Published: February 26
SHOW-stealing performances alongside Brad Pitt and Helen Mirren have made Jessica Chastain the woman of the moment.
Jessica Chastain is sitting in a borrowed house in London, picking at a vegan salad. Later she’ll pose for photos in the garden but, right now, the flame-haired beauty is getting to grips with the idea of overexposure.
“I’ll be the first unknown everyone’s going to be sick of,” she jokes. “People will say, ‘We have no idea what her name is, but she’s everywhere!’” Chastain is in a unique position. The 30-year-old has worked solidly since leaving drama school, but until quite recently, she was probably one of the most successful actors nobody had ever heard of.
That all changed with the 2011 release of 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 America’s Deep South in the ’60s. It leapt to No 1 at the US box office and has since scored Chastain an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. (Co-stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are also in the running for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.)
It helped that Chastain had made her Cannes debut a few months earlier, walking the red carpet with Brad Pitt, whose wife she played in The Tree of Life. A slow but tender meditation on love, the film went on to claim the prestigious film festival’s top prize – the Palme d’Or.
Late last year she stoked interest in her growing profile even further with a stellar performance in the spy thriller The Debt, co-starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. Set in the mid ’60s, the film saw Chastain play a rookie Mossad agent sent to East Berlin with two male agents on a mission to capture a Nazi doctor who’d carried out medical experiments in concentration camps.
“They could easily have cast a name, but [director] John Madden believed in me, so I wanted to do a good job,” she says. “It was a really great part for a woman, and those are hard to come by in Hollywood.”
Chastain grew up in northern California, one of five kids. Her family has no connection to the arts; her mother is a vegan chef and her father a fireman in San Francisco. But when Chastain was young, her grandmother took her to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When the curtain came up and Chastain saw a girl her own age playing the narrator, the penny dropped.
“I was the kid who’d always say, ‘I’m going to be an actor,’ and the adults would go, ‘Hmm, sure you will.’ I had to convince them: ‘No, this is what I am. I’m an actor.’”
Her parents were supportive, she adds, and paid for her to take ballet lessons. “But my mom was the furthest thing from a stage mom,” Chastain recalls. “She wasn’t going to drive me to LA for an audition.”
Instead, Chastain acted in Shakespeare plays in San Francisco’s Bay area, using her mother’s maiden name, rather than her family name of Howard, to prevent any confusion with director Ron Howard and his similarly red-headed actor-daughter Bryce Dallas Howard (who was also in The Help).
After taking a lead role in a well-received production of Romeo and Juliet, Chastain was encouraged to apply to the esteemed New York arts school Juilliard. At the auditions, one of her chosen monologues was the romantic tragedy’s ‘Gallop apace’ speech.
“I had a 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’ll have sex.’ The language is very sexual: ‘Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-browed night. Give me my Romeo.’ So when I did that 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.”
When she’d finished her astonishingly sexual performance, the school’s staff looked at her in shock. The only one who spoke was Michael Kahn, Juilliard’s venerable head of speech and drama. “He said, ‘Did you have fun, Jessica?’ And I smiled and replied, ‘Yes I did.’ And he said, ‘OK, thank you very much.’ I thought that was it, I’d botched it up.”
Instead, she was offered a place and saw it dawn on her parents that she could actually do this. “Their faces went from excitement to worry,” Chastain recalls. “My family doesn’t come from a lot of money, and I was the first one to go to college, so it was, ‘How much will it 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 actor and comedian Robin Williams, a Juilliard graduate, it was a huge relief. “And since I graduated [in 2003], I’ve never had to ask my parents for money,” she adds. “Which my dad loves to tell people!”
While still in college, Chastain signed a one-year holding deal with TV producer John Wells, who developed ER and The West Wing. She appeared in one episode of ER and made brief appearances in shows such as Law & Order, but with her red hair and petite frame – she’s 162.5cm – she says she didn’t fit into any neat Hollywood categories.
“When I first moved to LA, I don’t think anyone knew what to do with me,” she says. “I’m not incredibly tall with blonde hair. There’s something about me that’s different, not modern. At first I was auditioning for a lot of crazy characters and victims. Which was great, because those are usually the best acting roles.”
She may not play those types now, but she’s certainly getting her fair share of plum roles. Next month (March 8) sees the release of Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, Coriolanus, a modern take on Shakespeare’s tragedy set during the recent Balkans conflict. Fiennes plays the title character, a military leader, with Chastain cast as his wife.
After that, we’ll see her with Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce in Wettest County, a story of Depression-era bootleggers. On the last day of filming, she cried. “I usually do it in the trailer, when no one else is around except hair and make-up [people]. I always have a cry.”
Chastain admits she finds it hard to let go when shoots come to an end. “When I first started, I’d think, we’re all best friends now and we love each other,” she says. “And then I’d be heartbroken a month later when no one returned my calls.”
Chastain lives outside the urban sprawl of LA, in Venice Beach. “I love getting up in the morning, walking my dogs to the cafe to get my tea, then perhaps going to a bookstore to sit and read, and walking to the beach.”
How will it feel when her fame means she can’t do that any more? “I hope I’ll always be able to. Maybe I’m in denial, but I’m hoping, because I’m choosing smaller films and not huge franchise things, people will see me as more of an actor than a big star.”
An actor she may be, but she’s now an Oscar-nominated one who’s becoming increasingly used to sashaying down the red carpet in Givenchy and Zac Posen. For better or worse, Chastain’s days of walking to the beach unnoticed may soon be over.
Catch all the action from the 84th Academy Awards, tomorrow from noon and repeated
at 9.30pm, on the Nine Network.