Jessica Chastain and Rita Moreno on Refusing to Judge Their Characters and Their Unforgettable First Meeting

Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) and Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

When Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) and Rita Moreno (“West Side Story”) meet to discuss their respective works, each has done her homework. Moreno has watched Chastain’s catalog, and praises “Tammy Faye” to the heavens — pun intended — while also complimenting her recent HBO series, “Scenes From a Marriage,” with Oscar Isaac. “I have to say that you and Oscar have the most gorgeous chemistry,” Moreno says.

For Chastain’s part, she’s studied Moreno as an actor and a cultural figure for years, and says, “You are such a gift to our industry,” as she asks Moreno about the difficulties she’d encountered in Hollywood — thereby opening the door for a very personal conversation. And then there’s the story of the time Moreno ran into Chastain at a restaurant …

RITA MORENO: I’m dying to ask you about Tammy Faye. What made you want to play her?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: I just finished “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I was on the press tour for it. And that character’s whole journey is about revenge and an eye for an eye. I saw the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” and basically Tammy was the opposite. I mean, she was 100% believing in forgiveness and that everyone is deserving of love without judgment. And that was a healing balm for my soul after playing a character that was so revenge-driven.

I had so much fun playing Celia Foote in “The Help,” and the silliness of that. I never get to be silly characters, and I love Tammy Faye’s love for camp — she would often make herself the butt of every joke, but for others’ pleasures. She loved to make people happy, and to laugh.

MORENO: It seems to me that she and her husband colluded to cheat people of their money. I’d love to know what some of those decisions were about a character who was, essentially in many ways, quite negative.

CHASTAIN: I think we have different interpretations of her, honestly. I don’t see that she did any of that of what you’ve said, and the U.S. government never charged her with a crime. Listen, as an actor, you have to put aside your judgment. I don’t believe in the prosperity doctrine. I don’t believe that religion should be connected to any kind of material wealth. But for Andrew Garfield and I both, when we approached these characters, we had to kind of put aside our judgment of money corrupting faith.

MORENO: Well, you got me with that! I’m dying to know about this: Having just played the role of Valentina in “West Side Story” — who is also in real life Rita Moreno, executive producer — I’d love to know how you set about pitching for this movie. Because I have a feeling you may not have had a very easy time of it.

CHASTAIN: I mean, it was an uphill battle. I had the project for seven years from when I got the rights to it to when we started filming. The producer in me wanted to get it made because I thought it was a really interesting story. The actor in me always wanted more time. I really never felt ready to play her.

But, to be honest, I feel really awkward talking so much because I wanted to talk to you. You blew my mind the first time I watched “West Side Story,” the original version. For me, it was all about you playing Anita. So when you sang “Somewhere,” that was the first time I started crying. I was so moved by that scene and by what you did, and the reexamining of that story and that world. And can you talk to me about what that experience was?

MORENO: It was absolutely thrilling to go back — otherwise I would not have done the film. I knew in advance that Tony Kushner had it nailed. He fleshed out characters, and he invented a new one, which is Valentina. There’s a reason why it was an iconic film and still is — there’s a reason, and without it, we would not have been able to make “West Side Story” with Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg.

They went to so much trouble to get this right, so that now and then when I hear a criticism, I’m filled with anger and I want to say stupid things: “You don’t get it. You don’t understand, because they killed themselves.” These are people who really, really, really worked so hard to get that aspect of the film or the story right, because I think it was ignored. I know it was ignored. We all know it was ignored.

I can’t help but spend some time just talking about how hard they worked to get this right. In fact, one of the first things that they asked me to do when I was just doing a wardrobe fitting is, “Rita,” Tony said, “would you talk to the kids about your life?” He said, “I think the kids should know because this is like homework for them. Tell them about the travails. Tell them about the good times, of which there were not many. But tell them about how difficult it was for you then.” That probably was the most heartbreaking aspect of my travails with show business and being in films, that I couldn’t get my agent to talk people into saying, “Please see her.” They wouldn’t.

CHASTAIN: I adore you, and I remember reading things about you and also your friendship and your relationship with Brando. I think you are every bit of the actor Marlon Brando was. That must have been so difficult for you in a time where you’re seeing all of these opportunities being given to him. What about you?

MORENO: He and I had had a relationship for almost eight years. Ultimately, it was exciting to be with Marlon. Oh, my God, it was exciting. He was extraordinary in many, many ways, but he was a bad guy. He was a bad guy when it came to women. I was such a different person then. I had all the makings of a doormat.

CHASTAIN: I hate hearing that.

MORENO: So whenever he lied, I would look at him and I’d say, “Marlon, look at me.” And he’d start to grin this kind of — I don’t want to use the bad word — that poop-eating grin. I could read him like a book and that’s why he loved me, and that’s why he mistreated me in so many ways. I tried to end my life with pills in his house. That’s how I tried to do it. I didn’t understand that if I was going to kill this pathetic, sad, trod-upon Rita, the rest of Rita was also going to go with me. I really didn’t seem to understand that. But that’s what the attempt was. It was an attempt.

CHASTAIN: Do you think there was a rebirth in a positive way after that?

MORENO: After that, a few years later, was the movie we made together. What’s interesting is that he wanted to renew. I was now married. I had a beautiful child, Fernanda. He was ready to have a go again. I didn’t want that. But he did. He lost a big part of himself, I think. The good part of him, the good Marlon that Rita loved. It was very complicated. Really, really complicated.

I seem to feel on a very primitive level that anybody who is always ready with a quip, who’s really genuinely witty and funny, can take care of me. They can look after me. That’s how I see humor in a man. I mean, that’s so cuckoo. Isn’t that cuckoo?

CHASTAIN: It’s not, because actually at our deepest level, to be taken care of is to be made to feel joy.

MORENO: I was going to ask you if we could trade numbers.

CHASTAIN: I would absolutely love to take you to dinner or lunch — whatever you want.

MORENO: I would love to do that. I think we would have a wonderful time together. I want to remind you that when we first met, I stopped you in that restaurant — I was with a friend, and you were waiting for a table. And you were leaving, and I said, “Oh, I love you.” I think you said, “I love you too.” I remember saying, “Really?” But more than that, as you were leaving, I said, “I love your breasts.” Do you remember that?

CHASTAIN: You said, “I love your breasts”? I don’t remember.

MORENO: How can you forget that?

CHASTAIN: I must have thought you said, “I love your dress.”

MORENO: I see. But I remember my friend, who is gay, said to me: “I can’t believe you said that.” And I said: “Why not?”

CHASTAIN: My life is made.