For a movie set in 1940s Poland, The Zookeeper's Wife is not exactly much of a period piece. In fact, its central theme of resistance during a time of oppression feel pretty applicable to life in today's United States. The film, out Mar. 31, tells the story of a real Polish couple who helped shepherd persecuted Jews to safety during World War II, despite the knowledge that they could be killed for their actions. And while the situation shown in the movie may have been unique to that time, the fact that religious discrimination and the refugee crisis are, unfortunately, current topics of conversation make the themes of The Zookeeper's Wife eerily relevant.
"Many times, people ask themselves, 'what would I have done in World War II? Oh, I would have helped, or oh, I would’ve done this.' [But] what you’re doing today is what you would have done back then," says Zookeeper's Wife star Jessica Chastain, sitting across from me at New York's Essex House earlier this month. "Are you spending your life fighting injustice? Are you speaking up for those being discriminated against? Are you protecting those trying to find a safe haven and fleeing violence and war? Or are you staying silent? Because there were millions of people that were staying silent."
"Hopefully," she continues, "this film will inspire people to open their doors and open their hearts, protect strangers and move away from leading their lives with fear."
Antonina Żabińska, the real woman Chastain portrays in the movie, did just that. As Polish Jews were being forced into ghettos, Antonina and her husband Jan used the zoo they ran in Warsaw as an underground tunnel, keeping over 300 Jews safe in their home until they could lead them out of the city. It's an incredible story of bravery and resistance, yet until the publication of Diane Ackerman's 2007 book about Jan and Antonina's efforts, few people knew it ever happened.
"When I read the script, the first thing I did was Google to see if it was true," says Chastain. "It’s an untold story... I’m happy that we’re bringing it to light and celebrating [Antonina]."
Although Antonina may not have been considered the hero she clearly was for far too many years, it's no surprise that Chastain is the actor bringing her story to life. In the last couple of years, Chastain has played some seriously powerful women, from CIA analyst Maya in Zero Dark Thirty to Washington lobbyist Elizabeth in Miss Sloane. And even the characters not as bold or domineering, like Celia in The Help or, even, Antonina in The Zookeeper's Wife, are emotionally strong in their own ways, defying the "rules" for what women in their situations should do or how they should behave.
For Chastain, the similarities shared between these roles have not gone unnoticed.
"I’m excited by characters that push against the status quo, defy the expectations of what they should be or what they should do — women that are vocal in their lives, [and] push against any boundaries that society puts forward," she says. "Female characters can have many characteristics. They can be soft and delicate and loving, or revengeful and aggressive, but that is one quality that they all share."
And whether their stories are set in 1941 or 2017, these women's tales of defiance and fortitude have no expiration date.