Jessica Chastain’s powerful protagonist in the gripping new biopic, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ is a rare breed of a woman who isn’t afraid to boldly face the aggression of her predators. The historical drama tells the true story of Antonina Zabinski, a heroine who bravely fought to protect the humans and animals in her care at the zoo where she and her family worked, despite living in a time of sheer terror and destruction. While many people would understandably fear and retreat from their enemies, the matriarch courageously accepted the challenge of sacrificing her own safety to shield the people and animals who were targeted by the Nazis during World War II.
‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is based on the 2007 non-fiction book of the same name, which was written by Diane Ackerman, who based her account on Antonina’s diary. Focus Features has released the biographical drama, whose screenplay was penned by Angela Workman, and which was directed by Niki Caro, in theaters today.
‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ opens at the Warsaw Zoo in the summer of 1939, which is peacefully run by Antonina Zabinski (Chastain) and her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). The couple is not only devoted to each other, but also their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford in the early years, and Val Maloku in the later years). The couple also thrives in their professional relationship, as they lovingly care for the animals that are under their care together. But the family’s peaceful and idealistic existence is shattered when Germany invades Poland, and bombs inadvertently land on, and destroy, the zoo.
The Zabinskis are shocked when they discover that they now must report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl). The scientist decides to take control of the zoo, as he envisions forming a new, selective breeding program there that would help the German cause.
Realizing that they could use Lutz’s feelings for Antonina to their advantage, she and her husband decide to covertly work alongside him on the zoo so that they sneak Jewish residents onto their property from the Warsaw Ghetto. Antonina and Jan realize that their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels that were designed to protect the animals can now house the refugees. While the couple realizes that they’re putting their own lives in danger, they feel that protecting the refugees is more important than the risk of being caught by the Nazis. The protective nature the Zbinskis had over their animals easily transitions to the people they vowed to save during the most devastating period of their lives.
Chastain and Caro generously took the time recently to sit down for a roundtable interview at New York City’s The Essex House hotel to talk about starring in, and directing, ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife.’ Among other things, the actress and director discussed how they not only wanted to make a World War II-set movie that’s told from the perspective of a woman, but they also wanted to highlight Antonina’s compassion with her family and the strangers they helped survive during the international conflict. They both also shared that they hope that all viewers realize that the subject of protecting refugees is still an important issue in contemporary times, and that there will be people today who aren’t afraid to help others, no matter what consequences they may face, much like the Zabinskis did during the 1940s.
The conversation began with the filmmaker and actress discussing when and how they became attached to the biopic. “I think I was first,” Caro revealed before adding that Chastain “was our first choice. So it’s just been us right from the beginning…I was really surprised that I hadn’t heard of the story before,” becoming attached to the movie, the director also divulged.
“I saw the opportunity to make a very feminine Holocaust movie. Most war movies are from the male point-of-view, which is very appropriate…But the war also happened to women, children and animals,” Caro pointed out. “So I thought we could celebrate (Antonina’s) compassion, femininity and strength in a way that was very domestic.”
The Academy Award-nominated actress then chimed in on becoming involved in ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ and divulged that she was “also moved by the way that this movie focused on the Holocaust. To reiterate what Niki said, we see a lot of death and the darkest parts of human nature in films about the Holocaust.
“But we also need to see that there’s always light. We also need to celebrate Antonina and Jan, who were ordinary people who scarified their safety to save the lives of hundreds of strangers,” Chastain further explained. “So for me, being able to tell that story is really special.”
The actress then explained that she also signed on to serve as one of the executive producers on the historical drama, “as it’s a film that’s very important to me. I think as soon as I signed on as an actor, I also signed on as” a producer. She added that she “wanted to do everything I could to put everything that I had into getting the film made.”
“‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is actually based on Antonina’s journals. It’s really fascinating the little gems you can get in there, especially when you’re reading something so personal,” Chastain also noted when she then started discussing how the book influenced her performance. “One thing I was really informed by was how much she deferred to her husband…There were all of these little things about her that I found in the journals and book.”
The actress was also able to meet the Zabinskis’ daughter, Teresa, which was an experience that Chastain described as being “very special. I went to Warsaw, where we met at the zoo, and we had a translator. It was very emotional, and tears were shed. I got to ask her things that weren’t in the book. She told me that throughout her whole life, she never saw her mother wear pants…So all of these things that I got from the book and meeting with the family were very important in understanding the femininity and softness of Antonina.”
When then asked how Jewish audiences may view ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife,’ Chastain reflected on how she “did a film called ‘The Debt,’ which (was released in 2011 and) is a remake of the Israeli film ‘HaChov.’ So I have a lot of people who come up to me and say, ‘I love ‘The Debt!’ My character (in ‘The Debt’), Rachel Singer, was an incredible character to play…I’m really excited to have people see Antonina now, because she’s also someone who’s dynamic, strong and loving.
“I hope that when all of my friends, who are and aren’t Jewish, see this film, they’ll be reminded that this is still a very contemporary subject. I hope they’ll also realize that when there’s darkness and war, there’s also kindness. There are also ordinary people who will step forward, and do what they can to help others,” the actress also shared. “This film is about refugees, so it’s so very contemporary. I hope everyone, no matter what their religion is, will be inspired to do what they can to help others in need.”
Chastain also discussed how she loved working with the animals on the set of ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife.’ “It’s like what Antonina says in the film; when you look into their eyes, you know exactly what’s in their heart. Animals are authentic, and there’s something so pure about them. So much of this film is what it means to be in a cage. Throughout the story, people are possessing other people and the animals, and there’s this ownership. For me, any living thing shouldn’t be owned or possessed.”
Caro then praised the way Chastain approaches all of her performances, and how she interacts with the people she works with, on all of her projects. “What amazes me is that it’s like that these roles are almost played by different actresses. She has this ability to completely transform, and show us this whole other side of human nature. For ‘Zookeeper’s,’ it’s a side that’s very soft and feminine, and one that we haven’t seen from her before in this way.”
The director also discussed how there were some creative differences she took as a filmmaker while crafting the story for the drama. “Lutz Heck did have feelings for Antonina, as we know from their diaries. But he didn’t do his bison breeding program in the actual zoo. But this is where as filmmakers, we take our responsibilities to entertain seriously. Spiritually, the film is incredibly faithful to the original story.”
Caro then commented on why she decided to have Chastain speak in English with a Polish while she played Antonina. “This is a convention of movies of this kind, in which events obviously took place in Europe,” where the characters speak different languages. As a result, “We wanted to slightly accent the English in a Polish way…we tried for a level of authenticity in every part of the film.”
Also chiming in on the process of shaping Antonina’s accent, Chastain explained that “This wasn’t in the film, but in reality, Antonina’s mother died when Antonina was very young, when she was in St. Petersburg. Her father and step-mother were coming home from dinner one night, and they were asked to show their hands. Since they didn’t have any calluses on their hands, they were shot. (Looking at people’s hands was) how it was determined who were the intelligents and the laborers. So Antonina always had a very rough time.
“Antonina herself can also be seen now as a refugee. When she ended up in Warsaw, she was already a young lady. So that was important for me to show,” the Golden Globe-winning actress revealed.
Due to Antonina’s background and experiences, Chastain decided to infuse her character’s English with tints of Polish and Russian accents. That way “it felt as though she wasn’t of the place” where the film’s set. The actress also revealed that she “pitched my voice higher, so it would have a softer quality. I also got to work with (voice dialect coach) Joan Washington, who I think is the best there is. I’ve worked with her many times, and she was on set with us.”
Since a majority of the story is set on the Zabinskis’ zoo, Caro also explained how they built the zoo “on an abandoned park in the middle of Prague. We also recreated the villa. If you go to the Warsaw Zoo today, you’ll see the villa; it will be like walking into the movie. The Zabinskis’ villa is exactly the same” as the one that’s in the real zoo.
“The sad thing is, Warsaw doesn’t look like it did in 1939 anymore. Due to the resistance and uprising, it was completely destroyed. So the city’s been built in another image from the time when Antonina lived there,” Chastain explained. The drama’s crew was “incredible about finding the space where we filmed in Prague, and creating this cosmopolitan space of what Warsaw would have looked like then.”
During World War II, Warsaw “was very cosmopolitan; it was considered the Paris of the north. So Prague was a great place to find the colors and beautiful buildings” that would make the film feel as though it was really taking place in the Polish capital during World War II, Caro noted.
“I felt a great responsibility when playing this character to honor her family. What Antonina and Jan did was so extraordinary, and it’s a reminder that anyone can do that,” Chastain emphasized when she then delved into honoring the legacy of her title character in the biopic. “So I wanted to show the utmost respect for the (Zabinski) family by honoring them in my portrayal.”