Published: September 24, 2011
It’s a fresh spring afternoon two days before the start of the Cannes Film Festival, and Jessica Chastain is in a borrowed house in north-west London.
Later, she will pose for pictures in the rather lovely garden. But right now she is picking at the salad lunch she brought along in case the message didn’t get through that she is vegan, and worrying about how she might be perceived in the next few months.
‘I’ll be the first unknown that everyone’s going to be sick of,’ she jokes. ‘People will say, “We have no idea what her name is, but she is everywhere!”’
A quirk of fate has put Chastain in a unique position. She is 30 now, and having worked solidly since leaving drama school with an impressive roster of A-list names, she is probably the most successful actress that no one has ever heard of.
She has made some triumphant theatre appearances in the US, including alongside Al Pacino in Oscar Wilde’s Salome in 2006 and in a 2009 production of Othello with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Starting with Pacino’s film version of Salome, she has also made 11 films over the past five years. But for various reasons – none of them to do with her obvious talent, or the quality of the films – when we spoke, only two of them had so far made it to the cinema.
This is about to change: over the next few months Chastain has so much coming out that she worries about being overexposed. ‘Before, it was just about making the films – and now it’s releasing them,’ she grins. ‘Which is a steep learning curve.’
She didn’t intend it to be this way, she explains. ‘I did Salome with Al Pacino, The Tree of Life with Terrence Malick, and all these films that were interesting and had great characters. But because they were so interesting, perhaps the directors had more control of them. They take their time, they’re not on a schedule.’
Pacino has finished his film, titled Wilde Salome, at a stately pace, and it is scheduled for release next year; Malick, a director who has never been known to rush a project, withdrew The Tree of Life from Cannes in 2009 and 2010 before finally completing it in time for this year’s festival.
Last year Chastain made The Help, an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel about the unlikely friendship between a white college girl and two black maids in a small town in the American South in the 1960s. One of Chastain’s first big studio pictures – for DreamWorks – it leapt to number one at the US box office, and is due for release in Britain next month.
‘This year,’ she laughs, ‘I’ve had a film in Sundance, a different film in Berlin, I’ve got two at Cannes and two in Venice. That’s pretty insane for a girl who’s never really been to festivals.’
The day after we met she was due to fly out to Cannes for the premiere of The Tree of Life, Malick’s slow but gorgeous meditation on love, family and (literally) life, the universe and everything, in which Chastain plays Brad Pitt’s wife, and the embodiment of grace. Also at Cannes is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, in which she stars alongside Michael Shannon, a man whose world is shattered by visions that either herald an apocalyptic storm or show him succumbing to mental illness.
‘It’s my first time, so I don’t really know what to expect, which is a bit daunting,’ Chastain says. ‘But I love French cinema – Isabelle Huppert is my favourite actress – so it’s exciting that Cannes is my big “Hello world!” I just hope I don’t trip when I walk down the red carpet, that’s my main worry.’
She pauses, then laughs nervously. ‘God, I will trip, now that I’ve said it out loud!’
Her next British release will be The Debt, which she filmed straight after The Tree of Life, only to see it too go into limbo when Disney decided to sell off Miramax, the company that had produced it.
It’s a taut, enjoyable thriller in which Chastain plays a 25-year-old rookie Mossad agent, sent to East Berlin in the mid-1960s with two male agents to capture a Nazi doctor who carried out medical experiments in concentration camps.
He is working as a gynaecologist, so Chastain’s character, Rachel, poses as a patient with fertility problems to make contact, then has to let him carry out a series of increasingly frightening intimate examinations that had every woman in the screening I saw squirming in their seats.
‘I spent a week on that table with my feet in stirrups,’ Chastain says. ‘You’re very vulnerable. I hated doing those scenes. Emotionally, I just felt very, very raw.’
It was, however, a role she fought for – literally, taking classes in krav maga, the martial art favoured by the Israeli special forces, to prepare for the fight scenes. ‘It was a really good part for a woman, and those are hard to come by in Hollywood,’ she says. ‘They could easily have cast a name, but [the director] John Madden believed in me, so I really wanted to do a good job. I took German classes, and I read all these books about Mengele and about the history of Mossad. I totally immersed myself in this character.’
The film switches between 1960s Berlin and Israel 30 years later, when Helen Mirren plays an older Rachel, still struggling with the consequences of the mission. Mirren and Chastain worked together before shooting started, creating a consistent voice and mannerisms for Rachel. ‘Preparation is very important to her, as it is to me,’ Chastain says. ‘So she was really generous with her time, and we discussed the main issues for Rachel.’
Chastain grew up in northern California, one of five children. Her two brothers and two sisters are all very different, she says, but very close. They were planning to see her at the US premiere of The Tree of Life, except for her brother Will, who is serving in Iraq.
She hasn’t seen him this year, she says sadly. ‘He came home in February for two weeks’ leave. Which, of course, includes travel time, so he only really had 10 days off. And I was filming in Georgia. So I Skyped with him, but it’s not the same as giving someone a hug.’
Her family has no connection to the arts; her mother is a vegan chef whose main focus has been on raising her children, while her father is a fireman in San Francisco. But when Chastain was young, her grandmother took her to see David Cassidy in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When the curtain came up and Chastain saw a girl about her own age playing the narrator, she knew with absolute certainty that this was what she was meant to be.
‘I was the kid who would always say, “Oh, I’m going to be an actor!” And the adults would look at me and go, “Hmm, sure you will!” I was always having to convince my family: “No, this is what I am. I’m an actor.”’
Her parents have been supportive, she adds, and paid for her to have ballet lessons from the age of nine. ‘But my mom was the furthest thing you could imagine from a stage mom. She wasn’t going to be someone who would drive me down to LA to audition for anything.’
Still, Chastain acted in Shakespeare plays around the Bay area, using her mother’s maiden name rather than her family name of Howard, to prevent any confusion with the director Ron Howard and his similarly red-headed actress daughter Bryce Dallas Howard (who stars alongside Chastain in The Help).
After taking the lead role in a well-received production of Romeo and Juliet, she was encouraged by a fellow actor to apply to Juilliard, the prestigious New York arts school. At the auditions, potential students were asked to perform a contemporary and a classical monologue. She chose a piece from Don Nigro’s Seascape With Sharks and Dancer, and the ‘Gallop apace’ speech from Romeo and Juliet.
‘I had a very different take on that,’ she laughs. ‘It’s a 14-year-old girl saying, “Hurry up, sun, go away, because then the night will be here, Romeo will show up and I will have sex.” The language is very sexual: “Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night; Give me my Romeo.” It definitely builds into this climax of sensual language. So when I did the monologue, I remembered what it was like to be 14 and wanting to be a woman yesterday. By the end I was writhing on the floor and just went really out there.’
When she had finished her astonishingly sexual performance, the school’s staff just looked at her in shock from behind the table where they were sitting. The only one who spoke was Michael Kahn, Juilliard’s venerable head of speech and drama.
‘He goes, “Did you have fun, Jessica?” And I just smiled and said, “Yes I did.” And he said, “OK, thank you very much.” And I thought that was it, I’d botched it all up.’
She was, however, offered a place, and saw it finally dawn on her parents that she could actually do this. ‘Although their faces went from excitement to immediate worry, because my family don’t come from a lot of money, and I’m the first person to go to college. So then it was, “How much is it going to cost? And does it mean she’s not going to get her dream because we can’t afford it?”’
When she was awarded a scholarship funded by the actor and comedian Robin Williams, a Juilliard graduate, it was a huge relief. ‘And since I graduated from college [in 2003], I’ve never once had to ask my parents for money,’ she adds. ‘Which my dad loves to tell people!’
While still at college, she signed a one-year holding deal with the TV producer John Wells, the creator of ER and The West Wing. She appeared in an episode of ER and made brief appearances in big shows such as Law and Order, but a vampire series in which she was to take a starring role never made it past the pilot stage. With her fiery red hair and relatively petite frame – she is 5ft 4in – she says she didn’t fit into any neat Hollywood categories.
‘When I first moved to Los Angeles, I don’t think anyone knew what to do with me,’ she says. ‘I’m not incredibly tall with blond hair. There’s something about me that’s… different, not modern. Which is maybe why I’ve ended up doing all of these period movies. People were confused by me, and at first I was auditioning a lot for the crazy characters or the victim, someone who’d been attacked. Which is great, because usually those are the best acting roles.’
Chastain has never made easy choices, she admits, and seems to have got noticed by appearing fearless. ‘I end up doing roles where I’m afraid I’m going to embarrass myself, or fail,’ she says. ‘But then it gives you that extra hit of adrenalin, and you have to step up your game.’
When she was auditioning for the part of Salome, she initially met the director, Estelle Parsons. ‘Before I even read anything, she just turned to me and said, “Let me see a dance.” And there was no music, nothing in the room. I remember feeling this flush of heat in my face, this embarrassment, and by the way she was looking at me I could tell it was like a dare. So I got up and just started dancing. I think she felt that if I was willing to risk humiliating myself that way, then I was probably brave enough to play the part.’
Later, when she was invited to meet Terrence Malick, she flew out to his home in Texas for lunch, and he asked if she would be willing to read some pages for him back in LA. ‘I tend to just be brave and throw myself into a situation, and if I’m scared, it’s probably going to be the best work. So I said, “If you want, we can do it right now.”’
So they went back to his place, and worked together for a couple of hours, a gesture she feels helped to secure her the part over many far more famous actresses who were pitching for it.
Malick is a director who tends to polarise opinion, but Chastain clearly falls into the camp that considers him a genius.
‘I think he’s the last silent film director,’ she says. ‘In those days the sets were very noisy and the director would shout, “OK, move to the right! Now look at the sky!”, the actress would do it, and everyone was moving around, things were falling over. Then, of course, when sound came into play, the sets became very quiet. But on a Terrence Malick film, it’s very loud, and we’re all working together.’
She finished filming The Tree of Life in 2008, but was still recording dialogue for it in 2011. ‘I’d be making other films in London or Budapest or California, and he’d FedEx me 35 pages, and I’d go into a booth in some sound studio, and whisper the lines in a Terrence Malick fashion.’
Hardly any of these voiceovers ended up in the finished film, she shrugs, but if it helped with his editing process, she was happy to do it. Malick seems to be just as enthusiastic about her: unusually, he has already started work on his next film, with Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem, and after making a visit to the set, Chastain was offered a small part. ‘I can’t honestly say that I’ll be in the movie, because it was such a small, quick visit,’ she says. ‘But I did work with Ben, which was great.’
When we met, Chastain had just finished work on The Wettest County in the World, a story of Depression-era bootleggers also starring Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce. On the last day, as usual, she cried. ‘I usually do it in the make-up trailer when no one else is around except hair and make-up, but I always have a cry,’ she says.
Making a film is an intense experience, and she finds it hard to let go when it’s over. ‘When I first started, I’d think, “Oh, we’re all best friends now, and we love each other.” And I’d be heartbroken a month later when no one had called me back!’
She lives just outside the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, near the beach in Venice where it’s still possible to walk to the shops or ride her bike. ‘I don’t want to be in my car all day. I love getting up in the morning in Venice and walking my dogs down to the cafe to get my tea, and then perhaps going to a bookstore and sitting and reading, then walking to the beach.’
I wonder how it will feel when her fame means she can’t do this any more, and she looks bemused. ‘Oh, gosh. I hope that I will always be able to,’ she says. ‘Maybe I’m in denial, but I’m hoping because I’m choosing smaller films and not huge franchise things that perhaps people will see me as more of an actor than a big star.’
A few days after we met, Jessica Chastain walked serenely down the red carpet at Cannes in a Zac Posen gown, looking every bit as glamorous as a Hollywood leading lady should. She didn’t trip over. Instead, The Tree of Life won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Take Shelter won the critics’ prize.
She is no longer going to have to rely on word of mouth for her next job. But you also suspect her days of walking to the beach unnoticed are over.