There’s nothing we like better than an overnight success story, but Jessica Chastain‘s feels just too good to be true. A perfect storm of Chastain movies, swelled by critical adulation, is currently heading for our shores, in what looks like a co-ordinated assault on the awards season. Earlier this year we had a taster, with the release of Terrence Malick’s Cannes-winning The Tree of Life, in which Chastain played Brad Pitt‘s wife – as auspicious a debut as any actor could hope for.
And this week the deluge begins. First there’s The Debt, an espionage drama starring Helen Mirren. Then Chastain teamed up with Sam Worthington in steamy murder mystery Texas Killing Fields. Plus, there’s civil rights Oscar bait The Help, already a hit in the US; the apocalyptic fable Take Shelter, another winner at Cannes; Ralph Fiennes‘s Coriolanus, relocated to war-torn Bosnia, with Vanessa Redgrave; The Wettest County in the World, a depression era saga scripted by Nick Cave and starring Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman; and Wilde Salomé, the film version of Al Pacino‘s theatrical crowd-pleaser. A year ago, Chastain was a complete unknown. Now she’s in danger of saturating the market. In a seedy diner somewhere in LA, there is probably a failed actor wondering who stole all her luck.
And the answer could be the sunny, chatty, immaculately turned-out 30-year-old sitting in front of me. Although it’s a drizzly London morning, Chastain looks as if she’s just stepped in from a 1950s garden party: she’s wearing a sleeveless turquoise dress that sets off her red hair. Her feet are squeezed into patent-leather heels and, despite the fact she has yet another day of interviews ahead of her, she’s brimming with enthusiasm.
Chastain’s extended moment is just a coincidence of timing, she explains, almost apologetically. “Last year, we were joking that there was a Chastain curse. I’d done 11 films in four years and for some reason they’d all been paused. I’d tell my friends and family, ‘I swear to you, I’m in this movie with Brad Pitt!’ Or I’d meet with a film-maker and I’d go, ‘I really want to do your movie – but if you put me in it, it may not come out for years.'”
Now Chastain is cursed instead with a never-ending promotional tour of duty. “Sundance, Berlin, two films in Cannes, two films in Deauville, two films in Venice, two films in Toronto,” she says, looking back over the year. “I’m promoting five movies this month. My publicist said she’s never seen that before. I looked at my whole schedule and I got freaked out, so now I just look at three days. What am I doing the next three days? That’s enough.” There are, however, no visible signs of weariness. “I’m such a fan of movies,” she says. “I love actors. I love directors. I love talking about them. I become like a geeky schoolgirl. I even love doing press.” Either she’s totally genuine or she’s a very good actor. Or both.
The Tree of Life was so spellbinding it was difficult to separate individual performances, but The Debt is a more conventional political thriller, making it easier to see what Chastain is doing. Her character, Rachel, is the emotional core of the piece: she’s part of a trio of Mossad agents sent to 1960s East Berlin to abduct a former Nazi guilty of Josef Mengele-like atrocities. In the film’s most excruciating scenes, Rachel poses as a patient and undergoes gynaecological examinations with him. What’s more, she becomes romantically involved with both her fellow agents and the whole plan goes awry. Her harrowed on-screen presence is quite a contrast to the cheerful soul in front of me today.
Martial arts and Josef Mengele
“I’m an actor who does a lot of research,” she explains. “Four months before filming, I learned krav maga [Mossad’s bespoke martial art], did a beginners’ course in German, and worked on my Israeli accent.” She also read up on Josef Mengele, Mossad, the Holocaust and those who survived it. “Every day, I would wake up and read about the suffering, the specifics of what the medical experiments were. For months, that was my life. I think when you see the film, you can see on my shoulders the heaviness of that knowledge.”
She also had to research being Helen Mirren, who plays the older Rachel in The Debt. This meant more reading and trawling through YouTube footage. When it came to actually meeting Mirren, whom she describes as “a goddess”, Chastain was a little starstruck. “It was at her house here in England. I was so nervous. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t be shy. You should talk. Talk to her!’ But I think all I said in two hours was, ‘Hello, nice to meet you.'” The second time was better, when they met to work on sharing mannerisms and accents. “She encourages you to be confident,” says Chastain.
Surely she can’t do this much research for every role? “Yup, every time. Well, OK, The Debt was probably the most research I’ve done.” But she goes on to explain how she spent months preparing for The Tree of Life, studying the hands of Raphael’s Madonnas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reading, watching old Lauren Bacall films (to learn about grace). Not to mention learning reams of Malick’s lines, which he’d then ask her to say in her head. Even for her comically trashy character in feelgood film The Help, she dyed her hair blond, mastered a high-pitched Mississippi accent, gained some weight, and then squeezed herself into a painful corset.
There’s nothing in Chastain’s background to suggest she would have such a remarkable ascent. She grew up in northern California, one of five siblings. Her father is a fireman, her mother a vegan chef. Going to see Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat at the age of seven was a formative experience, but her first “grown-up” idols were European actors such as Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes and Isabelle Huppert. “I’d never seen love scenes like The English Patient before. Or in Schindler’s List – I was shocked how the character [Fiennes] played could be so vile, but at the same time so lovesick. I thought that was a beautiful dichotomy. It was the first time I realised acting was about more than just being in films: it was about playing complicated, very human characters. That was the awakening for me.”
How did she find working with Fiennes on Coriolanus? “Being in a room with him and Vanessa Redgrave and watching them do Shakespeare, I learned a lot,” she says. “I saw him in The Tempest last night, too.” Did she tell him he was her hero? “No, I’d be too shy. I’m sure he’ll find out at some point.” He will now.
While Chastain has clearly earned her success, her rise still reveals something about the hidden lines of power running through the movie industry. She studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard school, where she was spotted and signed up by TV producer John Wells before she graduated. She spent three years in TV and stage roles, before being noticed in a small off-Broadway production by Marthe Keller, who had co-starred with Al Pacino in the 1977 Sydney Pollack movie Bobby Deerfield. Keller mentioned Chastain to Pacino, who needed an unknown to play the lead in his stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. “You should see this girl,” Keller told Pacino. Next, Chastain got a call, out of the blue, asking her to come and audition for Pacino.
The first thing Pacino’s director said was, “Why should I know you?”, Chastain recalls. “The second was, ‘Let me see you dance.’ It was like a dare and I didn’t want her to win. So I got up and danced. There was no music. Nothing.” She got the part and her movie career began. “When you’re on stage with Al Pacino, everyone in Hollywood comes to see it,” she says. “That’s when I started to get film auditions.”
Before that, it seems, nobody knew what to do with her. “They kept saying to me that I didn’t look modern, didn’t look contemporary. LA is full of very tall, beautiful, blond, tanned women – like Bo Derek in 10.” Then the casting call for Malick’s Tree of Life came along, demanding a woman who looks as if she’s from another time. “I thought, ‘Yup. I’m gonna get this!'” By this time, Pacino had also cast her in a movie of his Salomé. (He’s only just finished it, which makes him an even slower film-maker than Malick.)
Bass-player in a punk band
While Chastain doesn’t quite qualify as an “overnight success” then, there is another well-worn category she now fits into: “old-fashioned Hollywood glamour”. It’s a phrase that gets trotted out quite often these days, mostly by high-end lifestyle mags at pains to differentiate between their brand of A-list celebrity and your common or garden reality TV type. With her top-flight movie pedigree and her old Hollywood air, not to mention a penchant for period roles and couture-friendly retro looks, Chastain is exactly what the glamour-hungry glossies are after. She’s been in Vanity Fair so many times now Angelina Jolie is probably drafting a letter of complaint – or would be, if not for the fact that Chastain has shared the red carpet with her husband. However, Chastain would do well to remember Gretchen Mol, whom Vanity Fair notoriously put on its cover in 1998 with the tagline: “Is she Hollywood’s next It-Girl?” The answer turned out to be a resounding no, since the public had barely seen any of Mol’s movies – and when they did, they didn’t much like them.
With Chastain’s untested back catalogue and unanimous critical adulation, a backlash is possible. But she has the wind in her sails and knows where she’s going. Her next movie is a supernatural horror, produced by Guillermo del Toro, in which she’s a bass-player in a punk band. She’d love to work with Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke, she says, and plans to do more stage work next year. She’s also in Malick’s next movie. In fact, in the last year alone, Chastain has achieved more than most actors could hope for in a lifetime – and she’s just getting started. “After Tree of Life,” she says, “I got so many scripts for ‘graceful wife’ roles. The only thing I’m definitely ruling out is things I’ve done already.”
Steve Rose, The Guardian