet these two guys,’ and you don’t know if it’s going to work.

We were at John Madden’s house and he was really sly the way he sat us at the table. He sat me between Sam and Marton. And we really got along incredibly well. I knew immediately it was golden. I really liked these guys.

Sam helped me so much with the action stuff in the film. I’d taken months of krav maga training before I got there, but running and jumping into vans, or how to hold a gun which is good for the camera, all that stuff I didn’t know. He actually nicknamed me Tommy Cruise on set, because he said that I had a run that rivaled Tom Cruise’s run.

We joked that we have a three picture deal, so when Texas Killing Fields came into play, we were like, ‘Done.’ And now I’ll have to try to stretch it to a five picture deal, three isn’t enough. Hopefully we’ll both have long careers!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.