Jessica Chastain’s years of work pay off in one big moment

USA Today
Published: January 22

Jessica Chastain’s best disguise these days is to walk around looking exactly like herself.

“No one ever recognizes me,” says the actress, who was almost as omnipresent as buttered popcorn in movie theaters last year. Settling in for a vegan lunch at Shutters hotel, with her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and wearing only light makeup, the redhead describes requesting a quiet table from the restaurant host for her interview.

“And he goes: ‘Oh, OK. Good luck with your interview. I hope you get the job.’ ” She grins. “And I go, ‘oh, it’s not that kind of interview, it’s a journalist.’ And then he goes, ‘So you’re interviewing her?’ ” Chastain dissolves into giggles, but the host wasn’t through. “Oh, you’re a writer?” he asked. “It just kept getting worse and worse,” she said, laughing. “It happens all the time.”

In fact, Chastain, 30, may be one of the most prolific actors working today: In 2011 she had seven films open, and five more are scheduled for release or production in 2012. “Usually an actor has to work in the porn industry to have that kind of success,” cracked her Tree of Life co-star Brad Pitt onstage at the Palm Springs Film Festival gala earlier this month.

Chastain’s blockbuster year was hardly planned; six years of her work rolled out into theaters last year, thanks to various production delays and studio rescheduling.

“I was excited that my films would finally see the light of day and people would see them,” she says. “But I never imagined that such nice things would be said about a lot of my films.”

A nominee at the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards, Chastain was recently honored by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for her body of work in 2011. She has been praised for holding her own as Pitt’s wife in the existential film The Tree of Life, switching her hips and smiling nervously as The Help’s doe-like Celia Foote, hunting a Nazi doctor as a Mossad agent in The Debt and awaiting the apocalypse in Take Shelter.

Her “crazy” debut moment came last May when Chastain walked down Cannes’ red carpet, gripping the hands of Tree of Life co-stars Pitt and Sean Penn. With all cameras trained on the trio, Chastain recalls the long yellow gown that hid her shaking legs, and the murmurs of her co-stars through their steady smiles, “OK, smile, now we’re going to turn around. … OK, Jessica.”

“That walk was a defining moment,” she says. “And there were all those comments like, ‘Who is this girl, and why does she get this moment?’ And you want to be like, ‘I’ve worked so hard! I swear, I’m not coming out of nowhere!’ ”

Pacino gave her a break

Raised in a San Francisco suburb by a firefighter and a homemaker, Chastain had no connection to the entertainment industry. “I grew up poor,” Chastain says. “I still drive my old car. It takes me a long time to make a big purchase.”

Today her mother is waiting nearby, having come to town to help Chastain host a garage sale at her home in Venice Beach. “She was the opposite of a stage mom. She was never going to take me to L.A. to do commercials,” Chastain says of her upbringing with her two brothers and two sisters, none of whom are actors.

After attending Juilliard on a scholarship, Chastain found a talent scout in Al Pacino, who cast her in one of her first big plays, Salome, in 2006. He then cast her in the film version, Wilde Salome, which also premiered last year.

“I feel like he’s my acting godfather,” she says. “I got to be onstage with him and then watch him change his performance for a camera. And also he directed me.” She shakes her head. “It was like Al Pacino was my acting coach for a year.”

Pacino calls her a prodigy. “I never will forget that audition,” he says. “You rarely see something where you know where someone’s going to go,” he adds, comparing Chastain to Meryl Streep. “She reminds me (of her), she can go that far into character.”

Indeed, Chastain’s ability to melt into work is becoming her calling card.

For Tree of Life, Pitt shot with Chastain for six weeks and says he knew only the character she created. “So to me, she was always Mrs. O’Brien,” Pitt says. “I was actually surprised to meet her afterward, because you see her and she’s got such a vibrant and lovely personality.

“I’m rooting for her,” Pitt adds. “She’s special.”

Tom O’Neil of the awards website GoldDerby.com says he would be “flabbergasted” if Chastain doesn’t land an Oscar nomination Tuesday for her role in the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help. Chastain’s curvy, clueless Celia develops a friendship with her outspoken maid, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer. Chastain and Spencer are up for the supporting-actress award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday.

Chastain says shooting The Help was the best time she has ever had on set. “Because I love Octavia Spencer. … Every day it was laughing and being silly and cooking and all these things that Celia would be.”

Plus, she got to play the bombshell. “I’m not the girl that wiggles when I walk. I’ve never done that. I’ve never been like that girl — the bombshell.” Here, Chastain pauses, unsure of how to phrase her next statement. “This is a business that in the beginning does not perhaps celebrate that I look different. It takes someone to say ‘Oh, this person is interesting because they don’t look like everyone else, and that’s special.’ ”

The Help’s director, Tate Taylor, was one of those people.

“I didn’t want somebody to play Jessica Rabbit, bombshell dumb girl,” says Taylor, who saw hundreds vying to be Celia. “She was the only actress who fully understood and embodied that fragile insecurity that was needed that people could relate to.”

More diverse roles ahead

If critics and audiences are beginning to recognize Chastain for her on-screen vulnerability (which she lightly disputes, pointing to her character’s “mama bear quality” in Take Shelter or her Mossad agent in The Debt), they should prepare for myriad personalities from her in 2012.

First, she’s reciting Shakespeare in Coriolanus (in theaters now) as Ralph Fiennes’ wife, Virgilia (“She came highly recommended,” Fiennes says). “She’s like the feminine energy in this world of masculine violence,” Chastain says. She’ll also voice Gia, an Italian jaguar, in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (due in June), followed by Guillermo del Toro’s Mama, in which she plays a punk-rock bassist who “has to take care of these two kids that she really wants nothing to do with,” she says.

She’ll switch gears again this August in the gangster period film Wettest County, playing tough, sexually dominant Maggie, a woman mixed up with bootleggers in Virginia.

But this fall may be her most nerve-racking yet. Chastain will make her Broadway debut in a revival of The Heiress. Based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, the title role has been played by Broadway favorites Jane Alexander (in 1976) and Cherry Jones (who won a Tony for the 1995 version).

“It’s really big shoes to fill,” Chastain admits.

Ask Chastain what the secret to her success is, and the actress pauses.

“I believe that it’s come from not following the money. The people I work with, I’m such a fan of. I’ve seen other things that they’ve directed and acted in, and I want to be there because I want to learn from them.”

The single actress concedes she is unsure how to cultivate a relationship with her nomadic lifestyle: “It’s just been a tricky thing to navigate.”

So are the politics of her next film. Chastain is preparing for Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial follow-up to The Hurt Locker, which starts production next month in Jordan and chronicles the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Eventually, there’s a Hawaiian vacation with Chastain’s name on it. Until then, she’ll just reflect on a dizzying year.

Last year “was one of my favorite years I’ll probably ever have in my whole life. It’s a very strange thing. My whole life I’ve wanted to be an actor, and it was the culmination of that dream.

“I know it sounds corny, but it’s almost like seeing your younger self and realizing: You did it!”