ZERO DARK THIRTY
At the core of ZERO DARK THIRTY's production lay a demanding casting process that would weave together more than 120 speaking roles from auditions of over 1000 actors from around the world.
Each and every character -- from the main cast of CIA operatives and Navy SEALs to the smaller roles, including detainees seen only in video clips (that Bigelow shot individually as mini-movies) -- was carefully hand-picked to create a web of personalities to define the story. Bigelow wanted experienced actors who weren't defined by a public persona, so that audiences could see them as their characters.
"It was an enormous and very involved casting job," says Bigelow, "but I felt the choices could only be determined by instinct. For each role, I was looking for certain cadences, certain rhythms, a certain feeling of absolute veracity. You know it when you see it."
Bigelow even sought to cast the background voices with the precise accents one would hear in the border regions of Pakistan.
The keystone of the casting was Maya, the CIA targeter who devotes her very existence to finding bin Laden, and traces him to a Pakistan suburb. She is a woman who to some degree falls into the classic category of obsessive cinematic sleuths -- those who cannot rest until their man is caught -- but with a distinctively contemporary take on motivation, for the film offers no clear explanation for her evolving personality, leaving viewers to reach their own conclusions about what makes Maya tick and what makes her change. While there is no doubt that she is extremely focused, intelligent, and resolute, she remains essentially mysterious.
"I'm not a huge fan of Freudian backstory and exposition," says Boal. "I like characters who are defined solely by what they do, in the existential present tense. At the same time, there was the practical consideration. I had to limit biographical detail for the sake of protecting identity."
Nevertheless, Maya is clearly a woman with aspirational qualities, and to play the role, the filmmakers chose one of today's most versatile and magnetic actresses, Jessica Chastain.
"We needed a tremendously talented actress with the verbal agility to handle the complexity of the dialogue, as well as the fearless approach that the role demanded," Bigelow says. "Jessica possesses a real gravitas and intensity. She can channel depth and nuance into even the subtlest of moments."
Chastain remembers being drawn to the role. "By page 20 of the script, I knew I had to play Maya," she recalls. "I immediately understood why she was so completely consumed and obsessed by this search. I thought it was one of the best parts I'd ever read; I just loved her strength and tenacity.
"The character made me laugh with how focused she can be on getting what she wants. The detail of the screenplay was amazing. Everyone in my generation remembers where they were when they heard bin Laden was dead -- but none of us knows what it was like to be in the CIA hunting him. This story brings heroes like Maya, people who made a difference, into the light."
She was also compelled by Maya's metamorphosis from a shell-shocked new recruit to a steely navigator of the fog-shrouded world of counter-terrorism.
"I was really moved and excited by Maya's arc," Chastain continues. "In essence, you see her grow up through the film, as finding bin Laden becomes a more and more personal mission to her. You see her start to lose her old self and become someone new. The very end of the movie is so interesting to me because it's almost like she doesn't quite know who she is anymore. And to tell that kind of emotionally complex and very real story about a character is why I do this."
Working in India and Jordan also gave her further insight into what women like Maya go through trying to slip unnoticed into a foreign culture. "You really feel that you are on the other side of the world and cut off from all the things you are used to," Chastain notes. "I imagine it felt similar for Maya when she first arrived. All your relationships become very intense -- very close, very fast, and that was something you only understand by experiencing it. I don't see how we could have made this film in this way anywhere else."
When Maya arrives in Pakistan, she is taken under the wing of Dan, a CIA operative who initiates her right away into the wrenching work of handling hostile terrorists.
Taking the pivotal role is the Australian actor Jason Clarke. He won Bigelow over during an audition a few years back. "His presence really stayed with me," she says. "He's a force of nature, with a combination of strength, resolve and worldliness that was pitch-perfect for this role."
Clarke has travelled in Afghanistan, and was backpacking there on 9/11, in a remote village. Bigelow continues: "He's someone who has a knowledge of history and is always an engaged student of the world no matter where he goes."
"All my traveling worked particularly well in creating Dan," Clarke concurs. "He's a guy who has to be able to blend in and deal with the unknown, to be watchful, sensitive and aware. I've been to some strange and even scary places and I know you have to learn to be smart, you have to be decisive and most of all, you have to be patient -- all qualities that Dan has cultivated."
Those qualities all come into play in CIA interrogations, but they also get mixed in with adrenaline and primal instincts as frustrations grow. Clarke notes that extracting information from the uncooperative is a complex field with many gray areas for those engaged in it. "Ironically, interrogations are about forming relationships," he explains. "I think the film gives people a raw experience that is visceral, emotional and intelligent, so they can make their own conclusions."
One of the most harrowing roles in ZERO DARK THIRTY is that of the man whom Dan interrogates in a series of sessions encompassing physical and mental torture. Playing the uncooperative black site detainee Ammar is the French Algerian actor Reda Kateb, who won acclaim for his performance in Jacques Audiard's daring prison drama, A PROPHET.
Regarding these sequences, Boal says, "We don't get to choose the times we live in. The war on terror put individuals in a situation where the normal rules, the usual moral compass, was not so clear."
Kateb admits that he had his reservations. "When I read the part I was a bit scared, because of the intensity and brutal honesty of the environment and situationâ€¦ these are things I'm not used to doing. But then I read it again, and it was so well written and I felt it was not really the cliche of the Arab world you see on TV. I felt the screenplay took in all the human sides of the story, and my point of view is that the angle of the artist must always do that."
Once on the set, Kateb says it was important to conserve his physical and emotional energy and apply it judiciously. "You have to be very careful not to be too taken by the energy of the moment, because you need to be ready for the next take," he explains. "So you give a lot, but you also try to preserve yourself to be ready for the next moments over several days."
Working with Jason Clarke as his interrogator also required deep trust. "It is strange to meet someone and right from that moment go into these harrowing encounters together," Kateb admits, "but we were clear on the fact that these were roles we were playing when the camera was rolling. With that clear, we were able to go very, very far, and actually developed a great connection."
Unsettling as those scenes got, Clarke would often reassure Kateb when the cameras stopped that he was still the same Jason. "I just wanted to let him know as Jason that anything he needed, just ask," he says. "Which was, of course, a mirror of what was going in the scene."
Playing the character of Joseph Bradley, Maya's CIA Station Chief in Islamabad, is Kyle Chandler. "Kyle has an all-American charm," says Bigelow. "I understand that there are men like him in the CIA -- case officers who cultivate that side of themselves, to be smooth. You feel in him the desire to do the right thing, but there's a bit of a rascal, too," she observes.
Boal adds, "A former station chief once said to me, 'good people don't become case officers,' and I kept thinking about that - about a job where deception is a prerequisite for career advancement -- when I was writing Kyle's part."
"He is someone whose job places the most incredible demands upon a person," Chandler comments. "He is someone who has to be able to make decisions that might be life-altering for other people, whether immediately or down the line. It's remarkable to me that ordinary people do these extraordinary jobs."
At Langley, Maya's ultimate boss is George, head of Afghanistan and Pakistan Divisions of the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA. Taking the role is Mark Strong. Although Strong's dialogue was scripted, many of the phrases came from reporting. "The long speech where he says 'do your jobs, bring me people to kill'. That was actually said in real life."
As the clues come and go and the lead never quite crystallizes, Maya adds a new recruit to her fanatical quest in the form of Larry, a CIA ground branch operative and surveillance specialist. He is played by Edgar Ramirez, who was recently seen playing the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal in CARLOS.
"I found it really interesting to try to get under the skin of a guy whose very job is to blend in and go unnoticed," he explains. "Larry is someone used to erasing his identity."
The film's bona fide locations, and guerilla shooting style, added to the intensity for Ramirez. Bigelow sent him into sprawling markets in India with only loose blocking instructions and hidden cameras following his every move.
"It gave a very special texture to things," he says. "You had the feeling you were breathing in the same air that the people who really hunted for bin Laden did. That's what I like so much about this film. It's about the authentic experiences and emotions of the people who really were there, and how they live with their jobs."
Contrasting with Maya is another female CIA operative in Pakistan: the more experienced and tradition-minded Jessica, a character inspired by a real life CIA officer.
As played by Jennifer Ehle, Jessica represents a generation of CIA analysts that came to the fore before 9/11. "She's more Old School in the way she looks for leads," Ehle notes. "When she was just starting out as an operative, the CIA's techniques were Cold War-based and that's how she learned."
This makes both for competitive tension and a connection that will come to haunt Maya. "Jessica and Maya are both Alpha Women among the operatives in Pakistan, says Ehle. "So of course there is some natural friction between them, but eventually they become close."
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