Why Jessica Chastain is the biggest star movie fans have never heard of
In the upcoming film “Take Shelter,” which wowed audiences and critics this year at Sundance and Cannes, Jessica Chastain spends one scene listening to a shocking confession from her husband, played by Michael Shannon. For the film’s director, Jeff Nichols, Chastain’s preparation was revelatory.
“Jessica disappeared for about 15 minutes before we started shooting,” he says. “When she came back, it was like someone had been hitting her with a baseball bat. Her eyes were swollen, red with tears, and she looked like she’d been through hell. She delivered this scene, and it was the most natural performance I’ve ever been part of.”
While “Take Shelter,” which arrives in theaters Sept. 30, won the Grand Prize at Cannes Critics Week, Chastain was the talk of the festival for her co-starring role in another film there, Terrence Malick’s long-awaited “The Tree of Life,” in which she appears as Brad Pitt’s angelic wife. This month, she appears in two more lauded films: “The Help,” out Friday, and “The Debt,” a thriller co-starring Helen Mirren on Aug. 31.
This may seem like heavy exposure for an unknown, but in Hollywood, Chastain is anything but. She’s made 11 films in the past four years — various delays have bunched seven together for release this year — and those who’ve worked with her say she’s a legend in the making.
Nichols cast Chastain on a recommendation from Malick, who called her “one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever worked with.” Dan Ireland, who directed Chastain in 2008’s “Jolene,” calls her “the Meryl Streep of the millennium.” Al Pacino, meanwhile, chose her for the title role in his stage and film versions of Oscar
Wilde’s “Salome.” The movie debuts at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4.
Chastain, 30, was raised in northern California and studied at Julliard, where she landed a holding deal with TV producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”) before she even graduated. Some of her deepest education, though, came from Malick.
“It was the greatest lesson in living in the moment, because you never know what’s going to happen,” says Chastain. “For an actor, that can be really scary.”
One notable shot in “The Tree of Life” featured Chastain doing 360-degree forward-spins through the air. This shot was unplanned.
“A harness [was supposed to] pull me up. It wasn’t working, and we were losing the light,” she says. “I used to be a ballerina, and I was so happy to be in that harness, so I started swinging around. Terry saw that and said, ‘That’s it. Just dance around.’ And so all of us got excited by this spontaneous moment.”
In “The Help,” based on a best-selling novel about white Southern women and their black servants, Chastain plays the gorgeous but troubled new employer of Minny (Octavia Spencer), a chef who has just been fired by the film’s villain, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). A dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe, Celia doesn’t fit in with the society women of 1962 Jackson, Miss.
“Celia is great — I love this character,” Chastain says. “I’m not buxom and blonde and flighty . . . but [director] Tate Taylor helped me transform physically. I got to gain some weight. I got to drive all around Mississippi, and I went to Sugar Ditch, Tenn., where Celia’s from. I did so much to find this woman.”
Working hard, though, is Chastain’s forte.
Ireland recalls casting her in “Jolene” after her audition left the room in tears. During filming, her dedication to portraying the character’s fluctuating weight led her to binge and fast so intensely that it compromised her health.
“We were working 14 to 17 hours a day, and she collapsed on set. She was dehydrated,” Ireland says. “We got a doctor, they rehydrated her and I was gonna call an end to the day. She was like, ‘No, I’m fine. Let’s finish.’ ” She brought the same spirit to her audition for Pacino.
“I was really nervous right before I went in,” she says. “My heart started beating, and I could tell I was gonna flub it. Then I said [to myself], it’s Al Pacino — you’ve watched him in your living room. You should be absolutely comfortable.”
The results were immediately clear from Pacino’s reaction.
“When he’s watching you act, if he likes what you’re doing, he makes noises, and I could hear, ‘Oh, wow. Oh, gosh,’ ” says Chastain. “I could hear him whispering because he liked something.”
Other films Chastain has coming up include the crime drama “Texas Killing Fields” (Oct. 28), Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” (Dec. 2), and yet another Malick movie, so far untitled and due out next year.
As her “unknown” status quickly vanishes and the nerve-wracking trials of the Hollywood star machine approach, it’s a good thing that Chastain embraces fear.
“The parts I’m drawn to are parts I’m really afraid of,” she says, noting that in “The Debt,” she had to fight and speak German, and that “Salome” was filled with “terrifying” nudity.
“If something scares me, it’s gonna force me to rise to the occasion. If I fail, I fail big. But I fail bigger if I don’t try. I wanna throw myself off the cliff. I’m willing to do that for a part.”
Source: NY Post