For The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Jessica Chastain was empowered both by the strong roles for its female stars and the chance to seriously kick ass.

Although the heroine of Snow White and the Huntsman is not around this time, there is no shortage of strong female characters in this prequel/sequel. As well as villains Freya (Emily Blunt) and Ravena (Charlize Theron), there is also a new lethal warrior in the shape of Sara, played by Jessica Chastain. There’s even room for two feisty dwarfs in Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach).

And for the star of Zero Dark Thirty and The Martian, the plethora of great parts for women was one of the main attractions for Chastain signing on for The Huntsman: Winter’s War.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to do the film – in addition to working with Chris [Hemsworth, who plays the titular character Eric] – was that it showcased incredible parts for women,” she says. “I knew Charlize and Emily were attached when I got the script – and I’m tired of being the only woman on a set! Stories, even fantasy like this, should represent our world, and I was really, really pleased with the fabulous roles for women that were written into this film.”

The star also identified with her character immediately. Both an origin story and a continuation of the first film, we first meet Sara when she is fighting alongside Eric as one of Freya’s lethal Huntsmen. But when the evil ruler discovers that the pair have fallen for one another, she tricks Eric into thinking Sara has been killed, thus setting in motion the events of Snow White and the Huntsman.

But when Eric and Sara are finally reunited, it becomes apparent that she, too, has been deceived by her queen. She finds it impossible to believe that Eric has remained true to her all these years apart, and refuses to forgive him for what she believes he once did.

“She’s trying to figure out if she’s worthy enough to be loved,” explains Chastain of her character. “That’s a big hurdle for her, and she has a lot of trust issues to overcome. I liked where she began and where she ended, and I liked the secrets she holds. It was a character I’d never played before.”

At the same time, she was conscious that it was important for the character to come across as being real, even though it was a fantasy film. Fortunately, she quickly discovered that first time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan was more than happy to accommodate her.

“Reality is the most important thing when I approach a character, she says. “But Cedric listened and inspired me, and he would say something that led my character in a new direction. When I asked a question, he’d listen and build on that.”

The other main draw of the movie for Chastain was the chance to play a warrior. Her co-star Hemsworth jokes that her first question to him was: “Do I get to kick ass in this movie?”

The answer was a resounding yes, much to the actress’s delight. “We worked for a few weeks with the stunt team to learn the fights,” Chastain recalls. “I had so much fun learning, and I love the weapons I was able to use. I used to be a dancer, so it was great to work on the fighting because it felt like choreography – just like doing a dance

“I like the physicality, and I’ve done a lot of films that are dark and heavy, so I wanted to do something where I’m having a good time. This might be the most fun I’ve ever had.”