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THE TREE OF LIFE

The O'Briens
The cast of THE TREE OF LIFE is as diverse as its sweeping themes – Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt and Oscar® winner Sean Penn lead a tight-knit group that includes newcomer Jessica Chastain and three hand-picked young boys from Texas who had no prior film experience.

"In some ways it was remarkably easy to put together this amazing cast because everyone who read the script reacted so strongly to the beauty and the poetry and the power of the ideas,” says Sarah Green. "It was a very organic process of pulling together some of the most talented people I've ever come across into this project.”

Brad Pitt came on board early after he and his Plan B partner Dede Gardner became involved as producers. He took on the role of Mr. O'Brien, a man who clearly loves his family deeply, yet is also a rigid authoritarian with huge expectations, a deep well of anger, and a belief that the world demands a toughness and steel-cored strength that must be imprinted onto his children.

"It would be very easy for Mr. O'Brien to just seem harsh for harshness sake, but instead, through Brad's performance, you believe that he really loves his family, and you feel his struggles and his blindness,” observes Gardner. "Brad's portrait is really precise, subtle and human.”

"The journey of Mr. O'Brien is stunning,” continues Hill. "His story is told in a very fragmented, Terry Malick style, that ultimately allows us to feel very, very strongly about the character. He is opened up over the course of the film, so that you start to see the ghosts that have haunted his life and continue to haunt him. It's a performance from Brad that is very different from his other work.”

Pitt had never worked with Malick before and had to get accustomed to the director's unusually unstructured process. "Brad was so willing to just jump in and go with it,” recalls Pohlad. "He really believed in Terry and was ready for any challenge.”

Sean Penn previously worked with Malick on THE THIN RED LINE, playing the hardened Sergeant Welsh, but here takes on a very different role. He plays the O'Brien's son Jack as an adult, a successful architect who nevertheless feels lost in the corporate world of metal skyscrapers around him, and begins to recall his memories, knowledge and emotions, searching for connections that have gone missing.

Says Hill, "Sean allows us through his performance, which has all to do with body language and very few words, an understanding of all that his character is feeling. Every sinew of Sean's body created that performance. He provides a wonderful insight into the comparison of contemporary life with life in the 1950s which is pivotal for the film. And then he leads us into the final section of the film, taking us on this incredible, emotional trip.”

"We only had Sean for a brief time, but he leads the entire journey,” notes Green. "He is our guide through the entire experience.”

The beating heart of Jack O'Brien's youthful memories is his mother, a luminous beacon of compassion, tolerance and unbounded love, and later of intense heartbreak. To play Mrs. O'Brien, Malick sought out an actress who most audiences would be seeing fresh, for the first time. "The mother needed to be someone who just exudes love, who is the embodiment of grace, and so ideally, she would be someone who didn't bring a lot of public history,” explains Green. "We were hoping to find someone new, which isn't easy because people become exposed so quickly in this day and age. But Jessica Chastain had been quietly working in New York, studying her craft, and when we saw her it was a real ‘aha' moment.”

Chastain, who earned a scholarship to Julliard after a series of Shakespearean performances in San Francisco, has done most of her work on the New York stage, making her feature film debut in 2008 in the indie feature JOLENE. She also appeared with Al Pacino in SALOME, and it was Pacino who first recommended her to Malick.

The entire filmmaking team remembers her audition. "I think we all had the instant conviction that Jessica was right for the role,” says Gardner. "She plays a woman who is the essence of goodness and patience, and Jessica is that. She's very unusual in her comportment. She's other-worldly in her beauty, almost translucent, and she brings a feeling of grace and kindness that dovetails so beautifully with the mother of this family.”

"Jessica did a beautiful job of creating this almost silent, but solid, strong force that holds the family together,” adds Hill.

Right before her audition, Chastain held her own private Malick Film Festival. "I watched all his films in chronological order and when I was finished I felt like, ‘I love this person,'” she says. "There's this connection in his work between nature and spirit that moves me and I love how he explores the ways we navigate between the two – and the question of are we animals or are we evolved, spiritual beings? And I found that this also how Terry is as a person. He's such a smart, scientific man, on the one hand, but then he is also is a great believer in the spirit.”

It was only after she got the role that Chastain saw the script and, at first, she was in awe of her character. "She's the kind of woman that you aspire to be, all goodness and trust and forgiveness,” she explains. "It's difficult to think of playing a character who is that spiritual and pure. But then I realized the way into her was through her love for her children. That was the key. "

She continues, "Mrs. O'Brien is someone who her whole life has said if I put others before me and am kind to all than everything will be OK. And then when it's not, that shakes her faith and raises questions. Why are we here? Is there something beyond? Are you even real? I think it is at that moment that the universe answers her – and I think for each person watching, the answer will mean a different thing.”

As part of her preparation, Chastain also dove into period research. "I watched movies from the 30s and 40s, especially a lot of Lauren Bacall, which Terry asked me to, because he said there was a different way of talking then. He said to me, and I find this true, that nowadays we speak so fast because we're afraid someone is going to cut us off. But in films from the 30s, there was this directness and slowness to the way they spoke, which is actually the way Terry speaks in real life.”

There is also a stark contrast between Mrs. O'Brien's manner of speech, and being, and that of Brad Pitt as her husband. "Brad represents Nature and she, Grace, so he is really energetic and aggressive with the way he speaks while she is never reactive and her lessons come more through actions than words, through how she treats others. It was wonderful for me to work with Brad that way,” she says. "He was so brave and generous and he really went for the most difficult, scary scenes.”

Chastain worked equally closely with the three boys, all of them non-actors, who portray her young sons. She spent hours on the set with them playing tag, laughing and reading books, sparking a maternal connection that felt true, almost devastatingly so. "I think with Terry, acting becomes like magic, there is really a total suspension of disbelief. At the end of the production, my heart broke as I realized these were not really my boys,” she confesses.

Chastain says she was acutely aware that something powerful was in motion. "The film was so personal to all of us,” she says. "Everyone has asked these questions that the film asks and that makes it more than just a beautiful film. It's an experience that makes you think about your life a

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