Jessica Chastain was afraid to return to Broadway. Ibsen cured that

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NEW YORK – It had been so long since Jessica Chastain had been in a play that the thought of it scared her. “It was just crazy because I got into theater,” said the Juilliard graduate, now 45, mother and Oscar winner And at that point in a career where an actress can make her own decisions.

A supportive friend, James McAvoy, who flicks between stage and screen, brought her together with British director Jamie Lloyd. He has his own production company, like Chastain, except his is focused on plays and hers, Freckle Films, makes films like The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the film that won her an Oscar in 2022. “He’s like, ‘Why aren’t you making a fuss?’” she said of Lloyd. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just really scared.’”

The admission was an icebreaker because it sparked a discussion about what stage project they could try to bring her back, a spitball that started with “The Duchess of Malfi” and “Summer and Smoke” in London and eventually branched out into “A Doll’s.” Decided House” on Broadway. The trust that developed between them calmed Chastain’s nerves – and led to a safe, austere revival of Ibsen’s 1879 play, a recently opened production that has been a critical hit and awaits commercial success.

“I felt so inspired by the way he sees the world,” Chastain noted of Lloyd as she recently sat sipping water in the Freckle Films Chelsea office. As Lloyd recalled, it was Chastain who suggested A Doll’s House. Lloyd said he looked at many versions before hiring playwright Amy Herzog to write a new one, which he would direct with virtually no embellishments — just actors in dark colors and chairs on a film set.

“When it’s just actors in space, the connection between them in space, you see things from a different angle,” the director said over the phone. “You literally see them from a different perspective.”

Whatever assuaged Chastain’s fears, it was a blessing for Broadway and paved the way for a hot star in a season that badly needed her. Chastain’s only previous Broadway role was in a revival of The Heiress a decade ago.

Her work as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, which also stars Arian Moayed as Torvald, Nora’s controlling husband; Okieriete Onaodowan as bank clerk Nils Krogstad; and Jesmille Darbouze as Nora’s girlfriend, Kristine Linde, rises to a whole other level. Perhaps that was the source of her fear — knowing how intense the task was that she would subject herself to day after day, with all the pressures that fame brings.

“You feel like when you’re doing a play, especially if it’s emotional, you have to contain your energy throughout the day,” she said. “So the way you live your life has to be different, right? Whereas in a movie, when there’s a tough scene coming up, you have a few days where you don’t do anything — you know, you’re holding back your energy. But it’s not like doing that for four months.”

Chastain seems single-minded to people who work with her about the responsibilities of the job: As television cameras panned the audience at the Oscars on Sunday night, she appeared to be the only one seen in a mask. Not many of her fellow viewers are in Broadway plays right now, and according to those who know her, staying healthy and protecting her cast members is a priority. That was evident from day one on A Doll’s House. “From the first reading, she’s totally committed, really going and never holding back,” Lloyd said.

She was hoarse during our conversation, a condition she said was likely to persist for the duration of the run, which currently ends in June. Recalling a busy day leading up to the first preview, she said, “Jamie said to me, ‘You know, maybe you can take it easy,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”

“And that makes me nervous. Like how to maintain it. Jamie and I talked about it. How am I supposed to last four months? Daniel Day-Lewis couldn’t! I mean, he’s such a great actor!” Chastain, referring to an incident in 1989 when Lewis was playing Hamlet at London’s National Theater and, citing nervous exhaustion, quit the run mid-performance, declared that he would never be on stage again play.

Actress Jessica Chastain stars in “A Doll’s House,” a Broadway show about a housewife who leaves her husband and family, which opens March 9 in New York. (Video: A Doll’s House on Broadway)

Transforming Tammy Faye Bakker into The Eyes of Tammy Faye was an ordeal in its own right, with a process that included makeup and prosthetics and lasted up to four hours. “It was incredibly exhausting and very stressful,” she said. “It felt like my body was in pain all the time. My back hurts. I always tried to lie down on the floor to straighten my back. But that was six weeks, and this really, really difficult makeup took maybe two weeks.”

“Theatre requires something different,” Chastain added. “You have to be with yourself. But I also have to show up tomorrow.”

Chastain’s performance begins before the curtain: she sits on the stage and turns the turntable in circles while the people take their seats. It’s one of the many unique ideas Lloyd wove into this 110-minute version, which is performed non-stop.

Another part of this story of a wife and mother, Chastain’s Nora, who begins to recognize her need for self-discovery outside the shackles of a suffocating marriage, is Nora’s apparent attraction to a man other than Torvald. The scene between Chastain and Dr. Rank by Dr.

The play is often viewed as a proto-feminist masterpiece that exposes the legal, financial, and emotional constraints that marriage imposes on women. It may come as a surprise, however, that for Chastain, the most intriguing reaction to the production came not from another woman but from a man — someone who saw too much of himself in Torvald.

“I was talking to a friend who saw it the night before,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘Am I like this? I’ve been thinking all night and all morning — I think I could be like that.” And just like everyone who comes to see a painting, a movie, or a play, and the way they go through the World going, re-examined, is so exciting because so many of us sleepwalk through our lives. And I think he said, ‘I’m doing this like little micro-aggressive things that I didn’t know weren’t appropriate.’”

It was precisely this grainy aspect of Torvald’s chauvinism that Moayed wished to examine. “I knew right away that I didn’t want to play him as a villain,” said Moayed, whose Torvald seems so composed and self-satisfied with the woman he calls his “songbird” living by his rules. “But I also knew he did things that men do to women every day. I’m really interested in the microcuts that men do to women.”

In Chastain he found an acting partner, not a star temper. “I felt like Jamie would surround himself with kind, caring, hard-working people and that’s a real relief,” Moayed said. “You will not be caught in a nightmare scenario. I’m a theater boy. I don’t have time for four months of trauma.”

“We sat in a circle and memorized our scripts,” Moayed recalled of the first day of rehearsals. “And then she and I made eye contact in the first scene and I said, ‘We’re going to be fine.’”

Those anxious vibes seem to have faded for Chastain, who is now talking about taking “A Doll’s House” well beyond New York. “I hope we bring it to London too,” she said. “Actually, I would like to do that in Dubai. That’s what I said to Jamie the other day.”

Are you taking the production elsewhere to an audience who might be challenged by the dynamic between Nora and Torvald? “That would be a very exciting piece,” Chastain said, “to do all over the world.”

A dollhouse, by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Amy Herzog. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Until June 10 at the Hudson Theater, 141 W. 44th St., New York.

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