Madden, Worthington and Chastain on The Debt


In the new film The Debt, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain play Mossad agents assigned with the dangerous task of apprehending a Nazi war criminal who 30 years later are forced to deal with the repercussions of the success of their mission. John Madden directed the film from a script by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, which was adapted from the 2007 Israeli thriller Ha-Hov. sat down with Worthington, Chastain and Madden at the Los Angeles press day for The Debt where the threesome discussed the challenges of diving into such weighty material.

Q: You cast Sam Worthington in this before he was a recognizable name, correct?
John Madden: It’s true – he wasn’t a big deal in those days at all. I’d just seen him in a movie, and he came into my head when I read the script. It wasn’t like I’d read the script and thought right now who. I had seen this movie, and when I read the script, I thought, “I know who’s perfect for this.” He had a particular quality that I thought was perfect.

Q: What quality was that?
Madden: He’s a very, very masculine… almost heroic presence he has and obviously he’s been cast for it many times since “Avatar.” He’s got a hidden vulnerable side. He played a very confused character in that film, “Somersault.” It was very effective and affecting. I thought, “That’s unusual to get those two things in one person.” Obviously there’s a prerequisite that those two guys had to be physically very powerful and so forth. He seemed a really interesting idea. I went to meet him and pitch him the project, and I couldn’t meet him in LA because he was in Albuquerque. I thought, “I’ll go to Albuquerque, and if I don’t think it’s right, I’ll do a really lousy job of pitching the movie.” I thought he seemed great, and so I told the movie from his character’s point of view, trying to preserve the surprises. He said, “Right, I’m in.” We didn’t have a script at that point, because we were working on it and retooling it.

Q: If we understand correctly, you saw the original “Ha-Hov” once and then sort of threw it away in order to make sure your version was different.
Madden: I didn’t throw it away. I was respectful of it. I really enjoyed it; I thought it was terrific. I didn’t want to pore over it, you can imagine. But since it was the raw material, there was no way I was not going to watch it.

Q: How important was it to not just use old age makeup and have the same young actors play the same characters 30 years later?
Madden: There is one character who does straddle both, but the subject matter of the film is about negotiating the distance from your youngest self and the set of choices that you made when you were younger that in this case profoundly affect the three people later. One of the thing that’s appealing about the film to me structurally and conceptually is that it juxtaposes the same people across a thirty year gap. It seemed more interesting to me to double cast that and involve the audience in the convention so that they make the investment in that convention and accept it rather than bulking the audience down on how good the makeup is – the ‘Benjamin Button’ approach didn’t seem to me to be useful to the film. There were certain studio perspective before I became involved, and they said, “Couldn’t you narrow the gap?” Make it a five-year gap or a 10-year gap so the same actor could play it, but that doesn’t seem interesting to me, because this is a 30 year gap. This is people whose lives have been completely determined by those events. That seemed to me to be an interesting and not-that-common format – if that’s an answer to your question. Also, you get to work with six really good actors as opposed to three.

Q: What happened to you and the film when Miramax went out of business, throwing the film’s release into limbo?
Madden: It had a particular evolution. We finished the film and I delivered it. Literally as I delivered it, I got news that Miramax was being shrunk to a personnel of 25 people from 120, which was a little startling. Two weeks later, we got the news that Miramax has been closed down completely as a studio. Your immediate thought was, “Okay, I just finished a movie for this studio; what’s going to happen?” Rich Ross, who would be taking over as Disney made the decision to shut down the studio, approached us and said, “Look, we really like the movie; I really like the movie. We’re going to release it; we’re going to take care of it. Don’t worry about that.’ They dated the movie fairly quickly, which was, as I remember, December 31 of 2010. As you probably know, we played Toronto last year. I then was, by this point, making another movie. I was in India, and I suddenly got word that we no longer had a studio; we’d been sold with A Guillermo del Toro production. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” Those two films, which the studio had yet to release, were sold with the label on the back catalogue–including most of my movies, actually–to Miramax’s new owners. I can’t, to be honest with you, explain quite how that happened, except when you look at those two films, they’re obviously about as far away from the Disney brand as it’s possible to get, and I think Rich Ross was very concerned, as I understand it, to consolidate the Disney brand, as a family-oriented thing, and obviously we didn’t fit into that, I guess.

Q: What happened when you received word that it was no longer scheduled for release?
Madden: “Oh, f*ck,” is the answer to your question. At first I thought, “That will be fine, because Miramax will release it,” but Miramax at that point was already a holding company, or rather, Filmyard bought Miramax. Then, to our great good fortune, Focus and Universal both came in and bought the movie – Focus releasing it here, and Universal everywhere else. We were reborn, as it were. Sometime later than I expected to see the film go out, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t think it’s any the worse for that, except Jessica, who was an unknown when I cast her, has now become much more widely known.

Q: This was the first, but now it’s not the only time you’ve worked with Sam Worthington.
Jessica Chastain: Well, I was really really fortunate because “The Debt” was the first time I met Sam, and a few months before we started shooting, we all came out to London, we all had dinner together – Sam, Marton, John Madden, Chris, and I. And we knew kind of from the very beginning, the three of us guys, this is going to work. We really liked each other, we were laughing a lot. I felt like the chemistry was absolutely there. And that continued on through the shooting. I’d never done an action film. I mean, most of you guys know this – I went to Juilliard, I was trained in Shakespeare and the classics, and so the idea of me running and jumping into a moving van and shooting guns was so foreign to me. And Sam was wonderful because it wasn’t foreign to him, and he really was my coach during this film – my like action coach, where he would show me the best ways to hold a gun or… Even with the running scenes, he was teasing me. He nicknamed me Tommy Cruise because he says that my action run was as good as Tom Cruise’s. So we had real good fun. After working with him on that, we joked that we had a three-picture deal. So when “Texas Killing Fields” came up, I thought, well it’s another opportunity to work with him. And now I’m just looking for the third picture. Maybe we’ll expand it to a five-picture deal.

Q: You tend to be unrecognizable in each of your roles. How important is the transformational aspect for you in terms of getting further away from either previous roles or yourself?
Chastain: To me it’s everything, because I don’t want to play the same thing twice. I’ve already started to feel, when “Tree of Life” came out, I started to get these scripts, and I was like, “These are all ‘Tree of Life’ scripts.” They’re like very supportive, stand-by-your-man-type of women. So I do see that Hollywood does try to think, ‘Oh she can do that so let’s have her do it again.’ And I’m really fortunate that it goes from “Tree of Life” to “The Help” to “Take Shelter,” where I’m hoping that they just won’t know what to do with me. And in fact after I do all my press, I’m going to go shoot a genre film at the end of the year because I’ve never done that before. It’s called “Mama.” It’s Guillermo del Toro’s company.

Q: Is that horror?
Chastain: Yeah. I’ve never done it before. I play like a punk girl, and it has elements of “The Ring” meets “The Orphanage.” Yeah, so. For me, it’s like the further the character is, the scarier it is and the bigger the opportunity I have to fail, but usually when you fail you learn a lot, and so it’s either like I’m going to fail and I’m going to learn a lot about being an actor or I’m not going to fail and it’s going to be great. So, win-win.

Q: How much did you study Helen Mirren to sort of define your character’s behavior?
Chastain: Well it was great. I mean, from the beginning I knew they were talking about her to play – well, she was thinking about playing Rachel. So from the very first meeting I had, I’d already done some research on Helen, and I told John when I first met him, “I just want you to know, she’s 5-4 and I’m 5-4, and so I think it would work perfect.” And so I was really adamant about that. Once I got the part I started to get really nervous because Helen has this, just this presence unlike any other woman I have ever met. She’s a force to be reckoned with. So I started watching her a lot on YouTube, and I found a lot of interviews – I found actually interviews of her when she was my age, and I found out actually that her voice was higher, you know all these things that actually I could relate to. And I thought, Oh of course Rachel’s going to change. We could have similar mannerisms, but you know, I shouldn’t play Helen as Helen is now because I’m playing her–as Rachel was–when she was 25. So I watched a lot of that, and then Helen and I met in London and we met in the Pacific Palisades. We talked about where Rachel might have come from, her backstory, what happened to her family, how she was orphaned. We worked on the accent with Joe Washington so we’d have the same voice, and then also we worked on certain things that we would do. Like, there’s a section in the film where–it’s like being at a press junket, I guess–where Rachel talks, they ask the question “What were you thinking at that time?” And Rachel says, “I was thinking about my mother.” I say it, and then also Helen says it. So we decided – you know, she says the same story twice in the film, 30 years apart. Let’s try to make them very similar, so it’s like this repeat she’s on. So we even did things like on the word mother we both touched our heart. So 30 years later, we made sure that it was an act she was playing.

Q: How much did the training that you actually had to go through mirror the character development, in that she is obviously trained to be able to be physical, but at the same time she has no experience?
Chastain: Gosh, I think it informed so much of it. I spent four months before shooting working in Krav Maga and learning that. I didn’t know how to throw a punch. I mean, I had fight combat at Juilliard, but it was more like swords and stuff for Shakespeare plays, which you don’t really see in movies. So this was a lot of hand-to-hand combat, and my teacher was really good at teaching me to use my body weight and different ways that you can twist someone’s arm to make them fall on the ground, even if you’re not incredibly strong. So that gave me a lot of confidence to approach it, but you know I just really tried to put myself in the situation Rachel was in, so in a scene like in the doctor’s office, you know it’s an incredibly invasive spot for her to be in. Usually as an actor I just try to think the thoughts of whatever the character is thinking and that kind of leads to something. The first time I did it was with Al Pacino. He told me it always has to be a big deal. So if I’m really feeling something, it’s best if I can… I usually ask myself, “I’m really uncomfortable, why am I uncomfortable? Oh, maybe my character’s uncomfortable.” So I always try to connect the real to what I’m doing.

Q: Between this and “Texas Killing Fields,” are you looking at these smaller films as an opportunity to show people what a good actor you are?
Sam Worthington: No, I don’t think like that. To me it’s just they’re good stories that I want to tell. I’m not sitting there thinking, “this is going to showcase me as an actor!” I think that’s kind of indulgent. I think it’s got to be, “can I bring something to this story that can entertain someone at the cinema?” With the opportunity to work with someone like Jessica again, I was like, I want a two, three five, ten picture deal? I love it. She brings out the best in me. But it’s up to everyone else to figure out whether I’ve done a good job or not.

Q: How much of the appeal of doing this thriller was that it featured very fallible, human characters?
Worthington: I liked the speed of it. Even when you first read the script, there was a speed and an energy to it. Then John told me he wanted to shoot our section in order so that when we went in the house, we were a happy family, and it started to unravel so by the time we got out of that set, we were like rats in a cage and wanted to get out. That interested me. The fact that he wanted it to be like an old 1970s thriller, I really enjoyed that aspect. It was an amalgamation of all of that that kind of drew me into the script. And so on and on.

Q: Did any of your previous training from other films help you on this one?
Worthington: Krav Maga is totally different, and if you notice, I get my ass beat – which I liked. I liked the fact that I wasn’t the aggressor. But Krav Maga is an aggressive form of defense; if there’s a guy coming at you, you might cop a few hits to take your opponent down. It’s all about attack, which I found quite interesting, especially with the Mossad mindset of, we might lose five men, but if we get the man down, we’ve done our job. That sacrifice is enough. And that’s the same with Krav Maga – if there’s a guy with a knife and you get stabbed twice and you still take him down, it doesn’t matter. That’s how it works. It’s just all about attack, and get the job done, and I think that to me helped with the mindset of David, which was, we have to get the mission done at all costs, no matter what. We’ve got to get it done, because there’s bigger responsibilities with the reasons why.

Q: Did you consult with Ciaran Hinds on the character since you two play him at different ages?
Worthington:I know Martin and Tom had discussions, but me and Ciaran have a different process of working than those guys. So we met once and I told him here’s what I was aiming for, and he kind of took on board what I was saying. I said, look – he’s a powder keg. He’s an idealist. This is the snapping point. This is when it all starts to unravel. There you go. And then he goes off and spends his job, and the great thing is that his David is kind of what I had in mind – a man that is damaged but still trying to get the world together. The biggest question that me and Ciaran had was, what had the man been doing for 30 years? He hadn’t been sitting in a room crying. They had to change the script a bit to make it that he had tried a bit to hunt him down before. But that was about as much detail as we discussed.

Q: How tough is it to balance smaller, independent films with blockbusters?
Worthington: I think I’m pretty lucky to start with. If you get something like “Avatar,” it opens up a lot of big blockbuster doors. But there was a thing my mate told me years ago, when I said, oh, there’s a great independent script and a great blockbuster script, and the independent thing will show me off more as a character. He said, but which movie would you go and see? He said, you go see blockbusters. And that’s how I pick – I pick which movie by “would I want to go see something like The Debt?” Or, “do I want to see something like Terminator?” And within that, you kind of by chance end up with a career that balances. You’re not just sitting there going, I’m going to do one big one for them, and one small one for me. That’s kind of the ideal, at leats that’s what people think. But when you talk with Christian Bale, he’s not thinking, one for you, one for them, he’s thinking one for me – what story do I want to tell? And whether it’s “Terminator” or “The Fighter,” that’s how he picks.

Q: Do you tend to be eager to jump into another project right after you finish one? Or do you need to decompress?
Worthington: I think it’s hard. I’ve been going back to back to back. The last two jobs I’ve done have been some of the most exciting experiences of my life. I tend to want to kind of take a break, because I don’t want to actually taint those experiences. So that’s a weird way of thinking. But other times you come out of something and you just want to get rid of that world and step into another world, and other times you go, “f*ck it – I need some money! Let’s go and do a job.” That’s the reality of the situation, those three reasons.

Q: When you look at something, do you know instantaneously whether or not you’ll do it?
Worthington: Well, the director – that’s it. Like John Madden flew – I was in Albuquerque doing “Terminator,” and he flew to Albuquerque, and I thought, hey, any man that’s willing to fly to f*cking Albuquerque, where do I sign? He’s a very eloquent, smart, sensitive man, and his pitch was great; he knew exactly what he wanted me to do for David, which was kind of comforting. He said, “this is exactly how I want you to play it. I’ll give this world of freedom, but here’s what I’m looking for.” And I felt safe, so it was like, I’ll go with this guy. Then you read the material, go, it’s a great yarn, this is a good story to tell, and then you come in and do the job. That’s what I like to do – you go off the director, because when everything’s going crazy in one day, he’s the man you’ve got to turn to and go, “you’re the boss. You’ve got to pull this thing together.”

Q: Is it different now to be the guy on a film where you now have some authority to change the way things are done?
Worthington: It’s an interesting question. Look, every movie I do, the pressures get more, not only from the media but the bloggers, from the studios, primarily now though it’s getting more from myself, because I’m pushing myself more. Some of that, I know I learned from Jim [Cameron], which was all of the kind of criticism in the world isn’t going to be as strong as the criticism you have for yourself. And the only reason to be doing this job is to keep pushing and pushing yourself. So that’s what I learned from him, and now I’m being in a fortunate position to sit with a director or a writer or a studio and say, “look. Here’s where I want to push myself – is that okay? Are you giving me the trust and the ability to do it?”

The Debt opens in theaters on Wednesday, August 31st.