Jessica Chastain enters a suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel, the clack of her beige heels announcing her arrival. She’s dressed in a black raincoat and a sleeveless mint-green dress that looks like it once belonged to Jackie Kennedy. Her skin is pale and freckled, her figure trim and slim and her eyes a rare green. But it’s her shoulder-length shock of red hair that knocks you sideways. “I grew up getting picked on in the schoolyard for being a redhead,” she says, without a trace of self-pity. Now it’s made her stand out from the crowd when it counts.
Along with Bryce Dallas Howard, her co-star in recent hit movie The Help, whom she is frequently mistaken for, it seems redheads are red-hot right now. “I think there’s always been time for redheads – Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Julianne Moore,” she says. “Someone told me something really interesting and I wonder if it’s true. They say that scientifically redheads need more anaesthesia at the dentist because we’re more sensitive to pain. And I was listening to this, thinking, ‘If we’re more sensitive to pain, does that mean we’re more sensitive emotionally?’”
Judging by her work so far – all class, no crass – that’s quite possible. Right now, she’s on the verge of becoming a household name. It’s our third encounter in five months – and the second in a fortnight – though our first in the UK. If anything, it’s testament to just how many films Chastain has stacked on top of one another, like planes circling Glasgow airport. With four landing since June, and another two on the way, there is little doubt that this has been, at long last, her year.
A few months ago, nobody outside the industry or her family had heard of her. A star-in-waiting … boy, was she made to wait. Arriving in Terrence Malick’s Cannes-winning The Tree of Life in May, she’d actually shot her scenes as the angelic wife to Brad Pitt’s Texan father-of-three four years earlier. The famously reclusive Malick stayed locked in the editing room, tweaking his masterpiece, as Chastain was forced to sit and wait for her big break. “I’ve been a secret,” she smiles, “because no-one’s been able to see my work.”
It wasn’t entirely Malick’s fault. Stolen and Jolene, her two films made in the wake of The Tree of Life, disappeared without a trace. And shot in early 2009, John Madden’s thriller The Debt – in which Chastain plays an Israeli Mossad agent on a mission – has only just been released, after becoming the victim of distribution problems. “I thought everyone would joke that there was a Chastain curse,” she laughs. Hardly. While The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or – and is heavily tipped for Oscar glory – her new film Take Shelter, due later this month, was also victorious in Cannes, taking the Critic’s Week prize.
As she settles into her chair, she tells me that she’s been recognised just twice since Cannes. When she turned up at the Toronto International Film Festival, for a party hosted by a glossy magazine, the door staff didn’t even recognise her. “I didn’t have my ID on me, and they didn’t believe me, that I was who I was. So I had to go into another line, and there are all these people around. Then finally I said to the woman, ‘I’m sorry I don’t have an ID, but I’m in your magazine this month – with my face and my name. So maybe that’ll work!’ Constantly, embarrassing things are happening to me like that.”
Even The Help didn’t help. The adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel, set in Mississippi during the 1960s Civil Rights era, has so far taken $167 million in the US. But with Chastain gaining 15lbs to accentuate her curves, adopting a “squeaky Tennessee accent” and wearing a blonde wig to play the “liquid sex” Celia Foote, she was virtually incognito. Such is her invisibility even those on movie sets often don’t realise who she is, treating her like she was a newbie. “Like you’re in your hair and make-up and they’re so excited for you, and you go, ‘It’s my 10th film!’”
Not that she’s become a diva as a result. Far from it, in fact, as Chastain is as humble as they come. “At the beginning it felt frustrating. But I actually realised it was a big gift. It got to be all about the work for me, and not about anything else. I would go from job to job, and my only concern was the character I was playing and the story that I was trying to tell. So I didn’t have to deal with any of the trappings of what happens when movies come out, and how people might treat you differently. So now I do feel a bit anxious about what it means for six films to come out.”
Indeed, while Chastain has merrily been working with the likes of Brad Pitt and Terrence Malick, she’s been living in a bubble. “I’ve started to realise that I have been in denial – I’ve had all these thoughts, like I can do the work because that’s what I’ve been doing; I’ve just been making movies and it hasn’t changed anything. Now all of a sudden I’m realising that was a joke. Even if I never work again, my life is going to be different. I never really wanted that – I never wanted to be famous. What scares me about that is when you meet a stranger and they can no longer relate to you.”
One of five children – she has two sisters and two brothers – the notion of fame bothers her to the extent that she remains fiercely protective of her siblings. “I have a 15-year-old sister, and she doesn’t talk to her friends about me. So no-one in her high school knows that her sister is an actress. We try to keep it secret because I chose this life, I chose to be an actor, and they didn’t and I want to protect them. Sometimes people can have ill intentions, wanting to be a part of the business or whatnot. I want them to have their perfect happy life separate.”
Yet the Chastain juggernaut seems unstoppable right now. She’s already in pre-production on Horizons, a science fiction blockbuster co-starring Tom Cruise. “It’s a very good script,” she enthuses, of a story set in the future, where Earth is polluted and civilisation now lives above the clouds. More controversially, she’s just been announced as the actress chosen to play Princess Diana in Caught In Flight. To be directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the German who brilliantly depicted the last days of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, the biopic is said to concentrate on the Princess of Wales’s secret two-year relantionship with the Pakistani surgeon, Dr Hasnat Khan.
With sources claiming the script paints Diana as a damaged, love-struck stalker, the film is expected to go into production next year – by which point the furore whipped up by the British media will be deafening. It seems an unusual project for Chastain to take (though after hearing her pitch-perfect Israeli tones in The Debt, one has no doubt she could master the English accent) but then there’s something quite gutsy about this fragile-looking 30-year-old. “I’m a softie on the outside,” she tells me at one point, “and then you realise when you get to know me that I’m tough.”
She has to be. In the upcoming adaptation of Coriolanus, in which she plays Virgilia, she gets to brush up on her Shakespeare opposite the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and the film’s director, Ralph Fiennes, who plays the title role. When she was young, she remembers seeing him in The English Patient. “I’d never really seen love scenes before. I was like, ‘What is this movie?’ Then when I saw that he was the same actor who was in Schindler’s List, and how he could play such a despicable human being … that made me realise I want to be an actor that plays characters like that, that are very complex and contradict themselves.”
She has just that opportunity in her other new work, Take Shelter. Unquestionably, next to The Tree of Life, one of the most original films of the year, it’s a psychological drama centring on a working-class family. Chastain’s Samantha LaForche is happily married to Curtis (Michael Shannon), a crew manager for a local drilling company. With a six year-old daughter, their life seems complete. But gradually Curtis becomes unhinged by all-too-real visions of the apocalypse. So what does he do? Secretly mortgage his family to the hilt to build a bunker in his back garden.
Arguably, Curtis’s disturbances are a manifestation of the very real fear he feels about supporting his family in the recession-hit Mid West. “A big mistake he makes is that he should’ve talked to his wife,” says Chastain. “Curtis doesn’t talk to Samantha about what he’s going through. She’s not really let in to the fear until half way through the film.” By the time she is, it’s almost too late. “What I really connected to was this idea that people have a great life, everything seems to be going wonderfully, but if you take your eye off the ball for a minute, a second, then it just unravels. And that’s what happens. One little thing leads to the next.”
In Chastain’s eyes, it’s a film grounded in a reality many of us will recognise. “It’s all about marriage and what it means to love and trust and be with another person. When I first talked to Jeff [Nichols, the writer-director], he said to me the most important moment in the film for him is at the very end of the movie, when Samantha looks at Curtis. I’m not going to say why she looks at him, but there’s a look between the two of them. And Jeff said, ‘If that doesn’t work, then everything leading up to it is all for nothing.’ So, knowing what that meant, we tried to create this relationship, showing how important this family unit is.”
Like Samantha, Chastain’s own background is blue collar, with the emphasis on family. Her father is a fireman and her mother a “stay-at-home mom” and vegan chef. In her family, there are “no actors, no connection to the business”. When she was seven, her grandmother took her to see a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, starring David Cassidy. She knew instantly that she wanted to act. “The whole time growing up, I said I was going to be an actor and everyone said, ‘We don’t know how this is going to happen, but OK.’ They were cool with it.”
Raised in northern California, she spent her teenage years performing in amateur Shakespeare productions around the San Francisco Bay area, adopting her mother’s maiden name (and losing her father’s surname, Howard) because she felt it sounded more thespian-like. She auditioned for the prestigious New York drama school Juilliard. Nobody in her family had ever been to college, and with little money, she had to rely on a scholarship – provided by actor-comedian alumni Robin Williams.
Upon graduating, she moved to Venice Beach in Los Angeles. “When I first moved to LA, it was very difficult. All the casting directors didn’t know what to do with me, with the way I looked. I’m not blonde with tanned skin and tall and skinny. I looked very different – and they said I looked like I was from another time.” But she stuck with it, winning bit parts on shows like ER and Law and Order.
Her big break, however, came a year later, when she received a call to audition for the title role in a Los Angeles stage production of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, alongside none other than Al Pacino. Not only that but The Godfather star would be filming their rehearsals, as well as shooting a private performance of the play, for a documentary, Wilde Salome. “I thought it was a crank call,” Chastain laughs. But it wasn’t. As it turns out, Marthe Keller – Pacino’s friend and co-star from 1977’s Bobby Deerfield – had seen Chastain in an off-Broadway play and recommended her.
If anything clues you in to where Chastain got her fearlessness from, it’s this early experience. “I was standing outside the door, where they came to get me to audition for Salome, and I thought, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to meet Al Pacino.’ And then I realised that I should be less nervous meeting Al Pacino, because I know what he looks like, I know what he sounds like, I know how he talks. He’s been in my living room in The Godfather, and he should be so familiar to me there are going to be no surprises. It’s easier than meeting a stranger.”
Chastain claims it’s advice she’s taken with her ever since – from working with Pitt and Sean Penn on The Tree of Life to Fiennes on Coriolanus. She’s just finished The Wettest County in the World, a 1930s Prohibition tale, in which she plays a gangster’s moll from Chicago. The film puts her in the room with Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, two young – but remarkably intimidating and intense – talents. “I’ve worked with a lot of intense actors – Al Pacino, Michael Shannon, Tom Hardy, Sean Penn – they’re actually teddy bears,” she laughs. “That’s what you realise. You have to get through the intensity. You give them a hug and you realise, ‘You’re not tough!’”
Still, she owes Pacino big-time and she knows it. “Al Pacino’s my godfather!” she cries. “He is my acting godfather. He will forever be my acting godfather.” He should probably take a cut as her agent too, for it was he who recommended her to Malick. Chastain has already returned for a second outing with Malick, for a brief role in his new as-yet-untitled romance with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams (expect to see it in another four years or so).
She admits that all this has left her feeling dizzy. “I do feel a little anxiety. I feel this immense pressure, wondering, ‘How do you top that?’ It’s the beginning of my career. My very first film is directed by Al Pacino. He’s my acting partner. He’s my teacher. And then I do Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is more than a film. I was talking to my agents about this. I realised I can’t think about it. There’s no way to top it. You can’t.” Maybe she won’t. But from acting with Tom Cruise to playing Princess Diana, Jessica Chastain’s 2012 looks set to eclipse even this red-letter year.
Take Shelter (15) is out now. Coriolanus is released in January.