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Jessica Chastain arrives at the second annual Academy Museum gala at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Oct. 15 in Los Angeles.Chris Pizzello/The Canadian Press

In a typical true-crime story, the crime itself is fetishized. If, say, a male nurse is serially killing patients by injecting insulin into saline bags, the audience is usually force-fed the grisly details: the procuring of the drugs, the preparation of the syringes, the closeups of the injections. But the new drama The Good Nurse (opening in select theatres Oct. 19 before arriving on Netflix Oct. 26) doesn’t do any of those things. And that’s why Jessica Chastain signed on to star.

“Our film focuses instead on what stops the cycle of violence,” Chastain said during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “It’s quiet, soulful, with a lot of stillness. We’re not telling a story of violence being stopped by violence, which is usually the one that’s told. We’re telling a story of violence being stopped by humanity, love and compassion.”

The Good Nurse, directed by Tobias Lindholm (who wrote the Oscar-winning Another Round), tells the true story of Amy Loughren (Chastain), a critical-care nurse at a New Jersey hospital who noticed that her colleague – and close friend – Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) was accessing unusual drugs and losing a startlingly high number of patients. She alerted police, who asked her to wear a wire to record their conversations. Eventually he confessed to 40 murders in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, from 1988 to 2003. But he may have committed as many as 400, which would make him the most egregious serial killer in history.

“It really happened that Amy was in a room with Charlie, and looked him in his eyes and reminded him that he’s a human being, when other people were treating him as a monster,” Chastain says. “That act of love is what ended his murder spree. That goes against the grain and shifts a perception, and anything that does that is exciting for me to tell.”

Chastain, 45, was born in Sacramento, Calif., attended Julliard in New York, and won the 2021 best actress Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. From her earliest roles it was clear that she was interested in playing women, not ingenues. But after her first few films, which included the elegiac Tree of Life opposite Brad Pitt, and the psychological drama Take Shelter opposite Michael Shannon, she noticed she was being offered wife roles, “the supportive, loving woman who’s going to help her man,” she says.

So she structured a course correction, creating her own production company, Freckle Films, in 2016. She played tough, self-made women (Zero Dark Thirty, Scenes from a Marriage); appeared in horror films (Mama, Crimson Peak) and action pictures (Ava, The 355); and evolved into a strong advocate for stories with a feminist backbone. “I spent a few years pushing against the type that Hollywood was trying to put me in, and now I’ve come to the point where it’s more difficult to put me in a box,” she says.

These days, Chastain is interested in projects that “celebrate compassion, humanity and the good in us,” she says. “Quite often the bad in us is glorified. I feel we need a balm against that. That’s always been part of who I am.”

As the mother of two daughters (her husband is the fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo), Chastain is aware of what her projects put out into the world, and she tries to be responsible about that. She’s moved by “an underdog story, someone whom a corporation or society has ignored, and they’re pushing against that,” she says. “I’m moved by someone who seeks justice despite a role they’re forced to play, whether that’s because of their gender or how they grew up. I’m inspired by stories of complex women. I grew up surrounded by incredible women, and the media still has difficulty telling those stories. So I’m excited to use my platform to amplify those women.”

Chastain’s research for The Good Nurse included multiple conversations with Loughren, who’s still an RN. Lindholm calls Loughren a superhero whose superpower is compassion; Chastain calls her a “badass” and admires her steadfast strength. But what really unlocked her character for Chastain was her everyday heroism: A single mother battling a severe heart condition, Loughren chose to work the night shift so she could be with her children when they were awake. The film details her ordinary struggles – to turn over a heavy patient for a bed bath; to stave off her exhaustion to run lines one more time for her child’s school play.

“I was raised by a single mom,” Chastain says. (Her birth father, a musician who died in 2013, was not in her life.) “I don’t see a lot of movies about single moms that really celebrate them and highlight what they do. Amy was dealing with a heart transplant and all these deaths at her hospital, but she also sacrificed her sleep and comfort to make sure her children were taken care of physically and emotionally. That was inspiring for me. I think a lot of women will relate to that.”

Chastain’s upcoming projects include the miniseries George and Tammy (she’s country music star Tammy Wynette; Michael Shannon is her husband George Jones) and the thriller Mothers’ Instinct, with Anne Hathaway. But now she’s charting another course correction. She’s learning to say no, even to a great project, if the timing isn’t right. “In the past, that’s been impossible for me – I didn’t understand how to do it,” she says. “But now I need to be okay with letting something go that I’d love making, so that I can live in the world separate from work. In order to fill myself up to go back to work.”

As well, she’s letting Hollywood know that she wants to work with interesting directors even if their budgets are smaller – to really hone the truth of a story, as she did on The Good Nurse. “I didn’t have to do much in this film physically,” she says. “But I had to feel everything. I had to be open to what was happening around me, and just allow the situation to be as harrowing as it was.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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