Jessica Chastain On Her Oscar Win, Social Media & New Movie The Forgiven
June 26, 2022
Even by Hollywood standards, it’s been a year out of the ordinary for Jessica Chastain. There are the multitude of projects that she’s had in the works, from TV shows Scenes from a Marriage, George & Tammy and crime-thriller movie The Good Nurse, to blockbusters The 355 and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, both of which she also produced. And the last garnered her first ever Best Actress wins at the SAG Awards and the Oscars. An interstellar time, to say the least.
“So many people after [the award ceremonies] were coming up to me and they could see how genuinely surprised I was,” insists Chastain while en route to the set of Mothers’ Instinct – the 1960s psychological thriller in which she stars alongside Anne Hathaway – in New York. “I’m used to just putting my head down. I’m not a very public person and I don’t really embrace fame… so to have a moment of this global recognition is so different to my everyday life.”
With a resumé that contains some of the most critically acclaimed movies of recent years (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar) and, as one of the most recognizable names in the industry, Chastain has been resolute about keeping her personal life away from public consumption, regarding privacy as a “great luxury” of today. This hasn’t prevented her from joining social media, though – most recently TikTok, traversing wittily captioned selfies, slick getting-ready videos and some red-carpet antics. She embraces the fun side and has enlisted someone to help “push me beyond what I think I’m comfortable with,” she grins.
Even so, Chastain manages to keep a professional boundary on social media, which is necessary for platforms that encourage pervasive (yet highly filtered) access to your everyday existence. “I don’t want to publicly create a record of my personal life that then doesn’t allow itself to grow and evolve and change,” she considers. “I have a lot of empathy for people, and for teenagers, who are supposed to make mistakes – and that’s how we grow – but now there’s always going to be a record of it.”
“What am I putting out into the WORLD? Am I creating something that might be meaningful to others or HELP someone to feel they are accepted and LOVED for who they are?”
The global spotlight that her Academy Award shone might have felt unusual, but it was a moment of palpable pride for the actor, who says she is continuously asking herself: “What am I putting out into the world? Am I creating something that might be meaningful to others or, in terms of Tammy Faye [a biopic about the television evangelist who became known for her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community], help someone to feel they are accepted and loved for who they are?”
Receiving the accolade – dressed in a dazzling custom-made Gucci gown that she’s sure Faye would have approved of – she delivered an impassioned, emotional speech about “difficult times that have been filled with a lot of trauma and isolation… So many people out there feel hopelessness and they feel alone.” What does she remember about the response? “Well…” she takes a pause. “It was a weird night.” Her speech was a standout, but headlines were dominated by another moment on stage, when Will Smith struck host Chris Rock before going on to win Best Actor. That’s not what we’re here to talk about, but it was still a fraught atmosphere when her name was called shortly afterwards. “I walked into a very charged energy in that room, and I was trying to figure out… how to just breathe and create a calmness.”
“I do believe that, no matter how many PEOPLE want to force us all to stay in the lanes that we were BORN into, or that society says we have to stay in, we’re MOVING against that”
Chastain was set on what she wanted to draw attention to, calling out “discriminatory and bigoted legislation sweeping our country, with the goal of further dividing us” and raising the importance of suicide awareness. “I’ve lost someone very dear to me to suicide [her younger sister, Juliet, in 2003], and I knew I wanted to touch on that because, with everything that was going on, it was clear that we were moving into an area in our politics of intolerance and discrimination,” she tells me. “I didn’t know everything I was going to say and there were moments where I started to get emotional so I pulled it back, but I had an idea of what I wanted to use that global platform to create if I got up there.”
The actor has long been a committed and vocal advocate for gender equality, both in and outside her industry. The shift she has seen since the start of her career has been “seismic”, she says. “And that is exciting, because I do believe that no matter how many people want to force us all to stay in the lanes we were born into, or that society says we have to stay in, we’re moving against that.”
“I have such a full personal LIFE and I put so much into my work, you get to a certain POINT where you’re like, ‘I have a finite amount of TIME – how do I distribute the energy?’”
“People coming into the industry now have a different set of rules than 12 years ago… You know, in the past, I felt like, if I had an idea for a scene, I had to speak to the male actor I was working with – and then, if he liked it, he would bring it up with the director. I noticed if I brought things up to a director, it was like an immediate no, not even really having a conversation. [It was] a silly game that had to be played, which I don’t think is the case now.”
Of course, there is still some way to go, she emphasizes, acknowledging that “people are probably treating me different now because I’ve made a lot of movies.” A characteristically modest way of alluding to the status that being one of the industry’s most prominent names can bring.
Her own mindset around work has shifted, too. She happily admits to leaning on a team around her to help navigate the enormity of the job. “I know most people don’t talk about their publicists in interviews!” she laughs. “But I have to say that Nicole Perna has really been monumental for me… I have such a full personal life and I put so much into my work, you get to a certain point where you’re like, ‘I have a finite amount of time – how do I distribute the energy?’” For Chastain, this has meant surrounding herself with “wonderful people who help you create those boundaries – because then it frees you up for your life, which is a wonderful thing to be involved in”.
To immerse herself in that life, she escapes New York to her place in the country, where she loves waking up at sunrise, taking long walks, reading, watching wildlife and cooking. “I don’t have a lot of time [to cook] in all honesty, but I went to cooking school and I really enjoy it. And when I have more time in New York, I want to take some kind of class. I enjoy making a meal and the communal aspect of everyone coming together to eat it. I find that quite healing.”
Work and pleasure often interweave in Chastain’s world. Her latest release, The Forgiven, a thriller set in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, first came to her attention on “one of my favorite weekends I’ve ever had”, she says, describing an idyll creative getaway to Vienna with her husband, fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo. The couple was invited to visit the house of one of her favorite filmmakers, Michael Haneke, and she grabbed a book at the airport – Lawrence Osborne’s heady 2012 novel, which follows the catastrophic shock waves after a fatal accident on the way to a grand house party. Chastain’s group spent the weekend discussing art and reading, with the actor captivated by the story’s atmosphere and complexity.
“I loved it so much that I tried to buy the rights, but they were already taken,” continues Chastain, who founded her own production company, Freckle Films, in 2016. The script then serendipitously landed on her table, “and I felt, ‘Oh, this is meant to be.’” Ralph Fiennes, who she had previously worked with on Coriolanus, reached out to say he was doing it. “I was like, you know what, I’d love to be in Morocco with all these great actors.” She wrapped filming days before the pandemic lockdown started in New York, arriving home just in time to be with her family.
“I think we need to REMIND each other what history used to look like for WOMEN, because it does feel like that has been FORGOTTEN”
It would be a cliché to say that storytelling is what Chastain was born to do, but it has certainly been a lifelong love. “Once I understood that acting was a job, it was clear to me that it was my job,” she says. “I was seven; my grandma took me to a play and she said, ‘These are professional actors; this is what they do.’ I was like, ‘Oh, this is me – easy.’”
This sense of ease for the craft has stayed with her. “I feel like I have the skill set for storytelling in this way, and so I’m not fighting against anything… Work is one of my happiest places.”
Now, she is as committed as ever to seeking out stories and projects that shift the dial. Earlier in the week, a draft leaked from the US Supreme Court has suggested an overturn of the Roe v Wade decision on legalized abortion. “I think we need to remind each other what history used to look like for women, because it does feel like that has been forgotten,” says Chastain, a public supporter of Planned Parenthood, of what is bringing her inspiration. “In some sense, we’ve taken for granted this idea, [of] being able to live a life free of violence and someone else making decisions about your welfare, your safety… This idea of reminding us what it is like when one group loses their rights – it’s a trickle-down effect. It affects everyone, and so I think the stories I start looking at will have to deal with that.”
When she wraps filming, Chastain is looking forward to a summer spent with her family – “going on vacation and reconnecting”. It’ll be a well-deserved pause to reflect on a hectic period. “I feel very grateful and really overwhelmed at times by the wonderful things in my life,” she considers, “so I’m always trying to remind myself to take a moment to just celebrate it all, because really, it’s extraordinary.”