Gathering on a particularly windy Monday evening in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Hollywood, the cast of “The Zookeeper’s Wife” — which includes Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh — discussed the film’s distinctive role as a feminine, optimistic take on one of the most unjustifiable periods of modern history as well as the role animals play as healers in bringing about compassion.
Based on a true story, which was turned into a 2007 book written by Diane Ackerman, the film takes place in the early stages of World War II, chronicling the lives of Dr. Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina, who oversee the thriving Warsaw Zoo in Poland.
After Poland was overtaken by Nazis, the Zabinskis were forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. Eventually, the Zabinskis began working with the Resistance, and covertly operate plans to save the lives of hundreds from what had become the Warsaw Ghetto.
Chastain noted that, although she was attracted to Antonina’s assertiveness and valor, she found it even more compelling that she wasn’t afraid to express her femininity in the process.
“What I love about this film is that Antonina is very feminine and she’s very strong and courageous and brave,” Chastain said. “Femininity does not equate weakness, and I think in the past society has connected those two.”
An ardent animal lover, Chastain added that one of her favorite parts of being a part of the film was the fact that the zoo’s animals serve as an emphasis for the importance of having universal compassion.
“Antonina saw every living creature as a people, Chastain said. “She was a refugee. She was born and raised in Russia, she fled violence, found her sanctuary in Warsaw, and it was animals that helped heal her.”
Chastain added, “She understands that beautiful quality that animals have. There’s a sixth sense that [animals] have. They’re just very loving and compassionate creatures.”
But Heldenbergh, who portrays Dr. Zabinski in the film, said that it is Chastain who understands this “sixth sense” that the animals have.
“Jessica had no fear of the animals whatsoever,” Heldenbergh recalled, referring to the large Indian elephants the cast worked with on the film. “She’s one with the animals; she’s like Dr. Doolittle,” he joked.
Magdalena Lamparska, who is the only cast member that is actually from Poland, said although the catastrophe of the war cannot be forgotten, this film, she said, helps embrace the power of compassion among humans.
“We have to take this film’s lesson that love and human empathy can handle eternity,” she said.