On the last Friday of summer, at 10:30 in the morning, Jessica Chastain was waiting on the steps outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. She was wearing a diaphanous cream-colored dress that nearly matched her pale skin and very high sandals. Her shoulder-length red hair was pulled back—and, except for her electric blue toe- nail polish, she looked like she could have just stepped out of a 19th-century painting. We were meeting to see the glorious John Singer Sargent show, an intimate collection of large portraits that the artist made of his friends. Had she lived in the late 1800s, it would be easy to imagine Chastain, with her anachronistic beauty, being a favorite of the painter’s. Like the actresses, dancers, and artists he loved and admired, Chastain is sophisticated, dramatic, and a bit mysterious. She has not, as many actresses do, sought to define herself by playing a particular sort of woman. Since bursting onto the scene only four years ago, Chastain has portrayed, among other remarkable characters, a sex bomb from the wrong side of the tracks in The Help, for which she received an Oscar nomination; an obsessive CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty—for which she got another nomination; and a quietly scheming wife in last year’s A Most Violent Year. This month, she takes on the roles of a heroic spaceship commander in Ridley Scott’s The Martian and the diabolical Lady Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak, a gothic romance with horror overtones directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Seeing Chastain on the steep steps of the Met made me think of her break-through moment, when she appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011 for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. She had made the film a few years earlier and could not have anticipated the impact of that debut. “It was a long wait,” Chastain told me, as I reminded her of the red-carpeted steps that lead up to the Palais du Cinéma theater. In Cannes, she looked beautiful but terrified: She was wearing a canary yellow chiffon strapless gown, and her costars, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, appeared to be holding her up. “They were!” Chastain said, as we made our way into the museum. “I would have fainted without them. When I see a picture from that premiere, I seem happy. But that was, actually, a kind of acting. In my head, I was thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing here, and I don’t belong.” Chastain paused, as if taking stock of how drastically her world has evolved. “Cannes was when my career was born. I made it through the fire to the Palais, and it changed my life.”