Jessica Chastain Reveals the Drastic Change She Almost Made To Get Roles
October 21, 2022
A tentative “sometimes” is the word Jessica Chastain drops when asked if she considers herself a movie star.
She admits she recently got tongue-tied and shy being in a room filled with high-wattage celebrities. And she was just shopping recently with her grandmother and a friend at a store, where strangers excitedly pointed at her; one whispered, “I loved The Help!”
“It makes me think, Oh, I love it when people recognize me!” she says. “But then I think, Do I? Is this my life?”
So let’s settle this starry matter now: The answer is absolutely, yes, she’s a star. After all, it was Chastain who broke out in 2011 with a whopping six movies, including The Help. She’s since dazzled in Interstellar, The Martian, It Chapter Two, Molly’s Game, Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year and last year’s award-winning limited series Scenes From a Marriage with Oscar Isaac.
As for that A-list event filled with celebrities? She’s referring to the 2022 Oscars. Chastain won Best Actress for her stunning transformation as evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Her success is even more remarkable given where she started. A native of California, Chastain and her four siblings were raised by her mom and firefighter stepdad in a loving but financially strapped household. She’d take in few local plays, only dreaming that one day she’d get paid to act. “I grew up in a way that I never thought I’d be invited to the party,” she says. “It affects every decision I make in terms of where I put my resources and what I act in.”
With that in mind, Chastain, 45, was eager to portray the heroic titular character in the gripping Netflix thriller The Good Nurse (streaming Oct. 26). Based on true events (and a 2013 book), it’s the shocking story of how New Jersey nurse Amy Loughren—a single mom with a heart condition—risked her career and her life to uncover the truth behind a series of mysterious patient deaths at her hospital. Turns out that her mild-mannered colleague Charles Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) was responsible, and his sinister work reached farther back than anyone could fathom.
“Amy used love and compassion to stop the cycle of violence,” Chastain says. “She doesn’t bully him and doesn’t make him feel smaller. She just wants to know why. With everything in true crime so sensationalized now, that approach is the story I wanted to tell.”
Chastain is just as measured discussing her off-screen life. She resides in New York City with her husband of five years, Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, and their two children, whom she works to keep out of the spotlight. “I’m fiercely protective and want to make sure they’re growing up in a nonintrusive environment,” she says about her kids.
She’s on vacation in the family’s English country home when she Zooms with Parade to discuss the good (Nurse), the bad and everything in between.
If you were in Amy’s real-life shoes in the circumstances of The Good Nurse, would you have put yourself in danger like she did?
I’d like to think so. In one of my first conversations with Amy, I told her how brave she was, and she said that anyone would have tried to stop these senseless murders under those circumstances. It’s kind of a generous thing to say about humanity.
It’s unnerving to see Eddie Redmayne in such a chilling role. Did you two already know each other?
We presented once at the Golden Globes. And then when he did The Danish Girl [in 2015], everyone kept saying that he looked like me. I emailed him a picture and wrote, “Bitch, stop stealing my roles!” We’ve been friends for a while.
What do you make of the true-crime craze? Are you a fan?
Well, I grew up with it. I remember when you could turn on cable news and see the O.J. Simpson trial and the Lorena Bobbitt trial. I think that created an appetite for true crime. But we’re living in an age where we’re magnifying these acts of violence. So I’m picky about it. I like to watch shows like The Investigation, which is more about the victim than the murderer.
When did you start thinking seriously about acting?
In high school, we’d go on a field trip every year to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I remember seeing Marco Barricelli play Richard III, and it blew my mind. Then it became a dream of mine to work in a repertory company. But I never thought it could be a possibility until I played Juliet in a local production of Romeo and Juliet and the guy playing Romeo got into Juilliard. I thought, Well, we’re not that different. I’m going to audition too. That changed everything.
You got a Juilliard scholarship funded by Robin Williams, right?
I got that in between my junior and senior year. School was really hard at first because I was so far away [from home], and my family didn’t know how we were going to pay for it. How do you get around the idea of someone moving to New York and studying theater full-time? I took out a lot of Sallie Mae student loans in those first two years.
Your first onscreen credit was a single 2004 episode of ER—as a teenager with a brain-damaged father. What did it mean to land that part?
Oh, that was huge. I was only on set for three days, but I got to see professionals work and decide what kind of professional I wanted to be. I remember watching [star] Noah Wyle and being like, “Wow, he has so much respect from the people around him.” And he really welcomed me. The hair and costume and makeup people were so sweet to me too, because they knew it was my first credit.
A decade passed between graduating Juilliard and really breaking through on the big screen in 2011. Was that a scary period?
I was so tired. I just kept getting told, “She’s a great actress, but the directors decided to go with a model.” It’s the least helpful thing you could hear. I wasn’t auditioning to play a model! For a long time I thought that maybe I should dye my hair and go blond. I played a lot of psychos and victims, which was frustrating because I’m not a victim.
When could you finally exhale?
When Al Pacino cast me as Salome in an L.A. stage production of the play in 2006. I got to be a vixen, and that opened the door for me to play other characters.
You don’t consider The Help to be your breakthrough?
That’s interesting to me. I loved that character, but she plays into what everyone has been trained to love in actresses: bubbly, sweet, not super intelligent, naive, blond and boobs. I see a difference when I play a character that is more threatening to that old establishment of how women need to be seen.
To that end, you played dynamic characters in hyperdramatic films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian and Molly’s Game. Do you have a top pick among those roles?
There was a movie I did called Miss Sloane [in 2016] that I was so proud of. I hate the title; I’m going to be real. But it was about a woman who goes against the gun lobby, and I thought the character was amazing. It disappeared from theaters, but it’s been getting a second life lately on Netflix.
What are some of your favorite behind-the-scenes experiences?
I love [working with] a group of people. Molly’s Game was tough because actors like Idris Elba would come in for a week and leave. I loved making The Help. We had a lot of fun on The Martian because we were in Budapest. Tammy Faye was super fun because I loved working with Andrew Garfield and the director. It’s really important for me to walk onto a set knowing I’m going to have a good time, because the work is taking me away from my family.
What do you remember most about this year’s big Oscars night?
It’s a blur. I flew to L.A. just for the night because I was filming George & Tammy [a limited series out later this year] with Michael Shannon. I mean, one day I’m in the middle of singing “Stand by Your Man” in front of 300 extras, which was so stressful, and now here I am at the Oscars. But the one nice thing is that because I had been nominated for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, people would always refer to me as an “Oscar-winning actress.” It was so awkward. Now it’s true!
You got your award after “The Slap” and Will Smith’s speech. How tough was it to follow that?
I knew that there were certain things that I wanted to talk about in my speech. But because of what had just happened, when I got up there, all I was thinking was, Don’t get emotional. I just wanted to be calm and loving because the energy in the room was so volatile. Maybe it happened the way it was supposed to happen, because I wasn’t only thinking about myself.
You’re outspoken about social issues and started a production company, Freckle Films, to amplify other voices. Why is this important to you?
I’m just trying to use my influence in any way I can. Because of how I grew up, I know there are a lot of people who don’t have the things I have. So I’m constantly trying to ask myself, “What can I do? How can I live a life that’s contributing to others?” I want to lead every day and pay back what I was given. I actually just took a 17-hour train ride to Ukraine to help support some artist friends.
Do you appreciate your accomplishments on a different level knowing that you had to persevere to get here?
One hundred thousand percent. I really struggled for a long time, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything because that instilled in me that no matter what happens, I’m going to get through it. That feeling only came out of adversity, you know? It builds character. I talk about this a lot with my friends because I’m raising kids, and I want them to feel safe and cared for, but I don’t want them to have everything just served to them. You have to overcome difficulties in life. Everyone needs to struggle.