Interview: Jessica Chastain

Published on Modern Weekly Magazine – July 27, 2013

Half-dressed in an emerald green chemise lined with ivory lace, Jessica Chastain perches on the edge of a Shanghai hotel bed. She is the subject of a short film being shot in a suite of the Astor House Hotel, a 1920s playground for the rich since fallen under sloppy management. Somehow though, the room’s sun bleached curtains and fake roses chime with Chastain’s old world Hollywood beauty. Her flame-red hair cascades over one shoulder in waves. In between takes she pulls up her neckline and turns her face towards the window, looking a little tired.

Lately, cameras have been trained almost permanently on Chastain. Last year, she says kneeling on a bed in a different suite, she can’t remember having more than one week off. It’s true that the rise of the actress, who is 36, has been meteoric. At the beginning of 2011, when she had made numerous films without any of them being released, few outside Los Angeles knew her name. Suddenly three of her films – The Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter – were promoted simultaneously. When Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, critics and audiences were struck: who is that redhead?

It’s a question no one poses now, particularly since Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty last year. Though she might be best known for this role, in which she plays a CIA agent on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Chastain’s filmography speaks to the dexterity of her skills. She’s appeared in a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, voiced a character in animation Madagasgar 3 and starred in psychological-horror Mama. Today she is in the enviable position where entire films, such as the upcoming The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers, are scripted for her.

“I want to play everything,” says Chastain, tucking her heels beneath her and looking more relaxed in black shorts, a white jacket and scarlet lipstick leftover from the shoot. Her face is both soft and sharp: high cheekbones and a defined nose frame deep-set grey eyes. “A lot of times actors are guided to play characters that they’ve had success with, that the public likes, so you see sometimes they end up playing the same role over and over again,” she continues. “For me that would be the ultimate boring life.” As she talks, her alabaster skin reflects the yellow satin bedspread, giving her face a buttermilk glow.

Chastain was born far-removed from the world of film in Los Angeles. She grew up in northern Californian wine country, one of five children, with a fireman father and a mother who is a vegan chef. (Chastain doesn’t eat meat, fish or dairy products.) When she was seven her grandmother took her to see a stage performance, the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was the first time she understood acting could be a profession. She began appearing in Shakespeare plays around the San Francisco Bay area, taking her mother’s maiden name to avoid confusion with another red-haired actress who carried her family name of Howard.

An early breakthrough came in 1999 when Chastain was awarded a scholarship at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School (alumni includes Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams and Viola Davis). Here TV producer John Wells signed her before she graduated and she spent three years in small television and stage roles. Eventually she was spotted by an associate of Al Pacino, who was looking for an unknown actor to star in his stage production of Salomé, the play by Oscar Wilde. After that, the film auditions rolled in, though she still makes space for theatre, last year starring in The Heiress on Broadway.

Because of these auspicious yet humble beginnings, Chastain feels like an imposter. “I don’t feel like I belong in the glamorous Hollywood film world,” she says, insisting that she rarely gets noticed on the street. Well, perhaps once a day, she concedes. “I always feel like, isn’t this fun? Like we’re playing dress up, which is why I’ve brought my grandma to the Oscars. I’ve brought her the last couple of years as my date, and it’s like this feeling of, ‘can you believe what we’re doing?’ It’s like we’ve snuck into the party.” She laughs, flashing her Julia Roberts smile.


If it was The Tree of Life that made Chastain’s famous in arty circles, it was Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which made her a household name. She has described her portrayal of the ruthless CIA analyst Maya as the most important she has ever played (she received an Academy Award nomination while winning a Golden Globe), yet it is also her most troubling.

A film fictionalising the Navy SEAL operation to capture (and eventually kill) Bin Laden, one of the most significant moments of modern American history, was always going to be scrutinised. Zero Dark Thirty received both critical accolades and financial success, banking nearly $140 million at the box office while being called “a milestone in post-September 11th cinema” by a New York Times critic. Yet some journalists as well as public officials, including three US senators, decried the film for its alleged inaccuracy, particularly in its depiction of torture as one of the keys to finding Bin Laden. Rolling Stone magazine ran a feature with the headline: “Zero Dark Thirty Is Osama Bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America”.

“Every aspect of that film was difficult,” says Chastain, losing her smile for a few minutes. From the moment she started researching the role to the shoot itself – which took place in remote parts of Jordan and Chandigarh, India – the process was dark and arduous. Chastain read about the SEAL operation extensively, taking in histories of the CIA, Al Qaeda and torture techniques including waterboarding, the graphic depiction of which stirred so much discussion after the film’s release. The set was “guerilla-ish”, so Chastain always had to be poised for sudden changes to the day’s running order. “I had to be stone-cold solid on memorising,” she continues. “Everything, from the Arabic pronunciation of the names, the material, the shooting of an interrogation scene, every part of it was tough.”

As was weathering the media storm that followed. Chastain thinks that Zero Dark Thirty was misunderstood. “Of course there’s the information about Osama Bin Laden and the search by the CIA, but for me as a person and an actor I’m more interested in the human condition, and what is personal in characters,” she says.

Her view of the film is that is a study of obsession and what happens to an individual’s psyche when they are hell-bent on enacting revenge. “I didn’t take the role because I wanted to expose information. I took it as I’ve never played a character who loses themselves in revenge. It’s so tragic, and the sad thing is some of the press in the US thought what we were doing was glorifying revenge.” Chastain says that without the film’s closing scene, in which Maya cries emptily in the back of a C-130 as she’s airlifted out of Afghanistan, such a claim could be made. “But because the last scene of the film is in there, for me it says the opposite of that. It does not say: this is a great way to live your life.”

While Chastain says that she admires the character of Maya, who is based on a real CIA analyst, it tested her professionally. “I watch that movie and I can see in my face the anxiety and the stress and the exhaustion of what I was going through just playing the character,” Chastain says. “I breathed a sigh of relief when it was over.”


In a deserted corridor of the Astor House Hotel, Chastain places one towering platform shoe in front of the other. She is dressed in an oversize powder-blue fur coat nipped at the waist by a belt. The film crew, headed by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, buzzes around her, adjusting the lighting to make sure her face is illuminated just so. She looks every inch the cover girl, but there’s a notable lack of frostiness or pretension in her manner and she acquiesces to the director’s orders with patience. Brad Pitt, who plays her husband in The Tree of Life, once said: “she has this elegance that you can’t attain unless you’re born with it.”

Chastain describes herself as an emotional person. “Maybe, just by being an actor I’m led by my feelings,” she says, “I go with my gut instinct”. She forms a bond with her characters and finds it difficult to move on from the intimacy of life on set. “The most traumatic for me was Mrs O’Brien from The Tree of Life,” she says. In the film, Chastain plays the mother of three young boys, with whom she spent four months with on set. “I tried to keep a happy face because I didn’t want to upset them” – Chastain now has tears in her own eyes – “but then I said goodbye at the closing party and as I walked away I really started crying. I cried for four days straight. It felt like someone had died, it was really traumatic.”

Chastain seems happy to divulge certain parts of her inner world. But she guards other aspects closely. She won’t name the town where her parents live. Nor will she talk about her relationship with Gian Luca Passi de Preplsulo, an Italian executive at French fashion house Moncler. “I’m a very private person,” she says, adding that it’s rare that she is snapped by paparazzi. She says her favourite actress, the redheaded Isabelle Huppert, maintains an air of mystery, something Chastain admires. “I find that the more famous you become the less mysterious you are, the less the audience can believe [an actor is] someone other than their public image. So I like the idea that maybe most people on the street don’t recognise me because then I can show up as Celia Foote and people will be completely sidelined by it.”

It was through playing Celia in The Help that Chastain earned her second Academy Award nomination, this time for best supporting actress. (The prize went to her co-star Octavia Spencer.) The film is set in 1960s Mississippi, where a group of black maids come together to write a collective memoir exposing the hypocrisy of their white employers’ “separate but equal” principle, in which they raise the childern yet can’t use the family bathroom. Chastain’s character is all Stepford Wives curves and blonde curls. But she comes from a blue-collar background that doesn’t live up to the expectations of her snooty neighbours, so is something of an outsider too.

“Celia was difficult in The Help because she’s a blonde bombshell and I’ve never considered myself like that,” says Chastain. A common adjective used to describe Chastain is “lovely”. She calls herself “the awkward girl”, and has admitted that a deep-set insecurity – that perpetual feeling of having snuck into the party – has underpinned much of her career. “What I realised after I took the role and started working on [Celia] is that she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as incredibly beautiful, which is why she takes so much care over her appearance, of her dresses and her hair and all these things so her husband will love her,” Chastain says. “Deep down there’s this insecurity. So I was able to find her through that.”

It is time for Chastain to leave the hotel. She has to get ready for a public appearance at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Later, as she walks the red carpet in an aquamarine floor-length Lanvin gown and Jimmy Choos, she turns to the photographers, giving them a flash of her legs through a thigh-high split. Any trace of fatigue has been artfully concealed by make up, and for the moment, her insecurities are buried beneath a wide smile.

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