Jessica Chastain has been in a smoking-hot string of movies in 2011, starring alongside Brad Pitt, Helen Mirren, Al Pacino and Ralph Fiennes. And before her Hollywood breakthrough year is even over, critics are already calling Chastain the best actress of her generation.
In little more than a year Chastain has gone from being an unknown in Hollywood to being crowned Tinseltown’s new “It” girl.
The 30-year-old actress with the auburn hair and commanding gaze first grabbed the world’s attention at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where she debuted her performance as Brad Pitt’s ethereal wife in “The Tree of Life.”
That haunting mediation on life and death won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honour. It also gave Chastain her first splashy red carpet entrance alongside costars Pitt and Sean Penn.
“Cannes was a fantasy come true,” Chastain told CTVNews.ca during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.
And the dream hasn’t ended, as she’s since had a string of films hit the box office.
She’s appeared in “The Debt” and “The Help,” two films which have cumulatively earned more than US$200 million worldwide.
And before 2011 ends Chastain will appear in Al Pacino’s “Wilde Salome” and Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus.”
“This year has been other-worldly. Wonderful things have happened to me,” said Chastain.
“If I were 20 and all this happened I’d try to cling to it. Now I know it goes away. Actors have great years. They have lean years. That knowledge is what keeps me sane.”
Chastain’s wise to fame’s pitfalls
Born and raised in Northern California, Chastain’s home life was far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood or Broadway.
While her father was a San Francisco firefighter, her mother worked as a vegan chef. Of the five siblings in the family, only Jessica had an interest in the arts.
When Chastain was a girl, her grandmother took her to see David Cassidy in the theatrical production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” When the curtain rose and Chastain saw a young girl playing the narrator, she knew she’d found her calling.
“I was hooked,” said The Juilliard School graduate.
“Looking back, I think my ambitions worried my parents. But they were supportive. They did what they could for me. That’s what families do.”
That experience of a close, loving family prepared Chastain for her latest role in the psychological thriller “Take Shelter,” which opens on October 14.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Chastain plays Samantha LaForche, a loyal wife and mother who sees her happy life in small-town Ohio collapse.
Her husband, Curtis (Michael Shannon), has strange, apocalyptic dreams about a storm headed their way.
Curtis’ nightmares and his obsession about building a storm shelter overtake him. His mind becomes unhinged. He quickly becomes a violent man Samantha can longer comprehend or trust.
“This movie is eerie, but it really isn’t about the apocalypse,” said Chastain.
“It’s all about marriage and what it takes to make it work, especially when trouble strikes.”
Chastain loved the challenge of playing a woman who wasn’t merely a stand-by-your-man wife. This woman loves her husband. But is he nuts? Is he dangerous? No one knows for sure, not until the film’s final moments.
Chastain and Shannon both deliver sterling performances in this creepy tale. In fact, Shannon’s big meltdown scene at a town-hall dinner would terrify horror master Stephen King.
“Michael did that scene in one take. When he was done the extras gave him a standing ovation. That’s what you call an actor,” said Chastain.
That praise comes, of course, from a woman critics are now calling the best actress of her generation. But Chastain remains wise to such hype.
“There’s fame, then there’s the job,” said Chastain.
“I’ve made 11 films in the past five years and now they’re all coming out at once. I just hope people won’t get sick of me.”