Published on The Guardian – September 7, 2014
By Jordan Hoffman
This autumn belongs to Jessica Chastain, who stars in four of the season’s Oscar contenders, directed by the likes of Al Pacino, Guillermo Del Toro and Christopher Nolan. But what she really wants is a cape
Jessica Chastain would like a table at the back. She’s on a tight schedule, and in 10 minutes she’ll need to take a call to discuss “an issue” with “a studio”. “I’m not happy with the way a distribution plan is going,” she says, not rattled, just frank – happy, even. For another actor, such a call might be a windmill-tilt, but Chastain’s knack for picking prestige projects indicates a star with clout.
She has been on an almost flawless run (she pulled out of 2013’s Diana biopic) since 2011, AKA The Year of Jessica Chastain, when audiences saw her in The Help, Take Shelter, The Debt, Coriolanus and The Tree of Life. That was topped by a weekend in January 2013 when she became the first female actor in half a century to star in both the No 1 and No 2 movies at the US box office (Mama and Zero Dark Thirty). That same month, she landed her second Oscar nomination in as many years. This machine-like – and on the face of it rather frightening – rate of productivity was in fact an accident: projects that had been shot years apart ended up getting released back-to-back. Though she will admit to a certain work ethic. “I feel like I’m being drawn in so many directions,” she says. “I make so many films.”
Chastain, now 37, is in the rare position of being able to pinpoint the exact moment that her career got hot. She had just graduated from the Juilliard School in New York, on a scholarship funded by Robin Williams (she paid tribute to him following his death last month, describing how he “changed my life”), when she got the call. Would she read for the role of Salomé? Not just in any production, but one with Al Pacino as Herod. His production had previously been to Broadway with Marisa Tomei in the title role. But when Pacino and director Estelle Parsons brought the show to Los Angeles in 2006, they wanted an unknown to play his spiteful stepdaughter, who demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter in return for a dance of the seven veils.
In fact, Salomé wasn’t just Chastain’s first big break on the boards, but her first movie as well. Pacino, who never does anything small, decided that the company would perform the play at night and, during the day, film it at a nearby sound stage. And, just for kicks, they would make a separate film – a documentary – recording the mayhem. After six years in the can, both Salomé (the filmed Oscar Wilde play, as directed by Al Pacino) and his making-of documentary Wilde Salomé are finally heading to cinemas. (A special double-bill is set for 21 September in London, with Pacino and Chastain in conversation with Stephen Fry.)
“I look like such a baby!” Chastain says of the films now. Also: “I still see Al as a second father.” Which is interesting, given the portrait of the artist that Wilde Salomé delivers. As Pacino raced the clock and battled producers, Chastain wasn’t shielded from his struggles. True, Pacino’s shouting is largely confined to when he’s in character (“Oh, SaaaAAAAAAAAaaaalomé! he roars as he makes his initial entrance”) but the ever-increasing chaos of a triple-production does make for some fraught scenes. “I could see the stress. He took a lot of time directing us and was very generous. But he’s also acting too, so he needs his time. There’s that moment in the documentary where he barks: ‘I can’t just turn it on!’”
A tale of malice, sacrifice and sexual power play, Salomé offered Chastain a role to get her teeth into. “She starts off saying she’s going to be a virgin and ends up a necrophiliac,” she says with a smile. “When I first read the play I was confused. It didn’t seem like Oscar Wilde and his sharp-tongued wit. But it’s very deep in its scope.”
It’s also quite a spectacle; Salomé may well be history’s most celebrated exotic dancer, and Chastain is naked for the climactic scene. “I’d still do the nudity,” Chastain says. “I think it’s necessary for that play. It isn’t a seduction or a striptease, it’s a murder. But if I played Salomé today I don’t know if it would be as good. I had nothing to lose.”
She pauses and pops a raspberry in her mouth. Our meeting at New York’s Mercer Kitchen is meant to double as breakfast, but vegan Chastain has barely touched the loaded fruit plate. With her flame red hair and upright posture, it’s not difficult to identify the movie star among the diners, but Chastain is lighter in conversation than her sometimes austere screen presence might suggest. She grew up in Sacramento, California, but now lives round the corner with her boyfriend, fashion industry exec Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, and three-legged dog, Chaplin.
Not that Chastain gets to hang out in the Village all that much, you suspect. Salomé aside, this autumn she stars in three other Oscar contenders: experimental relationship drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, opposite James McAvoy; Interstellar, the new science-fiction adventure from Christopher Nolan; and A Most Violent Year, JC Chandor’s followup to All Is Lost. Earlier this year she spent the spring in Toronto shooting Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. “He worked my ass off,” she grins.
Directors from Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) to Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) are drawn to her willowy beauty and inner steel. When asked what makes her such a good actor, Crimson Peak co-star Tom Hiddleston describes her as “curious, investigative, passionate, immersive” and praises her extraordinary rigour. “She never yields to convention and she has a staggering emotional control. She can unlock pure, raw, unfettered emotion and seemingly put it away again, which attests to a core spiritual toughness.”
This week, she’ll take Miss Julie to the Toronto film festival: another play, by August Strindberg, written three years earlier than Salome. The director is Liv Ullmann, muse of Ingmar Bergman, who never played the part herself. “It was a partnership,” says Chastain. “She got to play it through me. Liv is someone who is all sensitivity, she has no bones. At one point she was crying so much that both Colin [Farrell] and I were left standing there. Some of her family were holding her. The material is so dark.”
Bread and butter to the star of Zero Dark Thirty, presumably. Kathryn Bigelow’s CIA thriller was her biggest challenge so far, she says (“insanely hard”). The Help was both her “showiest” and her “easiest”. Chastain takes her work as professionally as you would expect (she learned to play bass for Mama), but she loves watching movies too. At Cannes this year, whereas some stars are happy to punt their project then head for the yachts, she spent hours seeing what else was on the programme. She’s also passionate about the nuts and bolts of theatre, of collaboration, even direction. “Who knows, maybe I’ll go back to my alma mater, Juilliard. I definitely, definitely would love to teach.”
Another great ambition is less rarefied. “I would love to do a superhero movie!” she cries. “I would have loved to have played Black Widow.” Opportunity has presumably not been the issue; she dropped out of Iron Man 3, after all. “A couple of times I’ve gotten really close. The problem is, if I do a superhero movie, I don’t want to be the girlfriend. I don’t want to be the daughter. I want to wear a fucking cool costume with a scar on my face, with fight scenes. That’s what I’d love.”