You’ll be seeing a lot of Jessica Chastain this year.
The Juilliard grad moved from theatre and TV into movies just a few years ago, and as sometimes happens with film releases, she has a handful of projects coming out all at once. She was in Toronto Tuesday to promote Terrence Malick’s wonderful new movie, The Tree of Life, but she’s also part of an all-star cast in late summer release The Help, stars in the psychological thriller The Fields in July and will turn up in productions of Wilde Salome and Coriolanus later this year. And she stars opposite Michael Shannon in the anxiety-drenched Take Shelter in the fall.
So it’s going to be a Jessica Chastain kind of year.
The fragile beauty is entirely charming in person. Chastain compares The Tree of Life to a prism, saying of the film, “Every time you see it, you see a new part of it you didn’t see before. I feel this film changes the language of cinema, somehow.”
We happen to feel she’s correct about that.
Chastain stars opposite Brad Pitt in the movie; they play a married couple raising three boys. It’s Texas in the 1950s and ’60s, and their experience of life is a sort of shorthand for all existence. Chastain was one of many actresses who auditioned for her role in the film.
“It was a general call, a stereotypical situation where there were actresses sitting all along the hallway, waiting to go in. But I always had this feeling — the character description said she was a woman as though from another time, and I really connected to that. When I first moved to L.A. I had trouble fitting in. I kept getting feedback that I wasn’t quite right, wasn’t modern looking. Sitting in the waiting room were all these tall, skinny, beautiful blond girls. And I did feel somewhat different.”
Asked what people should know about her, Chastain says, “I play the ukulele,” and she laughs. “I play Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and Radiohead’s Creep, and it’s really beautiful, because the ukulele is so sweet, and when you plays songs like that it’s kind of this complex contradiction.”
The actress is protective of her family — one of many clues that she’s smarter than the average bear — but she does say she’s from a big family, with a fireman dad and a vegan chef mom. The only arts influence in her life, growing up, was her grandmother. She thought about her grandmother a lot, she says, for her role in The Tree of Life.
“She always kind of wanted to be an artist and an actress, but as a young woman in the ’50s, she wasn’t really given the opportunity. She was told to marry young and have children young, and be a mom. But when I was young, she’d do things like, for Christmas, she’d buy me a ballet tutu and ballet lessons. She took me to my first play. And she moved me to Juilliard. When I got in, she flew with me to move into the dorm. She’s an incredible influence in my life.”
It was her grandmother, says Chastain, who helped her realize that acting is a job.
Let’s hope Grandma also prepared Chastain for the exigencies of fame. The actress happily recalls being home last Christmas, when nobody outside her family knew what was coming up in her career. “A few days later, my mom’s friend phoned and said, ‘I went to see Black Swan, and I think I saw your daughter in a movie trailer with Brad Pitt! I don’t know how this is possible!’ ” Chastain laughs again. “That was so sweet. I hope I can keep it that way.”