Jessica Chastain on Jolene, Tree of Life and Breaking Through with Terrence Malick

Published: November 01, 2010

Just as the film whose title bears her character’s name is something of a mixed bag, you could view its closing credit “Introducing Jessica Chastain as Jolene” a number of different ways. It could be a thinly veiled announcement that a star is born, which would be a little misleading considering the raves Chastain’s earned since at least 2006, when she shared the stage with Al Pacino in Salome. It could signal her introduction to the screen, though the actress has been doing TV since landing a holding deal with John Wells right out of Juilliard in 2004. And even if we take it all very literally as a big-screen bow, Chastain has since put eight movies between her and Jolene — including Terrence Malick’s new one — and it’s virtually coincidence that this came first.

But it probably worked out for the best. Jolene would be the role of a lifetime for many young actresses, one nubile orphan’s 10-year journey of self-discovery, love, sexuality, independence and motherhood. (Indeed, Chastain’s dynamic, fearless performance earned her the 2008 Seattle Film Festival’s Best Actress prize.) But it was just a warm-up for the 29-year-old’s marathon to come: as a Texas wife and mother in Malick’s secrecy-shrouded The Tree of Life; a Mossad agent in John Madden’s thriller The Debt; a homicide detective in The Fields; a class-climbing Southern belle in The Help; and more roles in projects from Ralph Fiennes’ updating of Coriolanus to an untitled indie by acclaimed Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols.

Chastain came up for air long enough for Movieline to ask about her stirring (and revealing) work in Jolene, the pros and cons of release-date limbo, and holding her own against Malick and co-star Pitt in one of the young decade’s most anticipated films.

So: Busy much?

[Laughs] Yeah! In the past four years I’ve made nine movies. And four of them were made this year. This year has been incredibly busy for me. But it’s great. I can’t believe this is my life; I feel so lucky. I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was a little girl, and now it’s happening. So I’m very busy, but I’m very happy.

It’s weird because for as much as you’ve worked since 2007, at least half your output has been delayed for one reason or another. Has that been frustrating?

In the beginning it was extremely frustrating, because with my first film — Wilde Salome, with Al Pacino (based on their 2006 Los Angeles stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome) — my mom was telling everybody, “Oh, Jessica’s in a movie with Al Pacino…” And then I did Jolene, and then I did Tree of Life with Brad Pitt, and my family’s excited and telling everyone, but for some reason my movies take longer to come out. Anyway, my poor mother! All of her friends are like, “Sure, your daughter’s an actress.” But now I realize it was a gift, because I’ve definitely hoped to go into an audition room with a director who doesn’t have a preconceived idea of who I am from a performance. And I’ve been able to play very different women. I haven’t been typecast, because none of my work has come out. So that’s been an exciting part of this for me.

That’s interesting, because Jolene takes a very direct approach to sexuality. As someone starting out, did you struggle with that at all — the idea that this might just be what’s expected of actresses when they’re getting started with their careers?

Well, I did Salome before that, and for that I did a lot of research. I read a book called Sisters of Salome, and it talks a lot about nudity — women and nudity. I had never done nudity; I didn’t do nudity at Juilliard, and I had really mixed thoughts about it. And I came to the conclusion for Salome that it’s my job as an actor — even if I don’t want to do it — it’s my job to be open and give my heart, my voice, my body, my soul, and everything else I can to the character. Trying to hide myself, in a way, is a sense of vanity. I know it sounds strange. But to me, throwing myself in is what my job is. That’s what I have to do.

So in Salome I had the experience of doing eight shows a week in front of 1,400 people, and at the end of this dance I had to get naked. That, for me, was a big lesson in being brave. After that, doing Jolene was so much easier. I don’t know if I’d have been able to be that free in Jolene if I hadn’t done Salome; doing nudity in theater is much harder than doing nudity on camera. On camera maybe there’s 10 people in the room; in theater there are those 1,400 people in the room with you. It was easier to do it that way.

In Jolene you play a character over 10 years. How do you even begin approaching a role like that — how she evolves, how she advances? And what do you bring from your own life?

For me, Jolene is a story about a girl who is looking for love through all these relationships. I remember my first love and how you so easily get lost in the other person’s world — especially if you don’t have a strong sense of who you are. Jolene being an orphan, I thought it was interesting: As she’s going through all these characters and these different worlds, these relationships are kind of feeding on her. I drew on the experience of first love, but I’m also a crazy researcher. I went out to Sumter, South Carolina, and recorded the accents and did all that before I even got to the set. That was really helpful as well.

The violence near the end of the film is really quite shocking and, I imagine, as hard to film as anything romantic. How did you feel out that sequence with Michael Vartan?

First off, I really trusted Michael. He’d done Alias for years, and he’s really an excellent onstage combat fighter. I knew no matter what, he wasn’t going to hurt me. So knowing that your scene partner will protect you allowed me to be free in the scene. But it was tough. Like the part with the paint? [Pauses] I just tried to start the scene with her painting and tried to be surprised each time we shot it. There wasn’t really anything I could do. I mean, we mapped out what it was, and we went over it, but I couldn’t have any expectation of what was happening in the scene. I just had to be in it and know I was safe and protected.

“Each time we shot it?” How many times can you shoot a scene like that?

I know! I think we shot that scene only twice.

Tree of Life puts you in a very estimable — and rare — class of talent that’s worked with Terrence Malick. Considering you’re a researcher, how did you prepare for that experience?

When I heard I had the audition, I watched every single one of Terrence Malick’s films in chronological order the day before I went in. He definitely has a style that’s all his own, and it definitely put in me in that world. Then I went in to audition, and that was the beginning of this long journey to get the part. He wasn’t there, but then afterward — after he saw the tape — I went to Texas to meet him. It was a lot about watching his other films; he loves this very subtle kind of acting that doesn’t really feel like acting. It’s just being. And for my character… [Pauses] Oh, gosh. I’m trying to figure out how to answer this question without upsetting anyone. I play a very spiritual character, so I spent a lot of time trying to cultivate that aspect of myself. I went to a spiritual retreat and meditated every day for a week. I read a lot. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and looked at a lot of paintings of the Madonna. I watched a lot of old Lauren Bacall films to find a slower way of speaking.


Yeah, there’s so much.

Yet many actors who’ve worked with Malick have spoken about no matter how much they prepare, a lot of times it doesn’t matter — sometimes to his credit, sometimes not. They could be cut, their characters could be changed… they just don’t know what performance will actually make it to the screen. Did you sense a similar ambiguity, especially once shooting began?

I did not get that sense. I’d been auditioning so much, and when Terry called me and offered me the role, only then was I allowed to read the script. He never even gave me scenes before that. So when I read the script, I realized that the character was an important figure. In a way, as soon as I was cast, I began rehearsing with Terrence Malick, which is phenomenal. I’d have weekly phone calls with him; I went to Austin a couple times before we shot. He was the one who suggested looking at painting of the Madonna at the Metropolitan. I went to Kansas; I went to a farm and saw what that life was like. I worked a voice coach. He was involved every step of the way. Even when we were filming, I was there every day throughout the shoot. So I always felt the presence of who this woman is. It’s important in the film.

But the one thing that you really don’t know is what will make it in the film. You shoot all day when you work with Terry. The only time the camera is not shooting is when they are changing the film — when they’re loading the camera. You get two minutes. You shoot four minutes, and then you get two minutes off while they load. And you shoot again. And it just goes like that all day. It’s not like you do a scene and there’s a “Cut” and then you pick up again. You just go until the film runs out. So you never know what will be in the film. You just try to live your life while you make the film. That’s just the way he makes movies; he doesn’t stop is life while he makes the movie. He continues. And we all become a family on the set. But also, I think our film is different than films like The Thin Red Line because the cast is much smaller. So… I… [Pauses] Gosh, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to be stuttering so much. I just get nervous when I talk about him! I’m not really supposed to.

I totally understand — he’s Terrence Malick! That said, what would happen? Would he call you? Would he e-mail you? We all know him as this reclusive, private figure; is Malick someone who’d just call you up and say, “Jesus, Jessica…”

He’s not reclusive. He’s an incredibly warm person who’s only reclusive to the press. But every person he meets… I mean, when I met Terry, I felt like I met someone who was going to be my friend. And most people I talked to on the set seemed to feel that way.

What about when you met Brad Pitt?

You know, I was actually more intimidated before I met Brad, just because of what Brad Pitt… [Laughs] means. I mean, you think “Brad Pitt,” and you think, “He’s the biggest movie star alive.” So that was more intimidating. But the first day I met him, he showed up on a motorcycle. He didn’t have anyone around him. He was by himself. He’s incredibly funny and really intelligent. And of course he’s very good looking. But I wouldn’t have known he was a movie star if I lived in some faraway country and just met him. I would think, “Oh, he’s an attractive, funny, intelligent man.” He really presents himself like a regular guy. And he really is.

Is that something you emulate as a young, developing actor yourself? That personality and that disposition on the set?

Yeah. For me, it’s so important when I’m working to have a real connection with people. I don’t understand how it is to be an actor and not have that. Maybe I’m just not good enough, but I can’t fake it that way. I can’t pretend we’re all down-to-earth if I’m working with someone who’s crazy. Thank God I’ve never worked with someone who’s crazy; I wouldn’t know how to do that. To me, it’s so important because this business is so generous with the attention it gives you and the opportunities you get. It’s really important for me to be around people who don’t take the attention seriously. For me it’s not about the attention; it’s about the work. Which is probably why, of those nine films I’ve done, most of them are very small movies with very small budgets but with actors or writers or directors that I really wanted to work with. For me, that’s what it’s about at the end of the day.