The Zookeeper’s Wife: Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro Discuss War, Film, and Femininity

A few months ago I came across a great blog post by Messy Nessy Chic by Inge Oosterhoff about a zoo in Warsaw that gave shelter to Jews during World War II. The zoo’s operators, Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina, faced a variety of hardships during the early years of the war. But Jan and Antonina had been involved with subversive activism even before the war and continued their efforts of resistance even after Germany had entered Poland. The empty cages of the zoo were used as a shelter for the Jewish families and individuals that Jan managed to sneak out of the Warsaw ghettos, where they stayed until they could be moved using false documents that the Żabińskis procured. It really is an excellent post, and I highly recommend that you read it when you have a chance. The post mentioned that the book The Zookeeper’s Wife, written by Diane Ackerman, inspired by Antonina’s diaries, was being made into a movie – which is in theaters now!

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The story, of course, stuck with me though I had no idea at the time that I read the Oosterhoff’s post that I would be invited to an advanced screening and press junket for the very same film! The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabińska and directed by Niki Caro, illustrates Antonina’s experiences at the Warsaw Zoo.

Here’s a spoiler-free synopsis, after which follows a somewhat spoiler-y Q&A:

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Żabińska (portrayed by two-time Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh of “The Broken Circle Breakdown”), have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Germans, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Captain America: Civil War”). To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance – and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.

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After seeing the film, I was completely taken in by not only Jessica Chastain’s performance, and Director Niki Caro’s beautiful film, but especially by the performance of Israeli actress Shira Haas who plays Ursula, a young Jewish girl who Jan helps remove from the Warsaw ghettos after she is raped by two Nazi soldiers. Ursula is not included in the book, but it was shot and acted in such a way that it became such a central part of the entire movie.

I asked Niki and Jessica if they could speak about filming those scenes, as well as what it was like to act them out with Shira Haas.

NIKI CARO: The character of Ursula is emblematic of all children who are hurt by war. And so as the director of this movie, I had to think very hard about what I could bring to this genre. And I recognized that it was femininity; that I could take my inspiration from Antonina, and be very soft, and very strong with this material. And so Ursula was a very, very important character, because her experience had made her animal – it’s an incredible performance, obviously; young Israeli actress called Shira Haas. And the scenes between her and Antonina are wonderful, because we see Antonina dealing with Ursula as she would with an animal – which is to say, very instinctively; not coming too close, but reassuring her that she’s there. It’s Antonina’s connection to animals that – her humanity with animals that she brings to – that she brought to her human refugees, you know. And I think that sort of unspoken trust and compassion between those two characters, and those two actresses, is a very, very special part of the movie, for me.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: I have to say I was very happy to – sorry, this is a little bit about this. But I was happy to be in a film that, for me when I watch the movie, I’m distraught about the rape of this young girl. But there’s no salacious scene that we’re forced to watch.

NIKI CARO: Um-hmm.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: And I find that in a lot of films in our industry, it’s directed in a way that it becomes this salacious thing. And it was wonderful to work with a woman who had more delicacy with that. And then, what was your question for me?

PRESS: About what was it like to work with the young actress?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: Well, Shira’s an incredible actress. And you know, I just kind of – I instinctively knew to not try to distract her in any way. You know, when we were filming that stuff, she was so in it, that I didn’t want to be like, “Hey, how was dinner tonight?” you know, and talking about things that didn’t connect to what the scene was. So I always held back. I, you know, I was there in case she needed me, or I, you know, was watching her in between takes. But I never tried to do anything that would pull her out of it.

NIKI CARO: You know, it was incredibly organic, actually, the whole – the whole movie was. But in that scene, in particular, there was a bunny. And the bunny is – really shows us the healing power of animals – that it’s a little bunny that can break through for this girl. And that’s Antonina’s gift, really, to know, you know, without words, without overt action, just what to do in that moment. And Jessica absolutely has that gift herself, as a human being. So – which really made my job very, very easy.

Murder is horrific, and it’s important to note that there is a massive industry surrounding horror films that capitalize on murder as entertainment. With that in mind, I think that that there is a great danger in that portrayal of rape can be turned into something entertaining – because movie making is still an industry motivated at some point by profit. So I was grateful to hear Jessica, who works within the film and entertainment industry herself, point out the amazing job that Niki Caro does as a director, and how she deals with such complex and sensitive material in a way that is not salacious but still illustrates the extreme horror of rape, especially because Ursula is a child.

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The film, which naturally revolves around Antonina’s diaries and her life at the zoo, does not ignore the intense personal problems that Antonina would have had to deal with herself. Questions like what would happen to her children if they were found out, or what happens within a marriage in extremely stressful situations, are not ignored. I think instead of moving away from the horrors of the Holocaust and of the Second World War, The Zookeeper’s Wife broadens the scope of our understanding within the platform of film. For instance, I was never taught about the Żabińskis in school. I was never taught about people like Antonina, Jan, Irena Sendler and others recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. I wish it had been a part of my elementary or middle school curriculum, which is part of what drew Jessica to the film.

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“I was really inspired by her. And also, I want to celebrate women in the past who have made great sacrifices to help others. We don’t really – I don’t think we acknowledge women in history as often as we should. And so I’m excited to be part of this story that gets to – gets to share it with a larger audience” Jessica also added.

The Zookeeper's Wife Press Junket NYC

The zoo still stands to this day. The film opens in theaters on March 31st! Check out these behind the scenes clips:

Interview: Alice Through the Looking Glass Costume Designer Colleen Atwood

Earlier last month I joined Disney and famed designer Colleen Atwood for tea and a chance to talk about her work on Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has recently been released to DVD and Blu-Ray! I’ve been a fan of her work for a while, she has such an inspiring story and has designed for some of my most favorite movies including Edward Scissorhands, Little Women, Planet of the Apes (2001 movie), Big Fish, Memoirs of a Geisha, Into the Woods, The Huntsman movies, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and of course both of the Alice in Wonderland films.

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She’s so lovely in person, and I was so thrilled that I was able to, along with other bloggers and press, ask her a few questions.

Q: Are there any secret locations or places where you find inspiration?

Colleen Atwood: Well I find them everywhere, like fabric stores – sometimes I see a piece of fabric that’s great and I go “oh! That could be this!”. I get ideas from all over the place basically. There’s a great flea market in France, in Paris, that I go to in the north of Paris and it’s always great for inspiration for bits and pieces that are interesting. So many movies are made in London – this movie is made in London -and London has Portobello Road [flea market]. Which, sometimes I don’t really have a purpose in mind, I just get up early on Saturday morning and go there when it first opens, before it gets crowded and wander around and find like – he has a lot of weird buttons on his costume and most of those are sourced there and you know, old hat pins, just weird stuff people have in trays in front of their stalls and it’s fun to just discover things that way.

Q: Any favorite flea markets in New York?

CA: You know in New York I like the – and I meditated on going down there this morning – the one on 26th street, it’s like a garage you walk through and I love wandering around there. And there’s the emporium there that has some great stuff so I usually visit there. And there’s a great lingerie place there that’s beautiful, upstairs, it’s quite expensive but she has great stuff. There’s a few places, sort of warehouse wholesale, that I’ve gone to in Brooklyn but they’re not as accessible to people who are just walking around and shopping.

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Q: Time has a really distinct costume, what was your inspiration or thought process behind that?

CA: I wanted him to be, kind of feel like he was something to do with a clock without literally being a clock. And I also loved the sort of graphic aspect of the clock kind of towering over little Alice, luckily Sacha’s [Baron Cohen, who plays Time] already about 6’3”-6’4” so that helped that I didn’t get a short guy for the part. But I put him in really high platform boots for part of it, and then he has those long thin legs so we did long skinny legs and a poufy pant and the big shoulders to get him wider, sort of like a grandfather clock. And then we came up with an idea to get him even taller with using a tall hat on him like the bishop’s sort of medieval hat that he has, sort of like a Greek Orthodox style from way early in time. And in his fitting for that we had brown paper and we just kept putting it in different hat shapes and trying them on him and figuring out which one was the best for him and for Time, and we came up with that one and it was sort of maximum height. We had some that were taller but it was too much, it almost made him look shorter. In the movie you see on his hand he has a thing that has all these rings and stuff – that was a piece of metal mesh that I found in a flea market and then I found all these watches with convex lenses on them that stuck out so that they were like cabochon jewels, so we took those and made them into his hand piece to make it a sort of element of time. And the rest was all kinds of stuff, different materials. We had a long cape on him and then most of the time he wore the short cape because it made him look funnier with his skinny legs.

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Q: Movement is such a big part of this film, you chose to use very different textures in the fabric. Was that something that you just felt, touched it, and knew that this would be a great dynamic on the screen?

CA: I’ve done a lot of digital films at this point and know kind of what the camera sees, and especially when you go darker than a medium ground, it’s really important to have a texture and almost like a surface that has a little shine to it that kicks back some light. Otherwise all you get is sort of a black shape, you don’t really get much depth. So I’ve learned to paint into costumes, and add layers, add stuff to them to give it more dimension that way it’ll work in a lower light situation. So I use that trick a lot on this movie and I like texture, I think it tricks the camera in a way that’s interesting because sometimes you can’t even perceive what it is but it gives you a feeling that’s nice and a little bit more interesting than if you had just used a fabric as it comes off the peg.

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Q: Obviously designing for a sequel is going to be a lot different than the first time, what was your approach when you were revisited these characters and kind of built of the way that you already had designed for them?

CA: I felt like it was nice, I felt like I knew them. I knew who they were as people so I felt like I could have a little more play with them. I had a couple more opportunities because we had the flashback for the girls, where they were there kind of their teenaged selves, and then each of them had been on a journey. My constant was, other than her flashback, was Mirana – the Anne Hathaway character – her costume sort of remained the same. But Alice, when we left Alice she was going off to see the world and she came back as a very rare thing, a sea captain as a woman, so I had the opportunity to take the beautiful uniforms of the period and make one for her. Then we had to create her Chinese look from her Chinese journey, and then re-visit something that perhaps the Hatter had made for her in her final costume with the balloon pants and the kind of whimsical blouse made out of strips of fabric. So I kind of took each character and sort of felt like I could go free with them, it was sort of like a totally new movie for me as a designer but with the people that I knew from before.

Q: Is there one character from the movie that stands out as being the most enjoyable to design?

CA: Well, when you get a movie like this they’re all fun! Because they’re all such different things. I mean I love Helena’s costume and her take on the character is so much fun, and it was great to get to do her armor which I really loved doing with the thorn heart chest piece, and the military braid hoop and the sort of deconstructed military madness that the Red Queen would come up with. Mia’s clothes were great; I mean they were like a really beautiful journey. I got to use embroidery and all sorts of techniques that I hadn’t used before on the Alice prequel.

Listen to the entire interview here!

Alice Through the Looking Glass released to DVD and Blu-Ray on October 18th, if you don’t own it yet then it would make a great gift this holiday season! Alice Through the Looking Glass is a spectacular adventure featuring the unforgettable characters from Lewis Carroll’s beloved stories in which Alice returns to the whimsical world of Underland and travels back in time to save the Mad Hatter.

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Enter to win your own copy of Alice Through the Looking Glass right now – just leave me a comment about your favorite outfit in the movie, or if you haven’t seen it, is there anything you found interesting that Colleen revealed in her interview? Personally, I loved when she spoke about creating Time’s outfit – the amount of detail is really incredible! Leave an extra comment/entry if you RT this!

*Giveaway ends 11/23/16. US, 18+.

Interview: Katie Cassidy on NYFW #Hot2Adopt Feline Fashion Show & The Modern Cat Lady

This past week I was lucky enough to catch Katie Cassidy, star of CW’s Arrow and The Flash, between shows and speak to her about her NYFW Hot to Adopt Feline Fashion Show and Lounge with Fresh Step. In addition to a feline-inspired fashion show, complete with cats on the runway, the Hot to Adopt lounge also offered attendees an exclusive opportunity to adopt their very own feline right there!

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More information about the exclusive Hot to Adopt tee (as seen on Katie) after the interview:

The NYC Talon: Can you tell me a little bit about your Hot to Adopt Feline Fashion Lounge with Fresh Step, what can we expect?

Katie Cassidy: Yes, so you can expect feline inspired looks which I think is fun. I’ll be hosting the Hot to Adopt Feline Fashion event and fashion show with Fresh Step and I think it’ll be fun, I think it’ll be interesting. Obviously it’s for a good cause and you can actually purchase this shirt [pictured above, more details below] at freshsteps.com and part of it will go toward helping cat shelters all over the country, which is such a great cause and I’m excited to do it. I’m excited to see what people will wear, and actually we’ll be having cats walking down the runway which will be fun, yeah it’ll be very cute.

TNT: So I saw your post on TKC [Katie’s blog, post seen here], are cat ears something we’re going to see on the runway?

KC: Yeah, I certainly think so, I probably will wear some. I know there’ll be cat accessories that are very feline inspired, and it’ll be fun to bring that sort of awareness to people and get rid of that sort of crazy cat lady stigma. So we’ll be taking fashion and felines and sort of turning that stigma around. I actually just bought this clutch will a little cat face, it’s very cute.

TNT: Yes – I just saw that Kate Spade’s fall accessories have this adorable cat icon!

KC: Yeah and I just got this jacket from Stella McCartney that has this cat print all over it!

TNT: That sounds awesome. So, I know you have a cat…

KC: I do

TNT: And I think you have a dog, I’ve seen tweets with Felicia –

KC: [Laughs] To be honest with you I just love animals, and Felicia is my dog that I actually co-own with our stylist we have on Arrow, our hairstylist. Because when I travel, it’s hard when you have a dog or a cat, but a cat, obviously they can take care of themselves – but not for too long! But you can’t really leave a dog at home. Yeah, she’s been really fun.

TNT: I know you mentioned earlier about the cat lady stigma, what would you define as the ‘modern cat lady’?

KC: Hmm, the modern cat woman. Well, that’s what I think is so cool about this kind of thing because it’s bringing fashion and felines together and you have these, like as we saw on the cover of Porter magazine recently that there is a cat on the cover and I think adopting cats is more than just on trend, and we’re seeing them more on like cute clutches and shoes and it’s a sign of strong independent women. It’s something that’s cool, and again I love cats – actually [laughs] I want to get another one!

TNT: I’m a massive fan of your blog, are we going to see some What Katie Wore posts for Fashion Week?

KC: Yes! You certainly will, I have a photoshoot happening at some point tomorrow, I don’t know what time but yes you will.

TNT: Cats are kind of classified as lounging animals, if you have one day to absolutely lounge about and devote to rest & relaxation, what would you do?

KC: Everybody loves the spa, I feel like. Probably…I don’t know if I would just like have a relaxation day… I would probably go get a facial, or go to the gym, or not talk on the phone, or go on social media. I would probably just want to be by myself, you know? And order lots of pizza.

TNT: A girl after my own heart!

KC: Yeah – girl, pizza is my jam!

And that concludes my interview with Katie! She was so sweet, and I was very excited to interview her. She was in a rush, which was lucky otherwise I very well might have bombarded her with my embarrassing Arrow/The Flash Black Canary/Black Siren questions.

To purchase Katie’s exclusive Hot to Adopt t-shirt, check out FreshStep.com here.

I love Fresh Step’s commitment to encouraging and celebrating cat ownership, and this tee is honestly adorable. But there’s more! All through the month of October Fresh Step wants you to step out and declare your love of modern cat ladies (and gentlemen too!) by declaring “Feline Fashion Fridays” – cat owners cat show their love of cats by posting a picture of themselves with their cat to Fresh Step’s Instagram using the #freshstepcontest hashtag each Friday for a chance to win free Fresh Step litter, a $250 VISA Gift Card, and the limited edition #hot2adopt T-shirt!

Check out FreshStep.com for more info.