There’s nothing we like better than an overnight success story but Jessica Chastain’s feels just too good to be true. A perfect storm of Chastain movies, swelled by critical adulation, is brewing in what looks like a co-ordinated assault on the awards season.
Earlier this year was a taster, with the release of Terrence Malick’s winner at Cannes, The Tree of Life, in which Chastain played Brad Pitt’s wife – as auspicious a debut as any actor could hope for. Then came civil rights Oscar bait The Help. Next up are apocalyptic fable Take Shelter, another winner at Cannes, and The Debt, an espionage drama starring Helen Mirren.
Chastain has also teamed up with Sam Worthington in the yet-to-be-released steamy murder mystery Texas Killing Fields; Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, relocated to war-torn Bosnia, with Vanessa Redgrave; The Wettest County in the World, a Depression-era saga scripted by Nick Cave and starring Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman; and Wilde Salome, the film version of Al Pacino’s Broadway crowd-pleaser.
A year ago, Chastain was a complete unknown. Now she’s in danger of saturating the market. In a seedy diner somewhere in LA, there is probably a failed actor wondering who stole all her luck. And the answer could be the sunny, chatty, immaculately turned-out 30-year-old sitting in front of me. Chastain looks as if she’s just stepped inside from a 1950s garden party: she’s wearing a sleeveless turquoise dress that sets off her red hair. Her feet are squeezed into patent-leather heels and, despite the fact she has yet another day of interviews ahead of her, she’s brimming with enthusiasm. Chastain’s extended moment is just a coincidence of timing, she says, almost apologetically.
”Last year, we were joking that there was a Chastain curse,” she says. ”I’d done 11 films in four years and for some reason they’d all been paused. I’d tell my friends and family, ‘I swear to you, I’m in this movie with Brad Pitt!’ Or I’d meet with a filmmaker and I’d go, ‘I really want to do your movie – but if you put me in it, it may not come out for years.”’
Now Chastain is cursed instead with a never-ending promotional tour of duty. ”Sundance, Berlin, two films in Cannes, two films in Deauville, two films in Venice, two films in Toronto,” she says, looking back on the year. ”I’m promoting five movies this month. My publicist said she’s never seen that before. I looked at my whole schedule and I got freaked out, so now I just look at three days. What am I doing the next three days? That’s enough.”
There are, however, no visible signs of weariness. ”I’m such a fan of movies,” she says. ”I love actors. I love directors. I love talking about them. I become like a geeky schoolgirl. I even love doing press.”
Either she’s totally genuine or she’s a very good actor. Or both. The Tree of Life was so spell-binding it was difficult to separate individual performances. The Debt was a more conventional political thriller and her harrowed onscreen presence in that film is quite a contrast with the cheerful soul in front of me today.
She explains how she spent months preparing for The Tree of Life, studying the hands of Raphael’s Madonnas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reading, watching old Lauren Bacall films (to learn about grace). Not to mention learning reams of Malick’s lines, which he’d then ask her to say in her head. Even for her comically trashy character in feel-good film The Help, she dyed her hair blonde, mastered a high-pitched Mississippi accent, gained some weight, then squeezed herself into a painful corset.
There’s nothing in Chastain’s background to suggest she would have such a remarkable ascent. She grew up in northern California, one of five siblings. Her father is a fireman, her mother a vegan chef. Going to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the age of seven was a formative experience but her first ”grown-up” idols were European actors such as Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Isabelle Huppert.
”I’d never seen love scenes like The English Patient before. Or in Schindler’s List – I was shocked how the character [Fiennes] played could be so vile but at the same time so lovesick. I thought that was a beautiful dichotomy. It was the first time I realised acting was about more than just being in films: it was about playing complicated, very human characters. That was the awakening for me.”
While Chastain has clearly earned her success, her rise still reveals the hidden lines of power running through the movie industry. She studied at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where she was spotted and signed by TV producer John Wells before she graduated. She spent three years in TV and stage roles, before being noticed in a small off-Broadway production by Marthe Keller, who had co-starred with Al Pacino in the 1977 Sydney Pollack movie Bobby Deerfield. Keller mentioned Chastain to Pacino, who needed an unknown to play the lead in his stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
”You should see this girl,” Keller told Pacino. Next, Chastain got a call asking her to audition for Pacino. The first thing the director said was, ”Why should I know you?” Chastain says. ”The second was, ‘Let me see you dance.’ It was like a dare and I didn’t want her to win. So I got up and danced. There was no music. Nothing.”
She got the part and her movie career began. ”When you’re on stage with Al Pacino, everyone in Hollywood comes to see it,” she says. ”That’s when I started to get film auditions.” Before that, it seems, nobody knew what to do with her. ”They kept saying to me that I didn’t look modern, didn’t look contemporary. LA is full of very tall, beautiful, blonde, tanned women – like Bo Derek in 10.” Then the casting call for Malick’s The Tree of Life came along, demanding a woman who looked as if she came from another time. ”I thought, ‘Yup. I’m gonna get this!”’
With Chastain’s untested back catalogue and unanimous critical adulation, a backlash is possible. But she has the wind in her sails and knows where she’s going. Her next movie is a supernatural horror, produced by Guillermo del Toro, in which she’s a bass player in a punk band. She would love to work with Lars von Trier, she says, and plans to do more stage work next year. She is also in Malick’s next movie.
In fact, in the past year alone, Chastain has achieved more than most actors could hope for in a lifetime – and she’s just getting started. ”After Tree of Life,” she says, ”I got so many scripts for ‘graceful wife’ roles. The only thing I’m definitely ruling out is things I’ve done already.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald