Jessica Chastain on nudity, Al Pacino and her phenomenal year

She will be Princess Diana in a coming film. She has just been named by the New York Film Critics’ Circle as 2011’s Best Supporting Actress for her performances in not one, but three films: “The Help,” “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter.” Her name is likely to be heard at nominations announcements during this awards season. The Independent Spirit Award began the momentum by announcing her as a Best Supporting Actress nominee for “Take Shelter.”

Brad Pitt and Sean Penn held her hands on Cannes’ red carpet. She will costar with Tom Cruise in a sci-fi movie. Terrence Malick has cast her again in his next film, and she’ll be seen in several films by interesting directors.

“She” is Jessica Chastain, who gives credit to Al Pacino for all of these projects. Very fair, freckled and blessed with lovely green eyes, the actress has the kind of face that enables her to easily morph into different characters. Jessica as the social-climbing Celia Foote in “The Help” is completely different from her Texan wife and mother, Mrs. O’Brien, in “The Tree of Life,” which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May.

“Pacino cast me in ‘Salome’ first,” said the red-haired Jessica, easy to smile and laugh. We were fortunate to watch her for the first time when she played the title role in a 2006 staged reading of Oscar Wilde’s play at the Wadsworth Theatre. Al, who was Herod, directed “Wilde’s Salome,” a documentary about that production that includes footage of the cast during rehearsals.

Jessica shared about her acting godfather, “Al was like my acting teacher. He taught me so much about the transition from theater to film. After that, I auditioned for the Terrence Malick movie (‘The Tree of Life’). I know that Al and Terry had a phone conversation. I had never done anything at that point. So, I needed my references. Al was my reference. Terry introduced me into this big film world. After that, directors like John Hillcoat, John Madden and Jeff Nichols started to wonder who I was. I had the opportunity to work with them. But, Al was the one who plucked me out of the theater world.”

Important figure

Presenting the Glory to the Filmmaker Award to Al at the Venice Film Festival last September was a special, though nerve-wracking experience for Jessica. “I was especially nervous, because he means so much to me,” she admitted. “He isn’t only a great acting teacher to me, but he’s also an important figure in my life. I feel like he’s my dad. I really care for him—I feel like he’s part of my family. I absolutely adore him. So, to go onstage and speak about him and how I feel about him made me really nervous!”

Laughing, the California native confessed, “I also didn’t want to cry in front of a bunch of strangers. But, it was wonderful.”

Jessica also gave credit to her “Salome” experience for one more thing—opening her mind about nudity. She appeared naked onstage at the end of her Salome dance in every performance. “All the actresses that I really love do nudity,” she said. “When I first started at Juilliard, they asked me to do nudity a couple of times. I said no each time, because it didn’t quite make sense. I wanted to be known as an actress first. I read this book called ‘Sisters of Salome’ when I was working on ‘Salome.’ It talked about the power of nudity. You’re not victimizing yourself, but you can actually use nudity as a weapon. There was a whole different take about it. That book really opened my mind to nudity.”

She has done nude scenes in films since then, including “Jolene,” a 2008 indie film that won her a Best Actress trophy from the Seattle International Film Festival. “When I saw all the fantastic actresses whom I respect doing nudity, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s no problem,’” she admitted. “But, I still get embarrassed doing it. I’m naked in ‘Wettest County.’ A few days before doing that scene, I start picking fights with people. No one understands what happens. I was just acting out. Nudity is something you’re uncomfortable doing. But, I feel like it’s my job as an actor to be a more evolved person, to look at that fear in the face and say, ‘Well, I have to rise up and meet this.’”

In director John Hillcoat’s “Wettest County,” a Depression-era drama about a bootlegging gang that’s one of the eagerly anticipated films next year, Jessica pits talents with Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce and Mia Wasikowska. “I’m a big fan of John,” she said, citing his films, “The Proposition” and “The Road.” “I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. The script was great, written by Nick Cave. ‘Wettest County’ is a set where acting across the board is so good that even when people weren’t working, they would still show up to watch the scenes. Most of my scenes were with Tom Hardy. He’s fantastic in the film! It’s an absolute transformation. You learn something from every actor that you work with. Tom is good at making the unexpected choice.”

With the range and accents Jessica has displayed in just a few but well-received films, including the Ralph Fiennes-directed “Coriolanus,” is there anything she cannot do? “I don’t know how to swim,” she confessed with a lilting laugh. “I love doing things that are scary. If a script comes my way, and the role is a swimmer, I’m probably going to do it, because it means I’m going to have to learn how to swim!”

So, how did it happen that Jessica was in one notable film after another this year? “I think a lot of it is luck,” she said modestly. “I’ve also gone after projects based on what the character was and who I was going to work with. I never looked at a project and thought, this is going to get me a lot of money or this is going to make me famous.”

Apocalyptic visions

“I’ve worked with really interesting people,” she added. Of her director in “Take Shelter,” in which she plays Samantha, the increasingly exasperated wife of Curtis (Michael Shannon, whom she calls Mike) who is troubled by apocalyptic visions, Jessica said, “I knew as soon as I met Jeff Nichols, and after seeing his ‘Shotgun Stories,’ that ‘Take Shelter’ was going to be a very exciting film to work on. I’m a fan of Mike. I always try to put myself with actors who are better than me, who will teach me something. And, with filmmakers who have their own unique voice in cinema.”

“Take Shelter” won the Critics Week Grand Prize in Cannes, so Jessica has the honor of being in two films that figured prominently in the prestigious festival.

“Playing Samantha was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve done,” she said. “Because there was so much subtlety in playing that part.” With a chuckle, she quipped, “All of her subtext in every scene is, ‘Why are you (Curtis) being so weird?’ And, it’s different degrees and levels of sensitivity and subtlety.”

She brought up her renowned mentor: “Al Pacino actually taught me this in my first film. He said it has to absolutely be real in front of the camera. Everything you’ve experienced, the camera will see!”

She had nice words about her famous costar in “Tree”: “Brad (Pitt) is so good at being a member of the team,” she said. “I was surprised, because he’s such an icon that I always thought he would be separate. But, he’s so generous. He’s a good motivator. He also has a great sense of humor. He inspires you to do your best work. You feel safe and supported when working with him.”

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Luciana

Waiting for the day I can 'professional fangirl' for a living.