Published: April 13, 2012
“Take him and cut him out in little stars!” Jessica Chastain fairly shouts, re-enacting her interpretation of Juliet’s famous monologue, the bold gambit that got her admitted to the Juilliard School a decade ago. “Most people do it so precious and sweet, a girl just married, but she is going to be a woman, and ‘he shall die’ means orgasm! It was crazy. I was on the ground by the end of the audition. When I finished, the admissions panel was like, Who is this little redheaded girl coming in here?”
It’s a beautiful warm winter evening, and Chastain is performing for an audience of one on the Santa Monica boardwalk. The Pacific is gleaming under a ridiculously lurid CinemaScope sky; in the distance the Ferris wheel glitters; next to Chastain is her little white three-legged dog, Chaplin, out for his early evening perambulation.
Chastain claims no one ever recognizes her when she strolls around her seaside neighborhood, which is pretty surprising if it’s true: in 2011 she appeared in six films, garnering 30 nominations and 16 awards — among them a National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress for “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and “Take Shelter”; and BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for “The Help.” The release of so many movies in such a short time, along with at least as many forthcoming projects, she says, was accidental and a little embarrassing: “I actually made them over several years.” Which doesn’t mean she isn’t thrilled.
“It’s a strange moment when your dreams become your reality,” she says. “What does it mean? Yesterday I had my portrait taken for the Academy. The photographer told me he shot Rita Hayworth! For the rest of my life, I am ‘the Oscar-nominated Jessica
The Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain now occupies that strange, glorious country reserved for the newly famous. But unlike any number of her contemporaries, she has ascended to this delicious height without tabloid-worthy histrionics. (“I’m not as interesting as my movies,” she murmurs.) Instead, her stock in trade is histrionics in the traditional sense of the word: Chastain enthralls her public solely through her eclectic roster of dramatic performances. She is that rare sensation: the virtual unknown turned mega-star who can actually act.
Nonetheless, her claim that no one pegs her as a star turns out not to be false modesty. Hanging out near the ocean for two hours, we are interrupted only twice: once by a guy who wants to pet Chaplin, the other time by a friend of Chastain’s from Juilliard — “I didn’t know you were in town!” she cries. “Come stay at my house!”
But there isn’t much time for homey idylls these days. Chastain’s morning started with a fitting for the red carpets, followed by a screening of “The Wettest County” (she stars opposite Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf in the Depression-era saga), then a voice-over session for “Madagascar 3,” in which she is Gia the jaguar, a feline circus trapeze artist. And in the next day or so she is off to India to shoot a thriller with Kathryn Bigelow.
This range — whiskey bootlegger to cartoon cat to military analyst — explains Tate Taylor, who directed Chastain in “The Help,” is why everyone is clamoring to work with her. She is skilled but also extraordinarily malleable: “a chameleon in the true sense of the word,” Taylor says. Chastain credits her alma mater. “I trained in repertory theater,” she says. “We did commedia dell’arte one day, the next day Eugene O’Neill.” It prepared her, for example, to learn German (along with the Israeli self-defense technique Krav Maga) for “The Debt,” even though she had never even seen a foreign film when she arrived at Juilliard.
What unites such far-flung performances is the emotional realness, the subtle rawness that Chastain brings to her role. (Well, maybe not the cat, but then again, we shall see.) Taylor says that when she read for the part of the vulnerable, curvaceous back-country woman Celia Foote, she was the only one who auditioned who “got Celia’s pain and was not just playing the Jessica Rabbit aspect of the character. On the page, on the surface, Celia is just a bombshell, but Jessica got her.”
Chastain was raised in Northern California. “Growing up, a big expense was a fashion magazine,” she says. “I got $100 for clothes at the beginning of the year, and I had to be very careful about what pieces would last — I bought thrift and vintage.” Chastain was a romantic girl without a lot of friends. “I was awkward. I looked like a boy when I was 8 years old — lanky with short red hair. You know that book ‘Ramona the Pest’? I felt like that.”
When she first started making real money, she treated herself to a pair of antique earrings in London; lately she has indulged in a Viktor & Rolf blazer and three custom-made hats from a Parisian atelier. She claims to have little time for shopping but confesses that she had to build a closet in her garage to hold her new acquisitions. On the day we meet at her favorite coffee shop, she is wearing what she characterizes as her typical dog-walking outfit: a thick gray Chloé cardigan, Adriano Goldschmied skinny jeans, black lace-up House of Harlow flats — “I’m not a flip-flop girl” — Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a man’s vintage gray fedora because, she says, “I like a quirky, old-fashioned look.”
This throwback quality is what sets Chastain apart: that she is impervious to the contemporary trappings of celebrity yet also capable of wearing clothes beautifully, in a way that looks both classic and modern. At the Oscars her black and gold Alexander McQueen gown struck a forcefully contemporary note, while her hair fell softly in a manner more reminiscent of Rita Hayworth than the bed-heads around her. “The red carpet takes a while to get used to,” she confides. “The photographers, the yelling aspect of it. But I get to wear something very beautiful.” For the Cannes premiere of “The Tree of Life,” her first red carpet, Zac Posen made her a dress, which she kept. “I cleaned it and stored it for a daughter someday,” she says. “And I had the best accessories with it — Sean Penn on one hand and Brad Pitt on the other. I have an emotional response to clothes. I love to be able to wear a Givenchy gown.”
But Chastain is not overly protective of her image as a starlet. She is fine, for example, with appearing nude — “My job as an actor is not to be vain” — as well as with gaining weight. “When we were making ‘The Help’ in Mississippi, we drank moonshine and had huge dance parties. I ate a lot of fried food. I had to gain 15 pounds for the role.” Unlike many in her cohort, she is not a huge exerciser. “I’m not the girl who goes to spinning class. I do yoga once in a while. I used to think about dieting, but I’m vegan now, so it’s not really a problem.”
The sudden onslaught of critical and commercial acclaim has, however, caused Chastain to safeguard that rarest commodity in public life: silence. She swears that as soon as she is able to take a break she is heading to Hawaii with her family and leaving her cellphone at home. She insists that even when she’s in L.A. she keeps her distance from what she calls “new Hollywood.”
Her ambitions lie elsewhere, in not just looking the part of an Old Hollywood star but also in creating a career worthy of one. Sitting on a bench outside the down-market, neon-lit nail salon where she gets manicures, Chastain says her favorite movies are Chaplin’s 1921 “The Kid” (thus the dog’s name), which she describes as “devastating, the lightness and this sense of play,” and “Terms of Endearment,” the first serious movie she saw, with her mom and grandma, sitting on the living room couch. She even cites Greer Garson in “ ‘Random Harvest,’ that loony old weeper,” as an influence. The most contemporary actress she mentions is Isabelle Huppert. “You can feel her emotions on her skin — she’s a great beauty and a great intellect.”
The desire to be that kind of actress has put Chastain into a perpetual state of longing to try something new. She would like work with Lars von Trier and Darren Aronofsky and, she confesses, to do “a mystical horror film! Doing the same thing over and over again is just boring.” Does this ennui extend to playing the same role every night in the theater? “Oh, no! I love being on stage. There’s an energy-sharing in the room, with the audience, and you’re responsible for that energy. You can feel when they’re bored — the coughing, the unwrapping. That’s what makes it terrifying!”
Chastain is clearly relishing the prospect of that impending terror, when she takes on the role of Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress,” scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall. Chastain is excited about living in Manhattan again, maybe even in the Washington Square area, where the tragic Jamesian heroine waits in vain. Or maybe in another neighborhood, she allows, just as long as it’s near a subway stop. Jessica, are you kidding? You’re planning to take the subway to the theater? “Well, maybe not after the show, but definitely yes!” she insists. “I still have my MetroCard in my wallet.”