When actress Jessica Chastain attended the Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago, making the rounds for the film Take Shelter, she spoke on a panel for The Creative Coalition. The focus was squarely on her co-star Michael Shannon, who had been graced with an Oscar nom — and hardly on the 30-year-old newcomer.
Boy have times changed. In the span of about a year, Chastain’s profile has risen to the top thanks to the deluge of films featuring this new It Girl and drawing critical acclaim.
Though appearances in such films as Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Corialanus and The Debt, to mention four, she has captured both public and critical attention. But it was The Help that garnered three crucial nominations including one for Chastain in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar category.
Prompted by this dazzling spotlight, I culled the following Q&A from sundry roundtables and press conferences focusing on her role in The Help.
Q: You and Octavia Spencer were both unknowns when you started with this movie. How have things changed?
JC: She came to the Tree of Life premiere in LA. Yeah, there has been a change, but when we made the film, we were like, “Pay attention to us! We’re in the film!”
Q: So how did you get involved with The Help?
JC: I read the script, and loved, loved, loved it. I absolutely connected with [my character] Celia [Foote]. I was bullied a lot when I was a little kid, so she was heartbreaking to me. The idea of playing Celia was really beautiful. I really loved her zest and love for life.
I went in to auditions and my first meeting with [director/writer] Tate Taylor, and I read with Octavia Spencer, the glorious woman here [who plays Minny Jackson] — the African-American maid who really rats out the white women that she and the other housekeepers work for].
Our very first scene that we read… The scene just ended, and it’s that moment just before you break character, and we’re looking at each other, smiling, and she says, “I love you” and I said, “I love you!”
From that moment on, it was like, “I have to do this part.” I fought for it. I screen-tested, I followed the actors. That’s my favorite thing with doing movies, it’s working with [the] people. I knew after meeting [Octavia] that I had to work with her.
The film has come out since, but we were both the unknowns. We were the ones that really fought for the roles. Maybe that’s why we love each other so much.
Q: What was like to be bullied as a kid?
JC: I was always a little awkward, a redhead, and very freckly. Kids like to make fun of people who are different. I had short red hair and wore workout boots, so I got teased really badly for having red hair and being different.
There was a lot of teasing and making fun of, but [I didn’t have a] community or [was] finding friends until I found theater. If you watch that show Glee, they all find each other and connect. That’s what it was like for me!
Q: What do you think about the issue of racism today?
JC: I remember the election [in 2008]… Look at the debates with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the comments being thrown out at both sides. There were sexist comments about Hillary and racist comments about Obama, so it’s really shocking to me to think we haven’t progressed further than we are now. But I feel, too, that every day is a step in the right direction.
Q: Do you feel this movie has helped?
JC: It was great for me, because Celia is such a gorgeous person and has so much to give the world. She grew up in Sugar Ditch, Tennessee. I did the research into what it was like growing up there in that time period. It was predominantly black. She was a woman who was color blind and [referring to Minny] she didn’t understand why can’t we be friends, why can’t I have lunch with you, why can’t I hug you.
For her, [racism] doesn’t even come into play. She thinks it’s the most ridiculous thing. So there was a joy in that for me to play. I didn’t have to play someone who’s aware of racism and lives in that world, because Celia refuses to live in that world because it’s no part of her.
Q: It seems like a very female-centric film. Was there a different atmosphere on the set?
JC: It was a lot of camaraderie. I’ve made seven films in the past four years, [and] I’ve had all these co-stars over the years like Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Tom Hardy, Sam Worthington, Ralph Fiennes… All alpha men.
But I really do believe that the greatest love story in any film I’ve made is the love story between Celia and Minnie. Working on this set with women, you don’t realize how barren that landscape is until you go and work on that film and go, “Hey, all these actors… Wait a minute, I’m not the only girl here!”
It was such a great experience that I hope I will be afforded more. We were really supportive of each other, and I believe the movie turned out the way it did because we all had each other’s back, and we were all each other’s cheerleader.
Q: How did you prepare for your role?
JC: Well, I ate a lot of food. That was fun. I would microwave some vegan ice cream and chug that down when I wasn’t gaining. I remember when I first came to rehearsal, they were like, “you haven’t gained enough weight” and I’m like, “I’m trying!”
So day after day it was eating and eating and eating. [Then] I see the film, so thank god I did. I mean, hello! Celia is a woman! That was great.
I actually went to Sugar Ditch, Tenn. It’s very different, of course, than when Celia was there.
I got very lucky at a party. It was the very beginning of rehearsals, and I saw this woman and I thought, “She looks just like Celia would be.” I sat down and started talking, and she said, “Well, how’ ya doin’?”
I said, “What are you doing here?” And she said, “Well, Kay is my daughter [Kathryn Stockett is the author of the book], and I’m here to support her.” And I said, “I’m playing Celia” and she said, “Oh, good, that’s a good part.”
I thought, I have to get her voice, because that’s [Celia’s] voice. So I called [her] and said how can we do this? You got to help me! So we took her out to lunch and she had no idea that I think she’s Celia. I was recording her voice and saying, “Can you say this line?”
Then when we were filming the benefit scene, I’m standing there in all my glory in that sparkly pink dress and hanging out with all the extras. She comes up with all her friends and points to me and goes, “I just want you all to know that I inspired this lady right here.”
So by that point she realized she was half the inspiration for Celia.
I also watched a lot of Marilyn Monroe films and read her biography, because in the novel she’s more than once connected to Marilyn.
Q: Are you choosing scripts differently now?
JC: I choose things that are completely different [from each other]. So the reason I also really connected to Celia is that it’s very different from Tree of Life. I like things where I can do a physical transformation, and I love accents and voices, and I’m never going to play the same character twice. Unless they decide to make The Help 2.
Each time I got to a set, everyone acted like, “Are you excited? Is it your first time?” So I guess the good thing is, that won’t happen anymore.
I guess the only difference that I notice now is that I am getting scripts that are very exciting to read and that is a wonderful thing that’s been afforded me.
Q: Are you looking for plays to do on or off Broadway?
JC: The problem with Broadway is that it’s such a long-time commitment, as it should, and actually I’ve never done a play for that long because even with Othello we had breaks. On Broadway, you don’t have breaks.
Q: They offer someone a six-month run.
JC: But that’s still a long time with eight shows a week.
Q: You can make four more movies in that time.
JC: Yeah, and also, I’m the kind of person [who] when I’m doing a play, and even when I’m working, I don’t do anything else. When I’m working, I just work.
When I was doing Othello in New York, I couldn’t do anything too stressful. I would save my energy for the evening.
You become a prisoner to your role. For me, it’s the time commitment. I look at it that way, like, “Am I okay not leaving my house and just going to the theater for six months?”
Q: And TV?
JC: I’ve done a lot of guest stars. I was on Law & Order and tons of stuff.
Q: Would you do a series?
JC: I’m begging for it. Every time I see Boardwalk Empire, I’m like, “I want to play a recurring role.”
For me it’s the thing of, like, I’m more interested in a recurring role than [being] a series regular right now, because if I had a family I would say, “Let?s do a series regular.”
But I love stretching myself and challenging myself, and so the idea of playing the same character for six years is a bit like, “ugh.”