Published on Instyle – February 2013
Have you ever wondered what it really feels like to be an overnight sensation? Jessica Chastain is one of the rare few able to describe the reality of that flashbulb moment when celebrity hijacked her life for better or for worse. She can tell you the precise date – 16 May 2011; and where she was – the Cannes première for Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning opus The Tree of Life. She’ll laugh about it now and advise I visit YouTube; watch her stepping out of a limo, hesitant, all dressed up in a canary yellow Zac Posen couture gown, usure of her footing. Catching sight of co-stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, she grips their hands, more for support than anything else and, all the while, there’s this sell-shocked expression writ large on her face.
“That was my first red carpet,” she recalls, “and it was like a Michael Jackson concert. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Thank God, Brad and Sean were there. They each grabbed a and and were like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna smile, Jessica. We’re gonna turn to the left…’” But the footage tells only half the story. “Before the red carpet, I was in the car with my best friend [actress Jess Weixles] and my eyes welled up with tears. I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna throw up, I’m so nervous,’ and Jess is trying to make me laugh. She’s like, ‘It’s fine. If you throw up, it’ll be great press!’”
Cannes was just the start for Jessica, the ready-made starlet who seemingly appeared out of nowhere to take her seat at Hollywood’s top table. At the age of – well, more of that later – when most actresses might have felt their chance had passed them by, she is living proof that pure talent and sheer force of will can still win out. “This last year has been insane,” she beams. These past 18 months have included an astonishing six film releases: The Debt, with Helen Mirren, Take Shelter, Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, the aforementioned The Tree of Life, The Help, which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, and Lawless. It’s worth listing them, because not only do they showcase the enviable range that has made her such hot property but, more remarkably, both her performances and the movies themselves were each met with overwhelming critical praise and commercial success.
This is not the way things usually go in Hollywood And Jessica shows no sign of letting up. Starting with this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic interpretation of the hunt of Osama bin Laden, this year also sees her feature opposite James McAvoy in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and in the thriller Mama. To say she’s a workaholic is to do her disservice.
We meet at The Mercer hotel in New York, a few blocks down from where she’s making her broadway debut in the American stage classic The Heiress (she has received five-star reviews of course). “I committed to it ages ago,” she responds to my querying her hectic schedule. “And I always keep my promises.”
Slightly flustered by arriving late, she’s simultaneously apologising, unbuttoning her cute navy blue pea coat and ordering green tea, while perching her petite, glam-slam curvaceous, 5ft 4in frame on edge of the seat. And she’s talking. And talking. Are she and Brad still in touch? “Yeah, I mean we’re not friends, like, ‘Hey, let’s go bowling!’” she burst into juicy loud laughter that will punctuate the interview. “I know it’s probably more interesting – Brad, Angie and I meet for a pizza!”
Then she’s amusingly chastising herself for not being able to handle her own admin. “I was like, ‘I don’t need an assistant’.” Only after eight months “of being really bad at responding to emails and feeling like failure” did she eventually relent. Same goes for personal stylist. “I love clothes shopping, but it’s not possible when doing promotional tours.” So she employed the services of LA’s leading wardrobe wrangler, Elizabeth Stewart. “I looked at the people she worked with – Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Amanda Seyfried – and each had their own style. She didn’t dress them like mini versions of her.”
Ordinarily, actresses, especially those relatively new to publicity, aren’t nearly so open or relaxed about sharing the minutiae of their off-screen lives. Okay, so discussing the size of your bulging inbox might not be any great shakes but, in this instance, it gives a hint of more to come. Because what makes Jessica so intriguing as subject is not simply the acute trajectory of her star but, unlike most ingénues in her field, she arrives fully formed, both in terms of acting ability and personality. She’s an adult, which isn’t always a given in Hollywood. Unselfconsciously candid with her answers, she retains a sense of perspective uncommon among her peers and has real opinions. Not only on her profession and the industry, but even when tippy-toeing around subjects she regard off-limits, sich as family and personal relationships.
I’m sitting, clutching a ream of questions, but it’s half an hour before I get to ask the first, because once she’s up and running, there’s no stopping her. Somehow we’re talking about Elizabeth Taylor and Greta Garbo and, with no false modesty, Jessica insists she has no interest in becoming a Hollywood Legens. “You have to welcome that.” Then, lowering her voice a little: “Off the record, I could name specifics for you. There are some actors, who are very, very famous [insert name here], who know what they’re doing. They court it. Like Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. It’s something that you woo.”
In a beat we’re on the how she graduated from New York’s esteemed performing arts academy, The Juilliard School, in 2003, immediately earning herself a contract with John Wells Productions, which produces shows like The West Wing and ER. The deal allowed her to commute back and forth between Manhattan and LA; the income from “guest spots” funding more meaningful roles in New York’s theatre land. No actor I’ve ever interviewed has ever volunteered details of their salary, but Jessica is proud of her ability to “stretch of dollar”; her husbandry giving a snapshot of times when her self-belief was tested. Those odd guest spots earned her $6,000 a go: “After taxes and everything, you get about $3,000 dollars. I can make that stretch. M Mean, I still have my 2007 Prius”. At the time, she was living in a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica – “I think my rent was $1,600 a month and I always shared with a roommate. So that’s $800 a month.”
She become a homeowner less then three years ago, swapping her rented Santa Monica abode for nearby two-bedroom condo, while purchasing a “modest”, she stresses, place in New York. “Then I always have a home no matter what city I’m in.” She draws breath, takes a sip of green tea – Julia Roberts meets Monroe. “Fame and money have not been my goals. If they had, then this probably would not have happened, because this all happened from independent films. Not big pay cheques. even The Help was an independent film. We were all cast before the success of the novel. Thank God, because they would have never ever given me Celia Foote [her character] had people known how bit it would become.”
There’s a pause. It’s not long, but long enough to dredge up those lonely hours waiting for the call to come and for people to believe in the acting skills that are now being lauded at every turn. “I’m being frank with you,” she offers.
Frustration has been plentiful. Like the time she had to do a pre-read for TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “That’s not even the audition. It’s the audition before the audition. I mean, what’s going on! Yes, it irritated me that no on knew, or didn’t care, what Juilliard was. There were a couple of times when I thought, ‘Maybe I should dye my hair blonde?’ I’m in LA and I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t I get an audition for a film?’ Being a redhead and not having very conventionally modern looks, it was confusing for people and they didn’t know exactly where to put me.” (Funny how thing change. In August, Yves Saint Laurent made her the face of its new fragrance, Manifesto.) She sums up those days: “Most of the time, it was, ‘Why is this taking so long?’”
Only when, in 2006, Al Pacino, “my mentor”, cast her in his LA theatre production of Salomé did her “confidence start to rise”. Pacino’s endorsement did indeed open doors and the film roles began stacking p. But her fortune didn’t hold out. The reason why Jessica’s had so many movie releases in the past year is because the majority of those films were put on hold due to a combination of contractual and distribution complications and, in the case of The Tree of Life, the director’s drawn-out creative process. (It took three years to complete.)
Typically, she takes a positive view of the staccato rhythm of her career during this period. “I’ve been lcuky they took so long to come out, because I was able to say, ‘Here are six films and they’e all very different characters’.”
And here’s Jessica. Hollywood’s little mystery who made it big. Yet while she’s happy to solve the conundrum of what took her so long, she’s equally anxious to maintain the private life, which, up until recently, has been all hers. Read her cutting and personal details are scant in the extreme. Bron in the Bay area of San Fransico – depending on the source she’s either 31 or 35, her father is a fireman, while her mother stayed home raising Jessica and her four siblings (two brothers, two sisters). She’s a vegan and in her spare time she plays ukulele. There’s emphatically no mention of part or present relationships.
I ask whether part of her enjoys being a secret; that the uncomfortable flipside of success is having people like me prying into her personal history.
“Not really,” she replies, still smiling, “because, to be honest, so far, you haven’t really asked me about my private life.”
Are you dating at the moment? “I have a rule,” she says. “No actors. I have dated an actor before, at Juilliard, but since then, I’ve only been on a couple of dates with one and I was so freaked out someone was going to take a picture of us, because they were famous. I realized I wanted just to be able to hang out with someone… And I didn’t want to talk about the business, first of all. I love movies. But I love talking about them like when I was 15 years old. I’m a film fan, but I don’t want to talk about auditions or what movie I’m gonna do. I find that so boring.” Who were they? “Yeah, right! I’m not telling you! No Way!”
So, I try, this guy you’re dating now… what does he do? “I’m not…” Jessica stutters sweetly. “I didn’t even tell you I was dating anyone!” Then she decides to concede a little ground and wickedly serves up this titbit: “If you fished around enough, you could find some information. To be honest, I never talk about it. Some people in the fashion world know, though.” They’re in fashion? “Mmm,” is all she’ll repsonds.
Didn’t she, I tease, during those wilderness year ever consider furthering her career with a few well placed, strategic dates. She cracks up at the very idea. “Well, I know you mean playing the same. Of course, but, to be honest any time anyone from the business who was successful hit on me, it worked to the opposite effect. I never wanted anyone to say, ‘Well, she got that part because of the game’.”
The only point in the interview when Jessica visibly squirms at an enquiry is, ironically enough, enduring an exchange about her film, Zero Dark Thirty – the true story of the female CIA agent who coordinated the mission that eventually brought down Osama bin Laden. Her older brother, Will, is currently severing in Iraq with the US Armed Forces. there’s a short pause before she quietly explains how she’s “not political science major, I’m a storyteller”. Her unusual reticence seems entirely out of character. So much so, that jessica herself feels obliged to break her own rules and expand on the impact of her brother’s career choice. “I love my brother,” she says, wary of revealing too much. “I would hate to see him in harm’s way. I was very sad when he enlisted, but … [she lapses into melodic hum, searching for safer territory." No one wants to see someone they love put in danger. My dad's also a fireman. I'm not happy about that. I'm proud, but it scares me."
Of her family, all she'll say it that "the youngest two are still in high school and I'm very protective of them". And that she, "got introduce my brother to Emma Stone and my sister to Tom Hardy. So they're very excited about [her success], but they don’t see me any differently”.
Consciously or not, Jessica has spent the majority of her life deciding on how much she was willing to give herself if celebrity ever caught up with her undoubted talents. Far from being off-putting, it’s almost old-fashioned to meet a Hollywood actress who s “all about the craft”. When I suggest that keeping he rage a guarded secret only fuels people’ interest, she laughs, then, proving it’s a decision based on necessary expedience rather than vanity, refers to the example set by her hero, the acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert. “She never talks about age, because she’s an actress first and wants to play all roles. In The Tree of Life, I play 19 to 40. Once you define who yo are, sometimes Hollywood isn’t unimaginative, they’re anti-imagination. I don’t want to be a personality. I want to be know as an actor first. Not, ‘This is Jessica Chastain. Here what she eats for breakfast’. I’m not interested in that part of fame.”
So what did you eat for breakfast? She laughs again. And remains tight-lipped. Zero Dark Thirty is out January 25.