An exclusive interview with Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro – Zookeepers Wife
Over the years, we’ve only seen the darkness of World War II brought to the big screen. But throughout that dark period in history, there were people that brought light into the world including the Żabiński family who put everything on the line to help save over 300 lives. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska used her skills, her compassion and light to help save these lives, while risking her own and her own family.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is in theaters on Friday March 31st. Check out our interview with Jessica Chastain (Antonina) and Director Niki Caro below. There may be some spoilers included!
Jessica – was that the first time you held a lion cub? And the second question is, what length did you go to do research for this role?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: To the research – of course, I started with the book, because the film is based on the bestselling, incredible novel, which is then based on Antonina’s journals. I went to Warsaw, met with Theresa [her daughter]. She took me to the Warsaw Zoo, and I got to ask her secrets that weren’t in the book. Things like – if Antonina was an animal, what kind of animal would she be? Like, just these strange – and she said, “Oh, definitely a cat. She’d be a little puma.” Which is why Jan calls her Punia – that was a nickname which means little cat. So all those little things. And then I went to Auschwitz. Of course, Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I just wanted to feel the energy of the space. I met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals. And that was so helpful when approaching this film, because the thing that I learned most from everyone was not to impose your energy onto an animal; not to treat an animal as though it’s your possession, or it’s an object. It’s a spiritual being what this film is, too, whether human or animal, they are not ours to possess. And I knew, on this film – if I were to ever get hurt on this movie, it’s because I’m doing something wrong. It’s not the animals’ fault – it’s my fault. It means, they weren’t ready for me to be in their space; they didn’t invite me in. And so I spent some time, when we got to Prague, being with the animals before we were even on camera. I wanted them to be happy when they saw me. I wanted them to feel safe, and to know that I wasn’t going to try to force them to do anything.
You deal with a very heavy theme, with the girl who was raped by the two officers. And I was wondering if you can speak a little bit about filming that, and creating the picture, and also Jessica, about what it was like to work with the young actress.
NIKI CARO: Yeah. The character of Ursula is emblematic of all children who are hurt by war. And so as the director of this movie, I had to think very hard about what I could bring to this genre. And I recognized that it was femininity; that I could take my inspiration from Antonina, and be very soft, and very strong with this material. And so Ursula was a very, very important character, because her experience had made her animal – it’s an incredible performance, obviously; young Israeli actress called Shira Haas. And the scenes between her and Antonina are wonderful, because we see Antonina dealing with Ursula as she would with an animal – which is to say, very instinctively; not coming too close, but reassuring her that she’s there. It’s Antonina’s connection to animals that – her humanity with animals that she brings to – that she brought to her human refugees, you know. And I think that sort of unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, and those two actresses, is a very, very special part of the movie, for me.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I have to say I was happy to be in a film that, for me when I watch the movie, I’m distraught about the rape of this young girl. But there’s no salacious scene that we’re forced to watch. I find that in a lot of films in our industry, it’s directed in a way that it becomes this salacious thing. And it was wonderful to work with a woman who had more delicacy with that.
Shira’s an incredible actress. And you know, I just kind of – I instinctively knew to not try to distract her in any way. You know, when we were filming that stuff, she was so in it, that I didn’t want to be like, “Hey, how was dinner tonight?” you know, and talking about things that didn’t connect to what the scene was. So I always held back. I was there in case she needed me, or I was watching her in between takes. But I never tried to do anything that would pull her out of it.
NIKI CARO: You know, it was incredibly organic, actually, the whole – the whole movie was. But in that scene, in particular, there was a bunny. And the bunny is – really shows us the healing power of animals – that it’s a little bunny that can break through for this girl. And that’s Antonina’s gift, really, to know without words, without overt action, just what to do in that moment. And Jessica absolutely has that gift herself, as a human being. So – which really made my job very, very easy.
You mentioned working with the animals. Did you have a favorite animal to work with? And were you worried about that elephant scene?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Ah. Well, speaking of the elephant scene – the elephant might have been my favorite animal to work with. Her name was Lily. And the first time I met Lily, we were in this field. It was before we started shooting. And there was this little tiny string that was kind of like the fence between us, but it was a string. And she knew not to cross it. And she was, you know, finding leaves and looking for food. So I was like, “Oh, okay.” So I was on my side. I was like, “I’m gonna find some for you.” So I went, and I was gathering leaves, and then I’d hand it to her. And – and then at one point, you know, she would put her trunk on my hand. And then she, at one – she kind of wrapped her trunk all around my hand, squeezed, and then just went -“ppft” – like that. And I had this feeling of like, “Ohp – I’m going under the fence,” and I just went, “Nope,” and I pulled back, and she let go. That was a very humbling moment, because you realize this is a very big animal, and she could do with me whatever she wanted. And – but also that she just wanted to play. Like, she just wanted me “I can’t come in here.” And she was really funny. The scene that we did with the elephant, it feels in the film that it’s very anxious, and like, the elephant is really concerned. But it’s the magic of movies. I mean, she loved apples – that was her treat. And so right before ‘Action’ I would say, “Lily, Lily,” and I would give her some apples. And then I would have more apples, and I’d hide them around me. So I’d hide them under the puppet; we had a puppet, which was the baby. And I hid them under my foot, or whatever. And so when you see her with the trunk going all over me, she was looking for the apples. So for her, it was a game. And when she’s like reaching for me, and we’re touching each other, it was a great experience, but magic of moviemaking, and knowing – the audience knowing what the situation of the story is, would feel like the animal’s under distress, but it wasn’t. And that probably was the most fun I’ve had, because I had to be so trusting. She was behind me, but I knew she wasn’t going to hurt me.
Holocaust films in general are so difficult to tackle, such a – such a heavy responsibility you are taking. Could please talk about, and how you paid such attention to detail. I saw that you used a lot of Polish actors and crew. And Jessica, if you could just please touch on what it was like playing a mother during that time, with such – channeling such fear. And if you could also please tell me what was written on the wall?
NIKI CARO: Oh, that’s the date they burnt the ghetto, the Warsaw Ghetto. Well, I took that responsibility as seriously as it’s possible for me to take, which is to say very. Authenticity and specificity has always been really, really important in my work. But this represented a much bigger challenge – to honor all of those souls that died, whilst celebrating 300 that didn’t, and the amazing work of the Zabinskis. I think – well, I know that what I was trying to do at the time was to move the genre on a little bit; to make a Holocaust movie that expressed healing in some measure. I thought we were making a historical drama. And it’s only now that I realize we’re making a contemporary film – sadly. But in terms of the film making, we were really tireless, and diligent in our research – which meant going very deeply into the reality of the Warsaw Ghetto. It was really tough, but we were – all of us – cinematographer, production designer, costume, makeup, hair – everybody – very, very invested in getting it right.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: For me, I think by starting to learn about Antonina, and by reading The Zookeeper’s Wife, you feel like you know her, because you hear her words; you read her words. That was very helpful for me. And there was a quality that she had, where she would – not disappear, but she would put the caring of others ahead of herself. I mean, she wasn’t out there saying, like, “This is what I did. I’m a hero.” You know. For her, it was all about others – I mean – animals, or people, or whatever it was, in terms of healing – which actually is inherently – when I think of my mother, that’s what I think of. I was raised by a single woman. My, you know, my grandmother raised her family, and my mother raised three kids. And I am where I am today because of the sacrifices they made. So it wasn’t hard for me to find examples of a woman who – not sacrifices herself, but in a way, gives herself to others. And also, what I loved about Antonina is in this – you know, when everybody talks about Holocaust films – when you think of what we’ve had – we’ve really seen the darkness, and the hate, and the murder. But rarely do we see the light. And with people like Antonina, it’s important to celebrate that lightness. So that’s – that helped me get through it, too.
Jessica, what drew you to, and how did you get involved in the project?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I was sent the script. And I was really inspired by the story, and I went online. I was like, “Is this true?” – you know, the thing I normally start with first. Like, “This is true – and why isn’t anyone talking about Antonina.” And then I met Niki in Milan. We had a fun coffee.
NIKI CARO: I know, it was really glamorous. Like, Milan frequently isn’t, but that was a beautiful day.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Yeah. I was excited to meet Niki, because I so love her film work. And I can’t imagine anyone else directing this movie. She’s so honest. And she’s so authentic. Antonina says when you look into an animal’s eyes, you see exactly what’s in their heart. And I think we have a lot that we can learn from animals. And Niki is like that. She is so authentic, and truthful, and honest, and I noticed that immediately when we met. And for me, it was – it was a quick yes. I didn’t have to do any soul searching. I was really inspired by her. And also, I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others. We don’t really – I don’t think we acknowledge women in history as often as we should. And so I’m excited to be part of this story that gets to share it with a larger audience.
In the scene where Lutz has you on the bed, and you tell him that he disgusts you – which really sucked the breath out of me. How did you guys approach that scene? Because so many lives, including her own life, and her children’s lives, are depending on her not doing that. So how did you decide to have her do that so deliberately?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: We kind of found that on the day – that scene.
NIKI CARO: These two, Jessica and Daniel, have great relationship, and a tremendous amount of trust. So we could really go there. They were absolutely prepared to go there, right into that – the violence of that. And I remember talking to you guys beforehand, and saying, you know, that there were just two ideas in this scene. And the first was the ribbon. Do you remember, he takes the ribbon out of her hair? And the second was that she goes there, prepared to do what is necessary. So she goes as a woman, prepared to sleep with him, if that is what needs to be done to find information about her husband. But for Lutz, he can’t doit because she doesn’t love him. He loves her; she doesn’t love him. And in that moment, where she says, “You disgust me,” – that’s her profound, and accurate, and authentic truth. And that’s what breaks the whole violence of the situation – that he just, he just can’t continue after that. It was a very amazing, dynamic day, you know, physically quite difficult for you guys – like, over the back of that bed.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: It was harder for Daniel to have to pick me up over and over again.
NIKI CARO: Yeah. But what I remember most of shooting that day is the laughter. You do these – I’ve done this a lot – these, you know, really heavy scenes. And when you have trust between the actors, and everybody feels safe, and confident in the material, that it doesn’t need to be a traumatic experience; on the contrary, it can be amazing, and you can find – just get amazing material out of it.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: What’s so incredible about what Daniel did – and I think it’s timely for now – is he was an ordinary man who put on this suit. And you see that he is very complex. I mean, at the end of the film she says, “You are not like that.” And I think she really believes he is a good person that is being contaminated by whatever that energy is. I don’t think when she says, “You disgust me,” – I don’t think she envisions what’s going to happen afterwards. I actually think she thinks he is a good man, who has been misled. And I think that’s really important, because there’s so many questions as how this have happened – how could an entire country have done this. And many people were ordinary people who just got swayed by the power. And every time his character tries to do something, or goes to do something violent, he can’t follow through with it. And I don’t know, I can’t help but think how important this film is today, especially looking around. You know, Ann Frank was denied a visa into the United States. We learned that – I remember being in school, and that’s required reading, her diary. But the teacher doesn’t say the reason she died is because the United States wouldn’t let her in. So it’s a very, very emotional, important film for me.
In the scene when you’re in the cage, and you don’t know what’s going to happen with your son – if he’s going to shoot your son, or not. And I’m sitting on my edge of my seat. How did you feel when you were filming that time, being in that cage, not knowing what was going on? How was that for you?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: You have – the big trick is you have to pretend you don’t know what happens, when you’re acting – right? And that was something, on the day, where Niki said, “I have an idea. I think she should be locked in the cage when it happens,” – because so much of the movie also is, what does it mean to be in a cage. The Warsaw Zoo is a cage. You know, kind of that idea of possessing others. And so there was a very organic way of shooting, where we have the script, and then also, too, it’s, “What is happening right now in this moment?” And it was Niki’s idea to do that. And I think it worked so well. When playing it, the trick, like I said, is just to – you have to just get it out of your mind that you know everything’s going to be okay at the end. And I had to play with Lutz, with Daniel playing Lutz, that he is a good person – he won’t do it – he’s not capable of this; it can’t happen. You know. And I have to wake him up, basically just wake him up, because this isn’t who he is. And then that’s what makes the shot – I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but you know, that’s what makes that moment so shocking, is because she thinks she couldn’t wake him up.
NIKI CARO: And the performance – I almost don’t have words for it, what she’s able to do in any of these moments. But to become animal like that – to be in the cage, and then to hear that shot, and become animal – incredibly impressive. And so moving to me. I’m a parent. And I think parent or not, in that moment in the film – which actually happened to Antonina it’s your worst nightmare.
How much in the movie is real, and how many – which parts did you kind of just develop on the side?
NIKI CARO: It’s a really good question. This isn’t a documentary, obviously. You know, we have our responsibility to entertain, and to move. That said, it’s really close. So the character of Urszula, the little girl, she’s fictional. About 300 people, just 300 people went through that system, went through the Villa. And we don’t have complete stories out of all of them. We don’t know details of all of them, or many of them. But Urszula was somebody we felt was important to bring to the story. Lutz Heck – he – all of that crazy rebreeding, and trying to bring back the Auroch – totally true. What a nut case. There is evidence from his letters that he greatly admired Antonina; that there was definitely something there.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: And she said she thought he had a crush on her, in her journals.
NIKI CARO: So we expanded upon that, or we just drew – drew that line.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: The shooting – the thing at the end with the child – True. Ithappened, but it was a different soldier.
NIKI CARO: It was a Russian soldier, actually. But everything else – you know – the extraordinary circumstances of getting people out of the ghetto in trash cans, and having them pass, kind of pass through the, the cages and tunnels into the Villa – all true; her playing the piano.
About The Zookeeper’s Wife:
The real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh of “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Captain America: Civil War”). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance – and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.
For more info, please follow the film on social:
A huge thanks to Becky from Week 99er for covering this event!