Published on Marie Claire – December 2012
by Lea Goldman
Jessica Chastain stormed Hollywood last year with a string of daring roles that had everyone taking notice. Now the star of Zero Dark Thirty, one of the year’s most controversial and highly anticipated new films, is ready to stake her claim as the actress to beat.
There’s an awkward moment just as Jessica Chastain and I make our way over to an empty table at a bustling midtown Manhattan café: She catches the eye of a woman across the room and mutters to herself, “I know her.” Turns out, the two attended Juilliard together. Chastain, on her lunch break during rehearsals for her Broadway run in The Heiress, waves around several tables to say hello. As they hug, Chastain asks the woman what she’s been up to. She talks of projects here and there. Chastain nods, smiling. And then there is a prolonged pause when the two just stand there, until finally the woman leans in, takes hold of Chastain’s arms, and says, “I just want you to know how happy I am for you, for everything that’s happened to you.” The statement is rife with conflicting feelings – goodwill, envy, longing – and in that instant, I am embarrassed to have witnessed it. Chastain, though, appears visibly moved.
“Everything that’s happened to you” seems an apt way to describe the almost divine fluke of timing that catapulted Chastain from the scrappy life of a working actress to the ultra-rarefied ranks of A-lister, all within the span of a single year. In 2011, she appeared in six films – some had wrapped long before but were delayed for one reason or another – including Terrence Malick’s critically acclaimed The Tree of Life and box office break-away The Help, for which Chastain nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress (“Someone was teasing me that last year was like the Jessica Chastain Film Festival,” she jokes.) The pop! pop! pop of so many back-to-back movies made her, virtually overnight, the most ubiquitous actress no one had ever heard of, a newly minted red-carpet fixture who just a couple of months earlier had been divvying up her earrings in envelopes marked “rent”, “groceries”, and “laundry”. “I didn’t have a washer and dryer until two years ago,” she says easnestly. “I had to go somewhere and pay with quarters.”
Even more astonishing than Chastain’s sudden arrival has been her ability to preserve what can only be described as normal(ish) life in the face of it all. Though she is, without question, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actresses, she pretty much comes and goes as she pretty much comes and goes as she pleasesm minus the hullabaloo of paparazzi long-lenses and looky-loo fans who seem to shadow her contemporaries like Michelle Williams, her roommate some eight years ago when both appeared in a summer stock production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. (“We became like sisters,” Chastain says of that period.)
Chastain is smart enough to know the relative anonymity will be short-lived. This month she stars in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty, about the CIA manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, the much-anticipated follow-up by Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bugelow. Shrouded in secrecy, production of the film sparked rampant speculation about how much cooperation Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal received from the White House. Columbia Pictures even pushed back the release date until after the election to mollify Republicans, who slammed the film as pro-Obama propaganda. Chastain, favored again for an Academy Award nomination, won’t even talk about the film. “I got into trouble once because at a party I told someone I didn’t know was a journalist that I was going to India [to film the movie],” she says. “And then I got all these emauls: ‘Why did you say anything??’”
She swears she’s not a secretive person by nature, when, in fact, she’s guarded about most everything except her movies. She’s made a parlor game of her age – yes, actress still do that – which has been variously reported as anywhere between 30 and 35 (the truth is closer to the latter), and has skillfilly kept under wraps the name of her hometown in Northern California, if only because her family – her mom is a chef, her dad a firefighter, she is the eldest of five – still lives there and her youngest siblings attend the local high school. “The two of them get to go and have a normal high school experience without people going, ‘Oh, your sister is in this movie’ or ‘Can your sister hook me up with Brad Pitt?’” she explains.
It’s easy to imagine Chastain as something as a loner at Jiulliard, where she eschewed the typical post-curtain-call carousing so she could hunker down and study. (She attended on a scholarship underwritten by Robin Williams, an alumnus). “I never wanted to be a movie star, I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I don’t really drink, and I’ve never been to a rave. I used to cut school to read Sheakespeare, not to make out in the park.”
Both on screen and in person, Chastain is stunning, ethereal even, with alabaster skin, soft auburn waves, and a radiant smile that she deploys far more liberally than her usually pensice characters. But that’s not what makes her so riveting. She calls to mind actresses like Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep – crushingly beautiful women, to be sure, but professionals first, virtuosos capable of slipping into their roles so fluidly that their looks are always an afterthought. Well before her cinematic spree last year, Chastain had already won over a constellation of major players: Hit, Tv showrunner John Wells (ER, Law & Order: Trial by Jury) signed her to a holding contract right after she graduated; Al Pacino cast her as the lead in his still-unreleased film version of Salome (he has become a mentor); she was the Desdemona to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Iago in an off-Broadway staging of Othelo.
Soon there were proeminent roles in small indie films. While shooting Texas Killing Fields in Louisiana, she was asked to fly to LA on her only day off to screen test for The Help. She’d already had several auditions and had grown weary of the process. “It had been stretched out for so long, and I thought it was because I wasn’t the right look, you know? I didn’t look like Celia Foote, so I remember there was a moment when I was like, ‘I’m not going to go. They clearly don’t want me for this part. It’s my day off. I shoot all night, so I can’t fly to L.A. and then fly back, I jsut can’t do it.’ But I was talk into going.”
No one, certainly not Chastain, thought The Help would become the sleeper hit of the year, generating $211 million worldwide. “I’ve never done a job for a paycheck,” she says. “I’ve never had a movie where I was like, ‘Oh, this is the one where I’m going to make a lot of money.’”
As Chastain anxiously awaited the release of her films, she eked by job to job, just as she always done, driving an old Prius (which she still owns) and budgeting scrupulously. “I used to have a lot of anxiety about how I was going to stay agloat, because as soon as I graduated, I never asked my parents for money. I always supported myself through acting and would make money last a long time. I understand the value of money, and I’m not an impulse buyer. I bought a new laptop three years ago, and before I bought it, I spent a month thinking about buying it. So my lifestyle hasn’t changed, except my anxiety about paying the rent is gone.”
I press her on this point – it sounds like one of those flimsy things actresses say to make themselves seem more accessible when, in reality, they’re leaving off room service and fielding freebies from French designers. I glance at the stunning Givenchy black satchel nestled against her chair. Yes, she concedes, it was a gift, but insists she’s no hothouse flower – her tight-knit inner circle, including her mother and best friend, former Jiulliard roommate Jess Weixler, wouldn’t abide by it. Last year, both accompanied her to various movie premieres because, well, who else would she bring? Chastain won’t say whether she’s dating anyone, but the likely answer is no. (And if she is, it’s happening so far off the grid as to be nothing serious or a long-distance relationship, and you know how those go.) Apparently, even Academy Award nominess have trouble meeting men.
“I’m very shy when it comes to guys,” she explains. “Jess and I were both single at the same time, and she was in a very happy dating life and I was working a lot, and I was like, “Wow, why and I not dating?” And she said to me, ‘Now that you’re successful, you have to make it very clear that you are interested because otherwise they won’t [aproach you].’ I like to be wooed, but I’ve had to be more outwardly available, I guess.”
So let it be known: Jessica Chastain is working on her game, and guys, she’s on a winning streak.