chastain sits cradling two lion cubs
Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” (Photo/JTA-Focus Features-Anne Marie Fox)

Jessica Chastain relishes role of Holocaust heroine in ‘Zookeeper’s Wife’

Strong women are right in actor Jessica Chastain’s wheelhouse.

She has played Maya, the fictional CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty,” whose work led Seal Team Six to Osama bin Laden; Melissa Lewis, the mission commander who refuses to abandon a teammate in “The Martian,” and Elizabeth Sloan, the Washington lobbyist who takes on the gun industry in “Miss Sloan.”

“I look for characters that challenge the status quo,” Chastain, who snagged a Golden Globe for her work in “Zero Dark Thirty,” said in a telephone interview. “I know not every woman is a strong woman. But I am definitely inspired by those characters who push against the box society has put them in.”

It’s no surprise, then, that she jumped at the opportunity to portray Antonina Zabinski in “The Zookeepers Wife,” which opens March 31 at Bay Area theaters.

It’s an emotionally moving film about World War II that tells the true story of a heroine and her husband, Jan, who put themselves — and their children — at great risk in order to save 300 Jews by hiding them at the Warsaw Zoo, which they ran.

Before the war, the zoo was considered one of the finest in Europe. People came to walk its grounds, view the animals and perhaps catch a glimpse of the quirky Antonina on one of her daily bicycle rides around the facility, often with a menagerie of ostriches trailing behind.

But as the film chronicles, bombs leveled much of the zoo during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, killing a substantial number of its animal residents. The Zabinskis were spared, and might have lived a relatively comfortable life during the occupation: A prewar colleague from Berlin, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), was appointed the Reich’s chief zoologist. He protected the couple, in part because of his respect for their accomplishments in building a world-renowned zoo, and in part because of his not-so-hidden crush on Antonina.

Still, Heck had many of their best (and rarest) remaining species transferred to Berlin for breeding purposes, leaving the zoo relatively empty. It was a decision the Zabinskis took full advantage of — Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) used the empty cages to store arms for the resistance and eventually went off to fight with the partisans. They also hid a close personal friend, sculptress Magdalena Gross (Israeli actress Efrat Dor).

And then they decided to do more. They convinced Heck to let them raise pigs on the grounds, ostensibly to feed the troops. Also, they promised to gather the slop accumulating in the nearby Warsaw ghetto to feed the animals. To Heck, it seemed like a win-win — but, in fact, the Zabinskis and other members of the resistance smuggled families into the zoo by putting them in barrels and covering them with the garbage intended for the pigs. Then they were hidden in empty cages and in a network of tunnels.

I know not every woman is a strong woman. But I am definitely inspired by those characters who push against the box society has put them in.

Nazi troops were a constant presence — a sneeze or a child’s cry at the wrong moment could lead to tragedy.

Thanks to the Zabinskis’ heroism, some 300 were hidden and ultimately transferred by the resistance to safety.

Over the course of the film, Chastain cascades through a range of emotions reflecting the many characters she subsumes—zoologist, wife, mother, spy and temptress to Heck—in a bravura performance that exudes confidence and strength.

Is Chastain as strong in real life?

“I’m OK pushing against the constraints society expects me to be in,” she said — but quickly notes that standing up to authority is often easier said than done.

“I could immediately say, ‘yes, I would have done [what the Zabinskis] did,’ but such an easy answer would diminish the strength they showed and sacrifice they made,” she said. “It doesn’t acknowledge that her kids could have been killed. I hope I’m never challenged the way she was. She put the welfare of the many over the welfare of the few and was willing to sacrifice everything to do the right thing.”

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is adapted from the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman that had relied upon Antonina’s diaries.

The Zabinskis are enshrined in Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations. While

Chastain did extensive research for the role.

“I read the book, of course, and visited the Warsaw Zoo,” she said. “I met with her daughter [Teresa], who was a baby in the film, and learned about the family from a personal point of view. I also went to Auschwitz. I’d read about it, of course, but had never been to a concentration camp.”

The Auschwitz visit was profoundly moving, she said, her experiences made her realize how contemporary the film’s message is.

“We learn by looking at history, and when we look we see Hitler, Mussolini — one of the first things they did was manage the press,” she said. “That led to the atrocities. And when we look where we are now, we have to ask, ‘Are we going to follow in those footsteps, are we going to create another atrocity, or are we going to create a world where we protect everyone regardless of their ethnicity?’ ”