Like the women in her latest film, The 355, Theresa Rebeck was recruited for a special mission.
The spy-actioner, which stars Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Fan Bingbing, comes from a story by Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Rebeck and a script she co-wrote with director Simon Kinberg.
Rebeck, a lover of spy fare who wrote the screenplay for Harriet the Spy, is used to operating in the male-dominated crime-drama world of TV and film, with credits on series like NYPD Blue and L.A. Law. But her catalog of work onscreen and onstage has long centered and celebrated the experiences of women, making her a perfect pick to help producer and parity advocate Chastain bring her female-fronted action thriller to the big screen.
The journey to launching the espionage-filled tale — whose title is derived from the code name of a real-life, and little-known, female Revolutionary War spy — took Rebeck and Chastain around the globe, beginning in March 2018. That’s when, alongside Rebeck’s meetings with Freckle Films’ president of production Kelly Carmichael and eventually Kinberg, Chastain began approaching “different actresses she had relationships with” at Cannes.
From there, Rebeck says it was a race against the clock to turn her 20-page treatment into a full-length feature that fulfilled Chastain’s directive: challenge the notion that the action-spy genre belonged to men. “Jessica’s an extremely good producer,” Rebeck says. “She was very organized, and she knew exactly how she wanted to do this.”
Rebeck spoke to THR about what attracted her to The 355, how the film’s female perspective reframes and upends longtime spy tropes, and the importance of having powerful people in Hollywood advocating for historically marginalized artists, both privately and publicly.
What attracted you as a writer to this kind of female-fronted action narrative, and more specifically, women spies?
One of the first jobs I landed, I wrote for NYPD Blue. I worked for David Milch and Steven Bochco, and it was very exciting to land in that milieu. There were not very many women in that kind of action-crime-thriller space and I got kind of known at that time as “crime girl” because I was one of a very, very small cohort. I still feel like that cohort is too small. There’s absolutely nothing that would indicate that we can’t do this. And we’re excited to do it. I love a good spy movie, and the idea of writing a spy movie about all these women being the ones in charge of the team and working as a team together was enormously attractive to me.
Shifting who gets to write a certain type of film or who gets to play its leading characters can result in a narrative offering a different dialogue, focus or lens. Do you feel like that’s true of women tackling the spy genre?
I do think that what women bring to it is a slightly different energy at times. It was interesting — and this might come from being a playwright, it might come from being a female writer — but there really was a stronger energy for me around the psychology of these women and how this all comes together. Sometimes when you work on projects that have a lot of action sequences, when you find your location, you’re going to rewrite everything around that location. So I always feel like, “Well, yeah, we’ll figure that out later.” And that’s something that the guys on some of the television shows I work on don’t do. They want to talk about the action sequences all the time. The fact that it was five women from the start also to me said that it’s not just run, jump and a lot of explosions.
Toward the end of The 355, Penélope Cruz’s character — spoiler alert! — has this big, movie-saving moment that involves overcoming her fear. It counters the idea that physical or weapons prowess is the epitome of strength and it’s the kind conversation about what is valued in espionage that you reframe throughout the film. Were there genre tropes you wanted to play with now that women were leading — what did you want to change or upend?
Penélope Cruz’s character is very much the heart and soul of the piece. I love the fact that she has a family, she has children; and that’s both part of her reason for sticking with this enterprise and the future. That was really important to Penélope. Jessica’s character articulates it very powerfully. It’s not just, “Well, this will be fun. We’re gonna have really fun tech. We’re gonna have really fun races.” There’s much more of a present sense of responsibility to the future of our children and our families. There’s the sense of, “This is not everything,” that comes out of Lupita’s character, where she’s trying to disentangle herself from this world. Every now and then I see Tom Cruise doing something like that, but it sort of feels like this world has a deeper soul around: Why are we doing this and why is it essential that we do not stop until we do? It’s not a game to them, as it is a game to the men who end up all involved in the corrupt and creepy auction at the end. For them, it’s all about money and power. For the women, it’s all about: We’re not going to just let you blow up the world.
Jessica Chastain’s character, Mace, talks about the invisible work of spies, which has an added layer when you think about the invisible work of many women.
When Sebastian [Stan’s] character Nick [Fowler] is like, “Yeah, I’m gonna get promoted. You’re gonna disappear again” — that idea of women disappearing remains potent in our culture. That idea, in a different way, was Washington’s spy. We know nothing about her. I also feel like there was a fantastic opportunity to see these women using the things that make them extremely visible. Like, how glorious they all look in those pretty dresses. Which you always see when they’re all together wearing pretty dresses. They’re unbelievably visible, and yet still invisible to all the men around them who are doing the negotiating. To be able to write and have these sorts of moments in the movie is exciting and way overdue. Especially with how big the audience for women is, it’s something that people should be really thinking about, exploring and developing.
You mentioned Washington’s spy, whose code name was 355. What were other things you drew upon, fictional or historical, to tell this story?
Jessica has really exciting resources because of her work on Zero Dark Thirty. There’s an amazing consultant — I can’t identify this person, but they were a female spy. The whole film and I, as the writer, had this resource. I also did go looking into the 355. We don’t really spend a lot of time talking about her, but one of the things that I discovered in conversation with the actual spy is that she’s somebody who they talk about in the FBI and the CIA. There’s an awareness that she was out there, and that’s something that they toss off to each other. She’s a real 355 — somebody who knows how to disappear. That was exciting to really be in conversation with people who are on the job, and it was reassuring to be in conversation with someone who is extremely capable.
The 355 was directed by Kinberg, who has worked with Chastain previously, but women were everywhere leading this film’s process. In your experience, did that change how you made space for people’s voices or the kinds of conversations you were having about what was happening onscreen?
There was a lot of information coming at me from the actresses and a very strong sense that we wanted them to feel as committed and heard. I had really powerful conversations with Jessica, and Jessica, meanwhile, was in touch with Lupita and Marion Cotillard, who ended up not continuing with the project. There was very much a sense that we wanted all the women to have a voice in what their position was going to be. There was actually a time crunch on the whole development because they sold to all those different foreign markets at Cannes. That was how they had always thought of doing this. What it meant was that they financed this outside the American studio system, and we had all these commitments from these actresses, so that was where all the energy went in terms of me writing and getting it done. There were no studio notes, but also no time to slow down the train. I had from May of 2018 to Christmas of 2018 to do the drafts.
Chastain is known for her public and private efforts to address inequity in Hollywood, but in an op-ed for The New York Times, you also praised Slave Play writer Jeremy O’Harris for pulling out of an L.A. theater’s season so another female playwright could be featured. In your experience, how much of this kind of supportive work is actually “invisible,” and is it more significant when it’s public?
I think it’s enormously significant. What Jeremy did in the theater, nobody does. I have had private conversations with very powerful people for a long time and no matter how much we advocated for women to have more visibility as creators, it just didn’t seem to go anywhere. I would talk to some men privately, who are good guys, and they just did not feel responsible. They didn’t feel like there was anything they could do. So when Jeremy did that, I thought, “This kind of public advocacy for women does need to happen from them.”
Over the years, people would ask, “Why do you think this is happening?” One of my favorites was, “Where are the female producers? Why aren’t the female producers taking care of this?” And I had to finally say, “Are we basically saying girls should play with girls and boys should play with boys? Are we really at a place where we think that’s a solution?” I also thought, “I’m the playwright. You can’t ask me that. You have to ask the people who are leading it.” But we are advocating, and Jessica is someone very publicly advocating in a mighty way. It would be great if there were more powerful men who stood up, but it’s such a slow crawl up the mountain.
Last summer when Cate Shortland directed Black Widow, it was such a mighty success. When this happens, it should shove the narrative forward, but then it doesn’t. Many of us remember when Thelma & Louise happened, and how astonishing that was. We really thought, “This is going to change things.” And then it didn’t change anything. Right now we’re in the middle of the pandemic, so we are all in a kind of holding pattern, but there is money to be had and there’s no reason that women shouldn’t be a powerful voice in the storytelling of our culture.
You spoke about Chastain’s Freckle Films. You yourself started The Lillys. How important, or even difficult, would you say it is to create change through your own system and have it recognized by institutions that have historically ignored women?
I will say I wish it had changed things more, but at the time we started, The Lillys was one of those moments where we had really moved the needle forward. For the first few years of doing it we made enormous strides, but then were completely ignored by the awards system. It was heartbreaking. When a producer had his exposure moment with people saying, “He’s abusing everybody,” there were many times over the years when I would say, “This is a real problem. Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?” And so many men said to me, “He’s a great producer. Yes, this is a problem, but he’s a great producer.” I thought, “He’s a great producer for you guys.”
Jessica was extremely aware of all of this. She told this story about what people would say to her in offices around town. She would talk about books she wanted to adapt and how she would only ever get sent lists of the 15 white guys who write everything — even when she said, “I really want a woman to write this, I want a Black person to write this.” It’s all extremely difficult, and it should not be this difficult at this moment in time. But as we’re coming out of the pandemic, I believe the world will change. I always believe in the hope for the future.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. The 355 is now in theaters.