John Madden’s latest film, Miss Sloane, pulls back the curtain on the political machine, as a ruthless lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) goes to war against one of Washington’s most influential bodies: the gun manufacturing industry. It’s one of the best performances of Chastain’s career, and could easily land her among the top Best Actress contenders during awards season.
Madden always conceived of the film as a political thriller, but in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the Oscar-nominated director has recognized an extra layer of significance in the story of an ambitious woman taking on the traditionally male-dominated political landscape.
I recently had the chance to discuss the film’s timely release with the man himself during a recent stop in Phoenix, and although some of his candid comments about the film’s subject matter were off the record, it still made for a great conversation. Check out the “on the record” portions of our conversation below.
I thought Jessica Chastain was just astounding in this film. Was she always your first choice for the role?
John Madden: Totally, no other. And that’s not just publicity guff, either. She and I had been in contact since I made The Debt with her, looking at something we could do together again. It’s been a sort of ongoing aspiration between us, I suppose, and I was barely five pages into the script before I thought “this is an absolutely perfect role for her.” She was the only person in my mind, and I sent it to her as soon as I had finished the script.
One of the things I found so interesting about this film is that it’s not so much that Jessica’s character has a particular opinion about the issues, but more about how this desire to always be in control is just an innate part of who she is as a person.
John Madden: Yes, it is. There are many ways you can describe it. It’s a film that sort of lifts the lid on the lobbying industry, or takes you behind the scenes of the political process, or an analysis of this intractable issue of gun regulation – it’s all of those things. But chiefly, it’s a character study of a completely extraordinary person. It’s entirely significant that she’s a woman, but she’s not defined by being a woman, even though that has an enormous impact on everything that happens.
And the interesting thing to me is what happens and how she evolves emotionally – this is, after all, a woman who has no emotions, or no observable emotional life whatsoever. Anything to do with emotions or intimacy is something she buys in a controlled situation that requires no disclosure of anything – but in the course of the film, she does disclose herself and she does become somebody, a recognizable human being.
In the beginning, you’re sort of witnessing and admiring, to a degree – but also probably in horror, at certain moments, reeling back from her – and at the same time, curiously, you root for her, because there’s something about her. And Jessica, too, it’s about the qualities she has as an actress. She can kick ass better than anybody, but there’s something human there that you can always access, a sort of fragility. I think it’s a very, very rich character and performance.
Was the onscreen character modeled after any real-life counterparts in politics or leadership?
John Madden: Well, the interesting thing is that if you do a mental gender switch, that’s quite a classic character from a certain kind of cinematic tradition. It’s the outlaw, really, it’s the one who ruthlessly pursues a goal at their own personal expense and doesn’t care about who gets damaged along the way. That’s who the character is, in essence, but that’s now a woman, and that’ a very original thing.
But no, it’s not modeled on anyone specific. Jessica did her own research with a bunch of female lobbyists working in DC, and drew inspiration from that in the performance, certainly, in terms of the look of the character and famously the color of her fingernails. But no, otherwise it’s active imagination.
The release date for this film feels very timely, considering the crazy few weeks we’ve had.
John Madden: And the crazy four years that will ensue, I should imagine.
When you were in production, did you ever think this film could be coming out at a time when the election ended with such an unexpected result?
John Madden: Well, when you’re making a film, you have no idea about how quickly it’s going to take to come together. Sometimes the editing process can be long and arduous, and sometimes it can be extremely enjoyable and you’re already in good shape when you see the assembly. This one happened to be that, because we had thought the material through very carefully.
And so at that point, I thought I should try and accelerate the completion of the film, mainly because I didn’t want to get out of date on the politics. We thought the issue that was going to be very much at the forefront of everyone’s awareness was the issue of gun legislation. Though it’s not the subject of the film, it’s nevertheless a part of what the film is and I didn’t want to think that it suddenly felt like that was out of touch with what was going on – even though I never expected the legislative picture to change, because it never does.
We certainly had a discussion about whether we wanted to go out before the election, or after the election, or after the inauguration, and I think we sort of pitched where we did without really having any sense of what that would be. Of course, how could you? For a film that’s all about surprises, nothing could have matched the level or frequency of surprise mounting on surprise in this election. And paradoxically, the real subject of the film is the political process, and the sense of a fractured, broken and dysfunctional political process, which is evident in what’s going on in the world. Or to put it slightly less disparagingly, the massive realignment of a political process, because you can’t deny that it’s an exercise in democracy.
But however dismayed I might be at the prospect of what now may be the political climate in this country – though it’s not my own, I used to live here and my children were born here, so I have some stake in it – it’s put the movie in a different light, which I think it’s quite able to withstand, and reflect things back that now have a different resonance that I might have imagined about the political process. Chiefly, about women in politics and the way in which attitudes toward women have become, in ways that I would have been horrified to imagine some time ago, and which were smack at the forefront of the debates. So it’s turned out to be very timely.
Miss Sloane is currently playing in theaters everywhere.