A Contemporary, Culpable Desdemona 

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William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been considered one of his more timeless creations–a careful case study of war, racism and the intense fog of love that can lead sane men into passionate fits of jealousy, betrayal and vengeance.

Reenvisioned for a thoroughly modern staging by the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company, in association with Wiener Festwochen, Vienna and Schauspielhaus Bochum, Othello returns with a limited series of performances scheduled at NYU’s Skirball Center through October 4, starring John Ortiz as Othello, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago and Jessica Chastain as Desdemona–the wife who finds herself caught in the crossfire between two men jockeying for power in the upper echelons of the Venetian army.

The L Magazine spoke recently with Chastain, about updating Othello for a 2009 audience, working alongside the likes of Hoffman and Ortiz, and what it’s like to perform while lying on a bed made out of plasma television screens.

The L Magazine: Looking at all the movies you’ve been working on, you’ve just come away from collaborating with some serious cinematic heavyweights: Working with Al Pacino in Salomaybe? and John Madden in The Debt and Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life. Was it a big adjustment to go back to the stage?

Jessica Chastain: I’ve been craving to do a play again. I haven’t been on stage in three years and that was all I used to do. My Juilliard training was mostly in theater, and so when I finished working with John Madden, out in the middle of the night and doing all these nighttime action sequences, I came home to California just exhausted. But then I heard about this project–one of the greatest plays that Shakespeare ever wrote and the chance to work with Peter Sellars and Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz–and it was sort of a no-brainer.

Obviously you have a strong affection for this play–but what is it specifically about the part of Desdemona that you find so captivating?

What I think is most beautiful about this character is that she’s the embodiment of ultimate love, and ultimate forgiveness. She is all about seeing the good in people and always trying to find a way to excuse the bad and forgive people, and asking herself: Why is someone behaving like this? When you play someone like that, it can’t help but teach you a little bit about your own life, and so in that way I feel really fortunate that I’ve had the chance to play someone so great and beautiful. I show up every night and I feel like I’m doing a lovely story between Othello and Desdemona–I think all of us see the story a little bit differently, but for me it’s really this profound story of unconditional love.

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