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It's been a tremendous year for you, with The Tree of Life, The Help and The Debt being released in relatively quick succession, plus there's Take Shelter this fall. Has it felt like a marathon?
Yeah. I've had the past four years of making a film and then leaving it and going to another, so it's just been about the actual work. This year has really been [about] this other part of my career, where I get to talk about the films. With The Tree of Life, I felt like I was letting people in on this secret that I'd known but wasn't able to talk about for years.
What do you say to people who complain that it's hard to understand?
I say, "Good!" I think those are the films that stand the test of time—the ones that you can see more than once and every time you see it, you take something new from it.
Was working with Terrence Malick a little intimidating?
For me, I always get scared before I meet someone because I'm such a fan of films. I geek out on people. I absolutely had that with Terry. [He] is as wonderful as his films; he doesn't really allow you to be nervous around him.
Who's made you geek out the most?
Meryl Streep. She came to a play I was doing in New York 'cause she knew someone else in the production. And then after the play, I'm standing there in the lobby talking to some friends and they look over...and I look over and I said, "Is that Meryl Streep?!?" And my friend's like, "Yes, it is." And then she came over to me and started talking to me, and I absolutely made a fool of myself.
What did you do that was so bad?
There was just nothing cool about me. I just kind of looked at her, and I was like, "Oh, thank you for coming!" and walked away! [Laughs]
So this is a regular thing?
It's always like that with me. The other night, I was at an event talking to someone, and they go, "Hey, Jessica, have you met Zach?" I turn around and standing there is Zach Galifianakis. I just went, "Oh my God!," took my hand and put it over my face like a spider. And then I left it there and stared at him through my fingers. The look on his face was like, This girl is crazy!
It's interesting that you get that nervous to meet people. I've read that you often choose roles based on how much they scare you.
Someone taught me that you learn more from your failures than your successes, and I absolutely agree. In The Debt, I speak in an Israeli accent and I speak German. And in [Wilde] Salome, I'm doing The Dance of the Seven Veils and [there's] nudity. When I'm doing something really scary, there is a great chance I'm going to fall on my face and fail, but there's also a chance that I won't. Whatever happens, I'm going to learn something amazing.
For The Debt, was the accent or the fighting scene tougher for you?
I think in 11 films, I've had accents in seven. In The Debt, I got to work with Joan Washington, who's such a wonderful coach. For the fighting, I had four months of training in Krav Maga. I'm a petite girl, and I have to look like I could hold my own, so I really threw myself in the training. That was definitely worrisome because I hadn't done it before, and I didn't know if I could succeed in actually looking like I could take someone down.
What unnerved you about The Help?
I'm playing the babe, and that is really scary for me because I'm not that [in real life]. [Laughs] I'm not the peroxide-blond, super-curvy sex object. And I thought I could really embarrass myself trying to play this character. But [director] Tate Taylor encouraged me to put some weight on for the role, and then I just really threw myself into it. I had a great costume designer, who helped me with the girdles and the pink dresses and the hair. So when I was on set dressed as Celia, I did feel like the babe.
It's going to be interesting for people to see you going from a relatively genteel Southern woman to this ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners Mossad agent.
It's so different—especially all the scenes in the gynecological chair. There's a scene—it's my favorite in the movie—where I'm in the chair and then I take a guy down. It makes me so happy whenever I see that. I started doing press for The Help, and it was wonderful that people were already surprised 'cause it's so different from Tree of Life. The great thing about doing all these movies and having to wait for them come out is that every part has been incredibly different. The way that they're rolling out, people are going to be like, "I have no idea what to do with this girl."
The Help opens Wed 10. The Debt opens Aug 30.