JESSICA CHASTAIN has turned up lately in so many movies all at once that audiences may be forgiven for imagining that with her ethereal manner (in “The Tree of Life,” anyway) and Botticelli looks — the alabaster skin, huge green eyes and cascade of auburn hair — she wafted into Hollywood on a seashell. In fact Ms. Chastain, who makes her Broadway debut in “The Heiress” on Nov. 1, is a trained stage actress who spent four transformative years at Juilliard, from which she graduated in 2003.
On Labor Day, before the students had unpacked their stuff, she dropped by for a quick visit and headed right for Room 304, a big rehearsal space where first-year students spend most of their classroom time. “I was actually born in this room,” she said, laughing. “We had an exercise where we had to start as a fetus. There were people lying on the floor and screaming and crying, and then we were toddlers, and then there were people getting into relationships and divorces. It was the whole cycle of mankind, until we died.”
Ms. Chastain, who doesn’t like to give her age, grew up in a small Northern California town in a family whose members weren’t theatergoers and didn’t even go to movies much. But from an early age she imagined herself as an actor, and her resolve was sealed when her grandmother took her to a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“That’s when I realized that this was a profession,” she recalled. “It wasn’t like I wanted to be an actor. It was more like I am that. This is my job. It was so clear cut, I never had to make a choice.”
After high school she landed the role of Juliet in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and heard about Juilliard from Romeo, who was a student there. “I thought, ‘If that’s where he goes, that’s where I want to go,’ “ she said. No one in her family had ever graduated from college, but she nevertheless applied, and for her audition did what she now describes as a near-pornographic version of Juliet’s “Gallop apace” soliloquy.
“I’ve always made really strange choices, maybe because no one told me otherwise,” she said. “I thought the language was very sexual, so I was like ‘Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night, give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him.’ And it ended with me rolling around on the ground. I think it was probably pretty shocking.” She recalled that Michael Kahn — one of Juilliard’s renowned teachers — turned to her and said, “Jessica, did you have fun?”
She was admitted even so, and in the fall of 1999 her grandmother, the one who had taken her to “Joseph,” flew east with her, checked her into the dorm and took her to Bed Bath & Beyond to make sure she had the right kind of shower caddy. “It was hard,” Ms. Chastain said about her first few weeks in New York. “I had never really spent any time in a city like this. But everything I was craving was here. I had never seen a foreign movie, and Lincoln Center was across the street. I was sitting in the cafeteria one day, and Baryshnikov was at my table. It was everything I had dreamed of since I was a little girl.”
In those days Juilliard had a policy, since abandoned, of dismissing students not thought to be making the grade. “I worried all the time about being cut,” Ms. Chastain said. “It was unfounded, because in my second year I actually got a scholarship. But I’m that way still. I always think I’m going to get fired. There was a bar here called Malachy’s, where everyone went to hang out, and I think I only went twice in four years. I’m just obsessive. I’d be doing my reading or watching movies. My whole life I wanted to be here, and so when I was, I wanted to suck up every bit of it.”
Every morning, she recalled, sticking her head into Room 306, she studied movement for two hours here with Moni Yakim, another famous teacher, and at lunchtime she answered the phone outside the office of Katherine Hood, the administrative director. “That was my desk,” she said, happily pointing it out.
A turning point in her Juilliard career came at the end of her second year, when she was Arkadina in a production of “The Seagull” directed by Rebecca Guy. “That’s when my confidence started to kick in,” she said. “It’s tough, acting. You have to walk two lines of a tightrope. There’s the all-consuming fear of failure: I’m about to fall flat on my face. There’s that and there’s also confidence — you have to be confident in order to try things — and they fight each other all the time.”
While acknowledging that, with so many talented students, “there’s a level at which one never knows,” Ms. Guy said she isn’t completely surprised by Ms. Chastain’s ascent. “She had a certain quality — her utter and total presence, her openness — that made me go, ‘Huh, this one is special,’ ” she said. “She also had a very healthy drive to succeed.”
Ms. Chastain likes to insist that she is a movie star only at film festivals and premieres. “Not that many people saw ‘The Tree of Life,’ ” she pointed out, “and in real life people never recognize me.” It’s true that she has thus far avoided blockbusters, though she has made many high-profile films, earning an Oscar nomination for “The Help,” starring opposite Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf in the new “Lawless” and playing a lead in Kathryn Bigelow’s coming “Zero Dark Thirty.”
A big professional break came from Al Pacino, who helped cast her in a 2006 stage production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” in Los Angeles and then directed her in his film version, “Wilde Salome.” “Besides Juilliard, Al is my other great teacher,” she said.
The last time Ms. Chastain appeared onstage was three years ago, in Peter Sellars’s exhausting production of “Othello” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz, and she said she was nervous about returning to the theater. On the one hand she was looking forward to playing Catherine Sloper, the shy, put-upon daughter in “The Heiress,” Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, because she believes it to be one of the great parts for women. (Her co-stars aren’t shabby, either: David Strathairn and Dan Stevens, Crawley from “Downton Abbey.”)
“I always look for a great arc,” she said. “Men get great arcs all the time, especially in movies, but it’s very rare for a woman to get an arc. Catherine absolutely has that. She finds her voice, which is a wonderful thing to play.”
On the other hand she was apprehensive about making the switch from film acting. “I’m a little scared,” she said. “I worry that I’ll be thinking I’m doing something and people will say, ‘We can’t see your performance.’ ”
Moisés Kaufman, who is directing the play, said that even before rehearsals, after just a single reading, he wasn’t concerned a bit. “Jessica is a real stage animal,” he said. “For me this is the part of a woman who doesn’t fit into the world into which she is born, and Jessica has this chameleonlike ability to suggest an inner emotional life.”
Near the end of her Juilliard visit Ms. Chastain wanted to be sure to stop by the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater. For their first three years students perform elsewhere, but this is where graduating seniors put on their productions. (Ms. Chastain’s senior shows included “The King Stag” and “Sir Patient Fancy.”)
It seemed tiny compared with the Walter Kerr, where “The Heiress” will play on Broadway. “It’s true what they say,” she said. “When you go back to school, everything looks smaller.”