by Andrea Mandell
Powered by ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ this awards season has been her time to shine.
Twenty four hours after winning her first best actress Golden Globe for Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain finishes a Q&A at the Arclight theater, plops down onto a couch on the second floor, and bursts out laughing when she finds out that, according to Twitter, she is now dating The Avengers’ Tom Hiddleston.
“Why would they say that?” she asks, wondrously. “It’s not true at all. It’s funny, two weeks ago I was dating – I’m not dating,” she clarifies. “But there was a rumor onPage 6that I was dating (co-star) Edgar Ramirez. “I love him, but he’s just my friend.”
When they start fictionalizing your love life, you’ve made it, right?
It’s fair to say that a lot more than just the rumor mill has changed for the much-lauded redhead. One year ago, Chastain sat for her first interview with this newspaper at a hotel in Santa Monica. Not only did she go unrecognized, the maître d’ wished her well on a job search, after she requested a quiet table for an interview.
“I used to be in denial about it,” says Chastain, an awards show fixture these past weeks while juggling duties on Broadway for The Heiress. Plus, her new horror film, Mama, opens in theaters today. “Up until six weeks ago. I used to just say, ‘Oh, my life is exactly the same, because no one ever recognizes me.’ I have been working non-stop and when you’re working, you’re just staring at your feet most of the time. You don’t see what’s going on around you.”
Now, she concedes, “Two awards seasons in a row. I think people are starting to notice me.”
And how. Chastain, 35, has racked up an impressive number of prizes for her portrayal of the humorless, laser-focused CIA operative Maya, representing, to Chastain, “the fanatical behavior to catch a fanatic,” in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. To date, she’s taken home best actress awards from the National Board of Review, the Broadcast Film Critics Association London Film Critics Circle, a Critics Choice award and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. She’s also nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, a BAFTA and an Oscar.
“I think the X factor of the character that she plays in this movie is the drive and dedication and tenacity that was staggeringly effective,” says Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, who partnered again with screenwriter Mark Boal after their last Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker. “It just is a testament to her range as an actor and an artist.”
The controversial film has entered the news cycle on its own accord: members of the Senate have called its depiction of waterboarding “grossly inaccurate,” demanding access to all CIA documentation given to filmmakers. Recently, a member of the academy advocated voting against the film.
Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal called academy members’ politicization of Zero Dark Thirty “reprehensible.” “Zero Dark Thirty does not advocate torture,’ Pascal stated. “To not include that part of history would have been irresponsible and inaccurate.” At the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Bigelow also defended the film, noting that ‘depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no filmmaker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.”
Chastain understands the frustration with Boal’s (a former journalist) refusal to specify his sources for the film, while noting the real consequences of doing so: a CIA operative is currently facing years in jail for speaking to news media about policies of torture. “I hope (people) understand now that we can’t answer those questions for the safety of people and to protect people,” she says.
It should come as no surprise that the unflinching film spoke to Chastain, who stepped out of her gold-embroidered Alexander McQueen Oscar gown last year to immediately board a flight to Zero Dark Thirty’s set in India.
Behind Chastain’s graceful, old-Hollywood exterior is a woman determined not to repeat herself. Her resume is populated with women across the spectrum: a Mossad agent chasing a Nazi war criminal in The Debt, a fish-out-of-water Southern bombshell in The Help, a Prohibition-era dancer on the run in Lawless.
It’s why you’ll see Chastain, disguised in a punk black wig, screaming for her life under Guillermo del Toro’s watch in theaters this weekend.
Mama, a deeply terrifying horror film that delivers “a really unforgettable creature,” says Del Toro, is a dramatic about-face from the delicate, Madonna-like figure she portrayed opposite Brad Pitt in 2011’s Tree of Life.
Chastain plays Annabel, a tattoo-covered bassist living with her sinewy boyfriend Lucas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who “wants nothing to do with kids,” says Chastain, until Lucas’ two feral nieces are discovered alive in the woods years after their parents’ murder and must come into her home.
“When I signed on to do it I was getting typecast because Tree of Life had just come out and (the offers were) all about the most perfect, graceful mothers. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, all I’m getting right now is supporting wife!’ ” Chastain says.
In scenes shot alone in spirit-choked woods, awaiting a deadly ghost the children call Mama, Chastain wore a tiny ear piece and asked director Andrés Muschietti to pipe in hair-raising music.
“She’s interested in being chameleonic,” says Del Toro, who produced the film. “These movies work only if the emotion at the center is real…and Jessica is somebody that, no matter how bizarre the situation, no matter the dilemma, she’s able to bring completely real emotions to the game.”
“My stubborn self,” is how Chastain puts it. She saw Mama as drawing a line in the sand: the Madonna mother was moving on.
Behind the strata of success that includes fragrance deals and “kind of awesome” jaunts to fashion shows in Paris is a woman who is just beginning to trust that this chapter is rooted in concrete.
Raised by a firefighter and a homemaker with two brothers and two sisters in Northern California, Chastain, typically private about her upbringing, decides to crack open a door to the past today.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and we were evicted a couple times when I was a child,” she says, while reflecting on her success. “One time, I even came home from school and there was someone locking our doors. And he felt super guilty, and he asked me, ‘do you want to go in and grab some things?’ So that’s happened to me a lot growing up.”
Chastain’s voice is steady, but it’s clear the memory is sharp. “I always had this fear of being homeless. Being evicted. Which I don’t know why I decided to become an actor,” she says, exhaling and chuckling. “Maybe it’s because I grew up without money, so I knew I could live without money. But I always had this thing of, I’m not going to be able to pay my rent.” Going to auditions, the thought hounded her, reverberating until this year.
Now, she’s moved from Venice Beach and owns an apartment in downtown New York, shared with her rescue pup Chaplin (and for the next two weeks, her redheaded grandmother, Marilyn). “What would make me really happy is to not owe money. You know? I would love to pay off a mortgage,” she says.
“She can have a real meat-and-potatoes conversation about life with anyone,” says Del Toro, who marvels at her ability to bond with Muschietti, “over the strangest things. They would play the ukulele together, and in the middle of the set party they danced the Lindy Hop.”
Chastain is addicted to House Hunters International, and watched Season 1 of Game of Thrones “in like a week” while shooting in Jordan. Some things haven’t changed in a year: she’s still vegan, and rumors aside, her dating rule is the same — no actors.
“I have heard things that sometimes people think that I’m boring. And I imagine that that probably comes from I don’t have a Twitter account where I post pictures of me in a bikini,” she says. “I don’t show a side of my life that, to me, is like for my friends and my family.”
Chastain will traverse the country by plane in coming weeks for the SAG Awards (Jan. 27) and the Academy Awards (Feb. 24). She still has her first Oscars gown, gifted to her by McQueen designer Sarah Burton. “She gave it to me. Isn’t that incredible?” she says.
Her second gown may prove even luckier: analysts say it could be her year, after last year’s supporting Oscar nod for The Help. “What’s so impressive is that she’s the only person to have back-to-back acting Oscar nominations,” says Dave Karger, host of awards season Web series The Frontrunners on Fandango. He whittles the best actress category down to “a two-horse race. It could be her or Jennifer Lawrence – and it could really go either way.”
Next, Chastain stars in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby with James McAvoy, a double feature told from his-and-her perspectives that’s slated to open later this year. But first, Chastain will take March off. Baby steps, she calls it, after a relentless few years.
“I think I’ve been a little scared,” to stop working, she says. “And there’s something about this awards season that has made me go, ‘I can breathe now. It’s OK.'”