There’s nothing like a big cameo in the second half of a movie to make a wilted festival audience sit back up in their seats. On Friday at the Cannes Film Festival, I watched “EO,” an art film about a Polish donkey that somehow, in its final act, makes room for a psychosexual cameo from a cutlery-tossing Isabelle Huppert. (When it comes to cinematic jolts, Huppert provided a most welcome espresso shot.)
Still, the cameo that turned the most heads on the Croisette came during the premiere on Thursday night of “Armageddon Time,” the new movie from James Gray (“The Immigrant,” “Ad Astra”) about a troublemaking 11-year-old from Queens named Paul whose parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) decide to send him to private school. On his first day at the strict institution, Paul runs smack-dab into the Trump family: Donald’s father, Fred Trump (John Diehl), is there to introduce the students to Donald’s sister Maryanne, an assistant US attorney who will be speaking at their assembly.
A murmur went through the Cannes crowd when the movie revealed who’d be playing Maryanne: Yes, that was our newly crowned best actress Oscar winner Jessica Chastain, who donned hair, big gold earrings and a purple pussy-bow blouse for her monologue lecturing the children of the private school on the evils of handouts and the merits of hard work.
“Guess I did make an appearance in Cannes this year,” tweeted Chastaina regular on the Croisette whose appearance in the film had not yet been announced.
At the “Armageddon Time” after-party, I asked Gray how the cameo came about. Much of the film is based on the director’s own childhood, including the drop-in from Maryanne Trump, which made such a memorable impression on Gray and his brother that, as adults, both men were able to piece together nearly the whole speech from memory .
“I wanted somebody famous and great and memorable to play her,” Gray said. “It’s just one scene, but I wanted the person to feel important, not just to the kids but to the audience. I wanted someone who could say, ‘I am the voice of authority, I’m telling you that I worked hard,’” he added, even though she was “born on third base.”
When “Armageddon Time” was first announced, Cate Blanchett was attached to play Maryanne Trump, though Covid-related delays prompted a reshuffling of the lineup, which at one point included Oscar Isaac and Robert De Niro. Still, the small role of Maryanne Trump proved most difficult to cast.
“How did it become Jessica? I was trying to come up with a great actor who could fill that space for one scene, and there aren’t that many, you know?” Gray said. But while Chastain was at the Venice Film Festival last year — where her red-carpet nuzzling with Oscar Isaac for “Scenes From a Marriage” caused a minor online sensation — Gray pitched her the cameo, and she said she’d love to do it .
Filming wrapped at the end of last year, and the demanding postproduction came down to the wire as Gray traveled to France for the premiere. “I flew the DCP here two days ago, and there are still visual effects that I have to complete,” he said, referring to the Digital Cinema Package used in screenings. In the hours before the premiere, “I had a mix of terror and satisfaction that I had actually finished the thing in time.”
After the movie was unveiled, in the middle of its standing ovation, Gray burst into tears. He’s been to Cannes several times before with his movies. What felt different this time around?
“Maybe it’s a product of getting older,” said Gray, 53. “You start to appreciate things that you used to take for granted. It’s a church of cinema here, so when you get that response, you embrace it.”
Well, within limits. Though Gray said he felt “unbelievable relief” after the premiere, the next day’s press duties compelled him to call it a night.
“I’m upset that I have to work early,” he said. “So I can’t party!”