Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain on her central role in best picture contender Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain plays an elite operative hunting Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty". JONATHAN OLLEY / Columbia Pictures

When Jessica Chastain first read Mark Boal’s script for Zero Dark Thirty, the real-life account of a CIA agent’s decade-long hunt for 9/11 terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, she says she was shocked. Not by the torture scenes, or the terrorist attacks, but by how her character, named Maya, figured right in the middle. A woman at the heart of this amazing story of espionage, action, global politics and intrigue.

“I was shocked by Maya’s central role in all this,” the actress confesses. Both she and the film she stars in are up for Academy Awards, though not, alas, its director, Kathryn Biigelow. “And then immediately I felt disgusted with myself. Why is it so surprising that a woman would be intelligent and capable and all these things that she does?...

“We’re used to seeing lead characters, and female hero roles, as flawed,” Chastain muses. “So, if we’re right, there’s also something wrong with us, where we’ve got like a neuroses, or we’re mentally ill, you know what I mean?” [Yes, we think you mean Claire Danes and Homeland!]

“We’re not just used to seeing someone who’s really capable of doing the job…. Those are just the  conventions of what cinema is, and Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t play along with that… Kathryn pushes off any stereotype of women in American cinema. Maya’s not someone who uses her sex. She never once has the scene where she complains about the glass ceiling in the CIA, nor does she try to seduce her coworkers to get them to do what she wants. She uses her brain. And in some cases she’s unlikable. She doesn’t have to be the seductive woman, she doesn’t play that card.

 “So much about this film, I think, bucks the idea of what we’re used to seeing. And when I read [the screenplay], I wonder if that’s why I was surprised by Maya, because it’s not an image that I’ve seen before. But I don’t see that as our fault. I see women like Kathryn Bigelow, when you’re on a set with her, you don’t think, Oh, she’s an amazing filmmaker — and she’s a woman, can you believe it? You just think she’s a great filmmaker!

“And the same with Maya. As an audience member we can go, Wow, a woman did this! But Maya never comments on that. She’s just really good at her job. And I think when you start to see women portrayed like that in different mediums in our society, we won’t be so shocked.”