NEW YORK — Jessica Chastain hadn’t been in a play in so long that the thought of it filled her with dread. “It was just crazy because I started in theater,” said the Juilliard graduate, now 45, and a mom, and an Oscar winner and at that point in a career when an actor can call her own shots.
So a supportive friend, James McAvoy, who toggles between stage and screen, connected her with British director Jamie Lloyd. He, like Chastain, has his own production company, except his is geared toward plays and hers, Freckle Films, makes movies, like “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the picture that won her a 2022 Academy Award. “He goes, ‘Why aren’t you doing any theater?’” she said of Lloyd. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just very scared.’”
The admission was an icebreaker, because it commenced a discussion about what stage project they might attempt to bring her back, a spitballing that began with “The Duchess of Malfi” and “Summer and Smoke” in London, and eventually settled on “A Doll’s House” on Broadway. The confidence and trust that developed between them calmed Chastain’s nerves — and led to an assured, austere revival of Ibsen’s 1879 play, a recently opened production that is a hit with critics and poised for commercial success.
“I just felt so inspired about the way that he sees the world,” Chastain observed about Lloyd, as she sat sipping water recently at Freckle Films’s office in Chelsea. As Lloyd recalled, it was Chastain who suggested “A Doll’s House.” Lloyd said he looked at many versions before commissioning playwright Amy Herzog to write a new one that he would stage with virtually no embellishments — just actors in dark colors, and chairs on a revolving set.
“When it’s just actors in space, the connection between them in space, you see things from a different point of view,” the director said by phone. “You literally see them from a different perspective.”
Whatever allayed Chastain’s trepidation, it was a boon for Broadway, paving the way for a buzzworthy star turn in a season sorely in need of them. Chastain’s only previous Broadway role was a decade ago, in a revival of “The Heiress.”
Her work as Nora Helmer in “A Doll’s House,” which also features Arian Moayed as Nora’s controlling husband, Torvald; Okieriete Onaodowan as bank employee Nils Krogstad; and Jesmille Darbouze as Nora’s friend, Kristine Linde, rises to a whole other level. Perhaps that was the source of her fear — knowing the intensity of the assignment she would be subjecting herself to, day after day, with all the pressures that stardom engenders.
“There’s a sense when you’re doing a play, especially if it’s emotional, it’s like all day you have to contain your energy,” she said. “So the way you live your life has to be different, right? Whereas in a film, if you have a tough scene coming up, you’d have a few days when you’re not doing anything — you know, you’re containing your energy. But it’s not like four months of doing it.”
Chastain strikes people who work with her as single-minded about the responsibilities of the job: As TV cameras panned the audience at the Oscars on Sunday night, she seemed to be the only one visible in a mask. Not many of her fellow spectators are in Broadway plays at the moment, and staying healthy, protecting her cast mates, is a priority, according to those who know her. That was also apparent from day one on “A Doll’s House.” “Right from the first read-through, she’s like totally committed, really going there, never holds back,” Lloyd said.
She was hoarse during our conversation, a condition she said would probably continue for the length of the run, which currently ends in June. She remembered a grueling day before the first preview performance: “Jamie said to me, ‘You know, maybe you can go easy,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’”
“And that makes me nervous. Like how to sustain it. Jamie and I have been talking about it. How am I going to sustain this for four months? Daniel Day-Lewis couldn’t do it! I mean, he’s like a great actor!” Chastain declared, referring to an incident in 1989, when Lewis was playing Hamlet at London’s National Theatre and, citing nervous exhaustion, quit the run in mid-performance, never to act onstage again.
Transforming into Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was its own sort of ordeal, with a process involving makeup and prosthetics that took as much as four hours to complete. “That was incredibly exhausting and very stressful,” she said. “It felt like my body was aching all the time. My back hurt. I was always trying to lie down on the ground to try to straighten my back out. But that was six weeks, and that really, really difficult makeup was maybe two weeks.”
“Theater requires something else,” Chastain added. “You have to show up fully with yourself. But also I have to show up tomorrow, too.”
Chastain’s performance begins before curtain time: She’s seated onstage, going round and round on the turntable, as people are finding their seats. It’s one of the many singular notions Lloyd has woven into this 110-minute version, performed without an intermission.
Another in this tale of a wife and mother, Chastain’s Nora, gradually realizing her need for self-discovery outside the bonds of a stifling marriage, is Nora’s apparent attraction to a man other than Torvald. The scene between Chastain and Michael Patrick Thornton’s Dr. Rank radiates with unusual tenderness, an intimacy that suggests Nora’s growing realization that there are alternatives to living under Torvald’s thumb.
The play is often viewed as a proto-feminist masterpiece, exposing the legal, financial and emotional constraints marriage imposes on women. It may come as a surprise, though, that for Chastain, the most intriguing reaction to the production has come not from another woman, but from a man — someone who saw too much of himself in Torvald.
“I was talking to a friend who’d seen it the night before,” she recalled, “And he said: ‘Am I like that? I’ve been thinking all night and all morning — I think I might be like that.’ And just like anyone coming to see a painting or a film or a play, and re-examining the way that they walk through the world, is so exciting, because so many of us sleepwalk through our lives. And I think he was like, ‘I do these like little micro-aggressive things I didn’t realize are not appropriate.’”
It was precisely that granular aspect of Torvald’s chauvinism that Moayed wanted to explore. “I immediately knew I didn’t want to play him as evil,” said Moayed, whose Torvald seems so placidly self-satisfied, having the wife he calls his “songbird” live by his rules. “But I also knew he’s doing things that men do to women every day. I’m really interested in the micro cuts that men do to women.”
In Chastain, he found an acting partner, not a star temperament. “I got the sense that Jamie was going to surround himself with kind, caring, hard-working people, and that is a real relief,” Moayed said. “You’re not going to walk into some sort of nightmare scenario. I’m a theater boy. I don’t have time for four months of trauma.”
“We sat in a circle and had our scripts memorized,” Moayed recalled of the first day of rehearsal. “And then she and I made eye contact in the first scene, and I said, ‘We’re going to be okay.’”
Those anxious vibes seem to have melted away for Chastain, who now talks about taking “A Doll’s House” well beyond New York. “I do hope we do also bring it to London,” she said. “I actually would love to do it in Dubai. I said that to Jamie the other day.”
Bring the production to audiences elsewhere that might be challenged by the dynamics between Nora and Torvald? “This would be a very exciting play,” Chastain said, “to do all over the world.”
A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Amy Herzog. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Through June 10 at Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th St., New York. adollshousebroadway.com.