Jessica Chastain on Breakthroughs, Big Years and the Awards-Season Crash Course

By virtually any Hollywood standard, even if another film featuring Jessica Chastain weren’t released in 2011 after this week, she’d have already had a pretty phenomenally successful rookie year in the business.

It’s kind of staggering, really: Months after her vivid if vexingly underseen screen debut in Jolene, there was no missing Chastain on the Croisette as she and The Tree of Life stormed Cannes en route to the Palme d’Or. By the end of summer she was co-starring in America’s number-one film, The Help. And on Wednesday, her spy thriller The Debt finally reaches theaters, featuring Chastain as one-third of a Mossad team dispatched to capture one of WWII’s most notorious Nazi fugitives in ’60s-era East Berlin. (Helen Mirren plays her haunted character, Rachel Singer, in the present day.)

But The Debt commences a grand finale to die for: September brings Take Shelter, arguably the best of the batch, starring Chastain as the wife of a man (Michael Shannon) whose apocalyptic nightmares and visions threaten him and his family. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) crafts a near-perfect allegory of social and economic storms slowly suffocating the life from an average middle American family; the film succeeds in large part due to Shannon and Chastain’s performances as a couple witnessing the storm from the inside, expertly navigating the terrain between ’70s-tinged drama and timeless psychological horror.

Beyond that, Chastain has Al Pacino’s film adaptation of their stage collaboration Salome finally bowing at the Venice Film Festival, a role as a detective investigating a series of homicides in Texas Killing Fields, and closes out the year as the wife of Ralph Fiennes’s title character in the Shakespeare updating Coriolanus. Next year, look out for her opposite Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf in director John Hillcoat’s long-awaited adaptation of The Wettest County in the World — not to mention wherever awards are handed out, with Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help and Coriolanus all in various proximities to the center of the Oscar universe.

Chastain recently phoned up Movieline to talk about her astounding 2011 to date — and the whirlwind yet to come this fall.

You and I spoke last fall about Jolene, when your film profile was just starting to rise. Now that we’re in the home stretch for your 2011 releases, how is the reality of the journey compared to how you imagined it?
I guess it is the home stretch! It’s kind of a baptism by fire. I wasn’t imagining all of the films coming out at once, so there’s a lot of learning on the go for me when it comes to red carpets and premieres and doing a junket. Or even a radio tour — this morning is my first time doing any of that. I’m learning the other side of the business very quickly. But the other thing is that I’m very proud of the films I’m in. I love talking about them, I love talking about the actors I got to work with, and the directors. That, to me, is great.

I know it’s totally out of your hands, but as the films’ release dates were scheduled and their order became clear, did you ever think things like, “Oh, no, folks — it should be The Debt and then it should be The Help…” Kind of arranging performance the way we recommend novels by our favorite authors?
I didn’t think of chronological order. But I was very happy that Tree of Life was pretty much the first thing people saw. Even though Salome was my first film, and we’re taking that to Venice this year, Tree of Life was the one that changed the whole landscape of my career. I love the idea that that film got to be my introduction to the business in a big way. That was the only one I was really thinking about in chronological order. But The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter and Coriolanus and Salome and all those films, I didn’t think about in order. I did think, “Oh, no, I don’t want the films to compete against each other.” I don’t like the idea of The Help competing of The Debt. But I make the films for the experience of what it was to make the films: to be on set, to work with the filmmakers and the actors. Once I walk away form the film, I don’t really think about what the result of the film is going to be or a release pattern for it. That’s usually where I try to stay.

I’m glad Take Shelter came near the end — saving the best for last, or almost last.
I love Take Shelter.

It’s totally sublime. How did you get hooked up with the project?
Sarah Green produces for Terrence Malick, and she was the executive producer on Take Shelter. She spoke to Jeff Nichols about me, because I had just done Tree of Life. She had read the script, and she thought, “There’s this girl that no one really knows yet, but she might be really great to play Samantha in Take Shelter.” So I got sent Shotgun Stories, which I found to be brilliant. It was made for $53,000; it was Jeff Nichols’s first film. I was floored by it. Then I got sent the script for Take Shelter, and I thought, “This is interesting.” I sat down with him, and he said something to me that made me want to be in every one of his films. He basically said, “It’s a movie about family and marriage and faith. It’s not a movie about the end of the world, it’s not about mental illness, it’s not abut all those bells and whistles. The main idea of the film is faith. And there’s a look at the end of the film between Samantha and Curtis, and if the look isn’t right, then the whole film falls apart.” When he said that to me, I was very intrigued. And I think you can see that in the film; it’s not presented the typical way you might see a movie about mental illness or apocalyptic ideas. Jeff had his own language — his own way of telling this story.

How do you recall your first meeting with Michael Shannon?
We met right before we started shooting, and I was really intimidated by him. I know him as a fantastic actor, of course, but he’s a very intense actor. I’ve seen performances where he really is this huge presence, and talking so much with Jeff about how the film’s about marriage, I realized that needed to be absolutely clear. My connection with Mike had to be very close and intimate when we were shooting.

So I met him the day before we started shooting. My biggest hurdle was that I needed to get over my intimidation by him. I had to get over any awkwardness I felt or any shyness I felt. So as soon as I met him, I said, “Hey!” And I ran up to him and gave him a big hug. I threw my arms around him. “It’s nice to meet you!” I wanted him to know — and wanted myself to know — that we were on this journey together, and I could not be embarrassed or shy. Also, Samantha really rules the roost in that family. She wears the pants, she makes the decisions. So I had to come in there and take control.

I remember covering Shotgun Stories and the kind of brotherhood between Jeff and Michael. But this is your movie, too. How and where did you fit into their scenario?
You know, they already had a language when I showed up. They’re like brothers: They tease each other, they can get very personal very fast, they don’t need to worry about being polite. So they started with this great gift. And one of the first weeks we were shooting, I remember we were rehearsing a scene — it was Mike and I in this scene — and they were lighting it to shoot. And I’m sitting in the living room waiting, and I realize, “Where’s Mike and Jeff?” They were kind of away talking about the scene. It happened a couple more times, and then I went into that kitchen and said, “You know, guys, if you’re talking about the scene, I have to be here. I’m in the scene, too. I know you guys work together a lot and you’re like brothers, but I’m a member of this family now, and you have to include me.” They just looked at me with their mouths open, and they were like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” [Laughs]

It changed things at that point. I don’t think they realized they were doing that, and I think actually approaching them that way was very Samantha of me. That is something Samantha would do. “OK, cut it out. You’ve gotta include me.”

You’ve expressed your hesitance to repeat your characters, but in three films — The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Coriolanus — you’ve played a wife to three particularly willful husbands. Obviously they’re different women in different circumstances, but what draws you to this dynamic?
Well, first of all, on those three films, it was working with the people I was going to work with. Terrence Malick and Tree of Life was just beyond anything… I was so excited to work on that. Take Shelter was Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, and of course, Coriolanus is Ralph Fiennes. It’s being able to be in a room with him and Vanessa Redgrave. I did try to approach the characters very differently, and like I said, Samantha — even though she is a supportive wife — she’s like the most dangerous animal in the animal kingdom: A mother grizzly bear. The female bear or female tiger is the one who does all the kills, because they’re protecting their young. And I absolutely felt that way with Samantha: No one was going to hurt her kids. No one was going to hurt her family. She actually reacts with violence. There’s a scene where I go over and hit Mike in the face. He did something that I felt affects my child badly.

Now, with Tree of Life, I’m playing this embodiment of grace and compassion. Even with all the negativity that comes at Mrs. O’Brien, the response is love. “You give me hate, I give you love.” There is this selflessness that arises from playing that part that I found to be a challenge and a wonderful opportunity. And with Coriolanus, Virgilia is this feminine energy in this very masculine world of war — a world dominated by male aggression. To be honest, I thought that dynamic was most interesting: when that softness is put into that aggression. But also I just wanted to be a fly on the wall and watch Vanessa Redgrave do Shakespeare. She’s been a hero of mine for such a long time, and I just wanted to watch her work. It was like a master class. Hopefully in 30 years I’ll be able to tell my children, “I got to work with Vanessa Redgrave!”

Of course there’s The Debt, Texas Killing Fields and Coriolanus as well. Regarding the first, did I hear correctly that you researched Helen Mirren’s life to play a younger version of her character?
Yeah. Of course, I’ve seen all her films; I’m a huge fan, and I think she’s a brilliant actress. But I do find that every person brings something unique to a role. It’s like [The Debt director] John Madden says: Each role only has one actor who should play it. It’s their role. They should claim it. And we all play roles through the prism of what our life is. So me playing a role is obviously different from someone else doing it. I knew Helen as Rachel Singer was going to be played through her rich experience and life. So I wanted to do whatever I could to soak up what that was. I read her autobiography that had just come out, which is great. But I also watched as many YouTube videos I could find of her being interviewed. I found rather than watching her act and play different characters, I wanted to just get an essence of who she was — to feel her energy, if that makes any sense.

And I found one interview that was really helpful to me. It was given when she was about my age. Of course she was Helen Mirren, but a different incarnation of herself. She was unsure of her footing, a tiny, tiny bit awkward, a little bit shy. Her voice was pitched up a bit. I saw that interview, and I thought, “This is fantastic, because yes: I see that this is the woman whom Helen Mirren becomes today.” That interview opened the doors for me to play Rachel Singer 30 years before Helen plays her, because of course Rachel Singer at that age would be more unsure of her footing and not have the gravitas she would have as an older woman.

You also trained in Krav Maga techniques for the film. How confident do you remain in your ass-kicking abilities?
I don’t know! Whenever I research or work on a character, I totally disappear into it. I could speak German when I was working on The Debt! I took a German course months before we started shooting; I had a German coach. Now I can’t speak anything; every once in a while I’ll hear something and I remember it. But it was very short-term memory for me. I did four months of Krav Maga — many times a week — and there are some things about it that I remember. One of the things about it was that it’s a state of mind. My trainer told me, “It’s not about self-defense; it’s about killing your opponent as quickly as possible.” So there is that ruthlessness and effectiveness with Krav Maga — do it as quickly and as cleanly as you can — that I do remember. But who Jessica is when I’m not playing a part is very separate from it. I’m not a fighter at all. I very much try to be a peacemaker with my friends and my family. I don’t like confrontation. I feel very far away from the Rachel Singer I played when we were making that movie.

Sean Penn reportedly came out recently as displeased with The Tree of Life, saying the finished film lacked the emotion of Malick’s original script. Did you sense anything similar, and what’s your impression of his comments?
I was very surprised by the comment. The first thing I thought is, “Where did the comment come from?”, and I saw that it was a [publication] from another country. [The French newspaper Le Figaro.] My first thought was that it was taken out of context, and then it was that it was mistranslated. There’s something that happened in the translation, and then it was picked up and put in a lot of other things. Because I know that Sean has worked with Terry more than once, and he was wonderful when we were working on Tree of Life, and he was so great at Cannes. I was very surprised by that comment.

And myself, learning that whole press thing that I’m doing, I realize things can be shifted a little bit. I said something about gaining weight for The Help — about gaining 15 pounds and stuffing myself into a girdle in the heat of Mississippi. I made a joke that that was torture — wearing the girdle in the heat. That comment got twisted into me saying that gaining weight was torture for me, which I never said. So I’m starting to realize, especially with the Internet and many, many media outlets, one comment can get shifted. It’s like a game of telephone. I haven’t talked to him about that comment yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was taken out of context.

I love how you’ve described the dress you wore on the Cannes red carpet as “sunshine.” Is that a way you inform your characters’ wardrobes as well? Say, natural properties that inform the physical?
That’s a really interesting question. I never thought about it that way, but I think you’re right: Clothes, to me, are very emotional and very personal, and I’m incredibly involved in costume and wardrobe and hair and make-up when I approach a role. I bring in pictures. I create little vision boards of what inspires me for the character — colors, emotional ideas. I knew that red carpet was the beginning of a journey that I’m taking, and I love that it was for The Tree of Life. It’s a film that I was so happy to be a part of and so connected to that inside, I felt this happiness that I could only explain as sunshine. And so I said that I wanted to wear something that mimicked or mirrored what I felt emotionally on the inside. That absolutely goes into choosing costumes as well.

Awards season is forthcoming, and at least a few of your films are going to be discussed in that context. Are you prepared to have that conversation with people — to make those rounds, to be present in that kind of scenario?
It’s funny. I’ve been asked that question before, but because I’m so new to all of this, I don’t really even know what those conversations are, or what those rounds are o what that is. I love talking about the films, and I love talking about the performances around them. I love talking about Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, and so I hope he gets attention. I love talking about Octavia Spencer in The Help. I love talking about Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, and of course Brad Pitt in Tree of Life. That, to me, is very exciting. If there’s awards attention, I’m so proud of them and these film that nothing could make me happier.

But I don’t know exactly what it is. I know we’re in an interview, but part of me is asking you, “What is it?”

Well, we should consider your roles in these films, too; you’ll be part of the conversation. And by “conversation,” I mean the discussion about, “Will so-and-so get nominated? What do they have to do to get nominated? How they match up against this actor or actress or film?”
But — and I’m so sorry — do the actors campaign? Or is that something that’s just done by publicists around the film? What does “campaigning” mean?

It’s complicated, but it basically goes one of three ways. I don’t know if you followed Mo’nique a couple years ago, but she basically refused to lobby for awards nominations, and when she won the Oscar, she kind of dismissed the whole “pick me” dog-and-pony show as useless and unnecessary. Then there’s Melissa Leo, who spent her own money on an ad campaign that said, “Conisder”—
[Gasps] Wow!

Yeah! “Consider” her for both a nomination and her eventual win. She was very much involved in that. The majority, though, is usually is handled by publicists and studios for whom awards attention means big business. Sony Classics, for example, will probably mount a campaign for you and Michael and Jeff’s screenplay for Take Shelter. Fox Searchlight will go all out for Tree of Life for Best Picture, etcetera. That’s basically it.
Well, I love these films, and I love talking about them, and I want people to see them. So I’ll absolutely do interviews for that. I’m never going to take out an ad. I know, famous last words — never say never — but I really can’t imagine ever in my life doing something like that. To me, it’s not a short sprint. I want to be a career actor. The most important thing to me is that people like the films. If they like the films and they like the performances, it means that I get work with other great actors and make other great films. So it’s not about an award. Of course it’s nice that there’s awards buzz around the films because it means they get more attention. But I’m not the person who’s going to… I mean, I’m not outgoing. I’m very shy. I was never the girl in high school who was wanting to be in office or something — who would campaign for myself to become student-body president. [Laughs] I’m just not that person. But if I’m proud of the film — which I am, of all these films — then I want to support them and do whatever I can to support them.
Source

Michelle