Though Guillermo del Toro’s new ghost film, Crimson Peak, may be inspired by Gothic Romances like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, don’t expect a brooding man to come to the heroine’s rescue. A hasty marriage is just the beginning of heroine Edith’s problems. Along with a dilapidated house haunted by ghosts, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) must deal with her husband’s disdainful, secretive sister, Lucille, played by Jessica Chastain. While the dashing husband (Tom Hiddleston) or a doting doctor (Charlie Hunnam) might come to Edith’s rescue in another story, in this film, the two are all but pushed aside while Edith and Lucille play a game of cat and mouse.
Chastain spoke with TIME about how to find sympathy for a devil, the movie’s revolutionary take on sex and why Crimson Peak will help make Hollywood a better place for women seeking out robust roles.
TIME: You decided to pursue the role of the villain Lucille instead of the heroine Edith when you were first presented with the script. Why?
Jessica Chastain: Mia is far better than I would have ever been in that role. I think she’s brilliant in the movie. When I read the script, I had never played a character like Lucille, and I wanted to explore that type of loneliness. It was just extreme loneliness. I wanted to find the compassion for this person who ends up doing these terrible things.
The character could have easily become an over-the-top Disney stepmother type of villain, but you feel compassion for her. How do you walk that line?
The thing about Guillermo, and what I love so much about his films, is that he has so much compassion and love for his monsters. When approaching the character, I knew I was going to be in really good hands because I wasn’t interested in just exploring evilness and darkness. That to me is very uninteresting, just as uninteresting as it would be to just explore light and goodness. I want to know what could happen to a person to behave in a way that would make them look like they were a monster.
It’s rare to see two female leads in a movie. Was that something that attracted you to the script?
I speak a lot about diversity, and I’m constantly looking for projects that have more than one point of view in them. I very rarely get to work with actors who are women. I had a great time on The Help. And when I read the script [for Crimson Peak] I was really pleased that there were these two fantastic female characters and that I would have scenes with another actress because that’s my really my desire—to work with as many different kinds of people as possible.
Guillermo’s movies have a reputation for bringing together a more diverse cast than most big-budget films.
Yeah. Even in Pacific Rim, if you look at his female characters, they’re all really powerful, and they’re not there as sexualized objects. They’re actually human beings. They’re similar in their interests to the male characters. I have always wanted to work with Guillermo because of that. It’s why I did this and Mama before that with him.
In many horror films, women are punished for losing their virginity. This movie doesn’t do that. What did you think of the film’s approach to sex?
I love that Edith can be this lead of the film and be pure and good and have sex, and that’s okay. She doesn’t need to be punished for being a sexualized person. It’s great. You can be pure in one moment and be sexual in another—and that’s really what a woman is. You’re allowed to be both. Guillermo really shows that in this film.
In a lot of films, women are only there to be something to look at. They don’t really accomplish anything. I get so tired of that. Every woman I’ve ever met is complex. Yes, there are some that are beautiful, but there are other things to them. They have brains. It shouldn’t just be about how a woman looks to determine her value in society.
I imagine that’s particularly exacerbated in a profession where so much of the conversation centers on having someone with the right “look.”
It makes me crazy. I saw an interview recently with Meryl Streep, who is our greatest American actress ever. And she was talking about when she was starting out and went into an audition, and the producer said in Italian, something like, “Why did you bring me an ugly girl?” And Meryl understood what he said. That’s crazy for me to think about because I look at those movies from the beginning of her career, and I find her so exquisite. Of course she’s beautiful but it was also what was going on inside of her—her intellect and her compassion in these performances.
I’m still shocked that it’s still an issue. I mean, we’re coming out of it because when you look at movies like Crimson Peak, female characters get to be all different kinds of things and the focus isn’t about how someone looks. That to me shows that we are making progress.
What was it like working with a male director on a movie so centered on two women’s stories?
I don’t think there’s any difference working with a male director or a female director. I’ve probably done a little over 20 films. Sadly, I’ve worked with just four female directors, and I actively seek out female directors to work with. I’ve actually found zero difference. I find that women can tell stories about men, men can tell stories about women. Guillermo is a sensitive being—he can tell a story about many different kinds of people. And so could a female director.
But I want to stress there is a need for many different storytellers in the world because everyone has their own point of view. I think people have a false idea that women cannot direct big budget action films for some very strange reason—just like they might have a misconception that a man cannot direct a story about women, which is proved false with Guillermo and Crimson Peak.
But you’re optimistic?
So many people right now are talking about it, and I do see a change. It’s really slow. But it’s an incredible thing that I’m witnessing.
I’m very lucky to be working with Niki Caro right now on The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it’s wonderful. On the set I’m on there’s a female director, screenwriter, two female producers, a female stunt coordinator, female costume designer, female hair and makeup, female camera operator. It’s unlike any set I have ever been on. It’s so exciting, and it’s because women in the industry are speaking out about it, people are becoming more aware of it, and they’re actively trying to change things.