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Jessica Chastain playing Murph in InterstellarCourtesy of Warner Bros UK

Jessica Chastain's Interstellar gender-swap

The star of Nolan's epic talks about her role – originally in the script as a male

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film about a team of astronauts and their search to find a new home for humanity amongst the stars, is an eye-widening masterpiece, especially in IMAX. But it’s exciting for another reason. When we spoke to Nolan, we asked him about his approach to writing women and he revealed that one of the female characters was originally male. “In the original draft of the script, Murph was originally a boy,” Nolan told Dazed. “Maybe because my eldest child is a girl, I decided to change Murph into a girl. I found that came very naturally to me, writing that relationship between a father and a daughter. It was something I really enjoyed, and I enjoyed extrapolating that to the rest of the story.”

This is pretty progressive – major roles for women seem to be a rarity in Hollywood, let alone roles that were originally written for men. So we decided to talk to the woman who plays Murph, Jessica Chastain, about her experiences playing the gender-swapping character, what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood and why she'd like to be the next Neo.

Christopher Nolan told us that Murphy was originally written as a man and changed to a woman, were you aware of that when you read the script?

Jessica Chastain: I wasn’t aware of that until we started to do press, but it makes sense. It’s a huge literary theme in novels and in movies where it’s the father/son story. I’ve seen that countless times, so of course that’s the expected take on it. So how incredible that Chris (Nolan) was able to use his personal experience of having a daughter to say, ‘Wait a minute, what about the father/daughter relationship?’

In terms of female identity, did the role retain any masculine qualities at all? 

Jessica Chastain: I could tell at the first costume fitting – I looked at the costume and thought, ‘Wow, there’s a way she’s presenting herself to the world’, and I was curious about it, but then I realised her whole world is her father. So, there’s the idea of her wearing her father’s jacket. She doesn’t present herself as available for love, so there’s a way she presents herself to the world that isn’t the most welcoming for someone to approach her romantically.

It’s a really positive move by Nolan to create a female character in this way. Do you think Hollywood is getting better in terms of roles for women?

Jessica Chastain: Realistically, no. If you look at all the films that people are talking about this year in terms of Best Picture, there’s not one film that has a female protagonist. If you look at that, it’s pretty obvious. I think people are talking about it a lot, so I know people want change – they’re acknowledging that there isn’t equality in terms of female directors, writers and cinematographers. I’m very lucky in that I get sent incredible parts and incredible roles, but there are many actresses who are phenomenal who should also be getting incredible roles. So I think we have a way to go.

One of the things that makes this film so special is that it does have those strong female characters, of different ages as well

Jessica Chastain: Exactly, and how incredible for the director to say: ‘Hold on, this part could easily be a female’? I think that directors should start to do that more. When I realised that, I thought, ‘Okay, when people say there’s no scripts out there, I’m going to start looking through the scripts written for men.’ We’re not actually that different, men and women. We’re all complicated, we all have similar dreams and ambitions and fears. There wasn’t a huge script change to make Murph a girl – I bet there’s a lot out there that I’m going to now look at and say, ‘How could this be a female character and wouldn’t it be interesting?’

“We’re not actually that different, men and women. We’re all complicated, we all have similar dreams and ambitions and fears. There wasn’t a huge script change to make Murph a girl” – Jessica Chastain

Are there any classic male characters you'd like to play? For some reason I think you’d make an amazing Neo in The Matrix

Jessica Chastain: Oh my God, I’d love to play that character! (claps hands). I love all the adventurers, the explorers. That’s something that women don’t really get a chance to play, but I definitely have an adventurous spirit.

And what was the most fun day on set of Interstellar for you?

Jessica Chastain: There was a day where I was driving around a lot with Topher Grace. He was so funny, and any time we weren’t filming he kept cracking jokes. I had to say, ‘C’mon dude, stop making me laugh.’ We were filming the stuff where I’m driving like a maniac, doing U-turns and setting the corn on fire. And the whole time his lines were: ‘Murph, what are you doing? Murph, come on, we’ve got to leave. Murph, what are you doing?’ And he said to me right before we started shooting, he just goes: ’Why do I feel like the girl in this movie?’ And I was like: ‘Yeah!’ And you can see the stereotypes. Of course, it makes sense written for a man: Murph driving around with the female scientist with him. How incredible to be the girl and get to do that stuff?

Interstellar is in cinemas on Friday, November 7