Harper’s Bazaar (UK) – November 2014
Fame came late for Jessica Chastain – in the form of an Oscar nomination at 35 – and she hasn’t stopped working since. Here, she talks about the liberation of transforming herself for a role, in a year when her films range from period drama to intergalactic epic.
This year, Jessica Chastain had a birthday party. The photographs are all over her Facebook page: Chastain playing a high-stakes game of ping-pong, bellowing into a microphone mid-karaoke, blowing out candles on her birthday cake. And finally, that classic end-of-night shot, the one when you’re drunk on love for your friends and the music’s turned up loud: Chastain has an arm in the air, eyes closed, red hair flying across her face, and she looks ready to dance until sun-up.
These moments don’t happen often. It was Chastain’s first birthday party for as long as she can remember, she says now. She hates being the centre of attention, and her life, when she’s not working, is peaceful, low-key. Chastain likes routine: a walk on the beach with her dog Chaplin; green tea; yoga. Her time is not usually frittered away in bars. It’s certainly not spent in the thick of a crowd, especially a crowd who are all there for her, singing her name. ‘I hate it when people sing “Happy Birthday” to me,’ she says, still cringing. She is, she insists, shy. To be interviewed is almost liberating because it forces her to talk in a way she wouldn’t usually, especially to a stranger. ‘Probably there are some people who feel great about themselves and don’t second-guess anything they say or do or wear, but that’s just not me.’
It’s strange hearing an actress talk like this, untypical of the trade. Most easily, and emptily, self-deprecate, but there aren’t many who are so candid about their vulnerabilities. Her reaction to finding out that Harper’s Bazaar wanted to put her on the cover was: ‘Why would you want to do that?’ She still finds such things surprising, still isn’t remotely sure of herself, still experiences attention as a discomfort rather than her due. Her shyness is understandable: fame has recently turned the spotlight on Chastain’s personal life, such as her relationship with Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an executive at the Italian fashion brand Moncler. It has also exposed her sensitive family history – it was reported last year that her biological father, from whom she was estranged, had died, and at the same time it emerged that her younger sister Juliet had allegedly committed suicide 11 years ago, at just 24. Chastain does not discuss her family’s past, is instinctively deeply private, and so embodies that classic thespian contradiction: she fiercely conceals her true self, but appears to be entirely at ease baring the most intimate parts of herself on-screen. Any shyness disappears when she’s being someone else, and Chastain is able to peel off layer after layer to give raw, exposing performances that range from brittle (Maya in Zero Dark Thirty) to stricken (Eleanor in her new film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby). As an actress, she goes for total immersion, sinking so deep into character that her face seems to change shape with each one. You recognise her instantly – that shock of red hair – but, at the same time, hardly at all.
Today, sitting in a corner of a hotel lounge out of the Santa Monica sun, Chastain is almost a movie star. The hair is loose around her shoulders, she wears large sunglasses and high-heeled black sandals; but then, as she points out, there’s the sunburn on her arms from a bike ride along the beach a couple of days ago, the absence of make-up, the fact that her hair, on closer inspection, has not been blow-dried, is a little frizzy around the edges. Chastain is still unused to people asking for her picture, to being recognised at all, and isn’t about to start primping every time she leaves her house. When fame comes late – Chastain is 37 – you don’t bow so readily to its demands. Anyway, she’s off duty. She hasn’t been near a film set for three months, and intends to stay that way for the rest of the year. It’s the first break she has had since her career changed gear in 2011, the first time in three supercharged years that she has been able to come back to her home in Santa Monica, stare at the ocean and relax for more than a snatched day or two.
It was all a quirk of timing. After graduating in 2003 from Juilliard, the drama school in New York, Chastain slogged away in the business for eight relatively thankless years and then, in 2011, released four huge films in quick succession: The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help and The Debt. She was no one, and then she was everywhere. ‘I’m the unknown everyone’s already sick of,’ was her catchphrase at the time. Zero Dark Thirty followed, the Kathryn Bigelow film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in which Chastain’s portrayal of stony, workaholic Maya won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. After the maternal sweetness of her parts in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, Maya was a revelation.
But this has always been Chastain’s way, right from the start. Take one part, then play its opposite. Don’t, for a second, allow yourself to be boxed. She remembers, now, when Val Kilmer came to talk to her class at Juilliard. ‘He said, “The business isn’t unimaginative, they’re anti-imagination… it’s like aggressively choosing not to imagine you as anyone else.”’ So once that first brace of films was out, once Chastain was in a position to choose her parts rather than ‘work my butt off ’ for each and every one, she picked wisely and weirdly. She took a part in a surreal horror movie, Mama, then did a play on Broadway – The Heiress – and over the next few months she’ll release Miss Julie (period drama), a Northern Ireland-set Liv Ullmann adaptation of August Strindberg’s play, also starring Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton; Interstellar (sci-fi epic); and Crimson Peak (gothic ghost story). Her inclusion in Interstellar – a keenly awaited Christopher Nolan space odyssey, set to be one of the biggest films of the year – cements her Hollywood status. Chastain is in major-league company, starring alongside Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, and she’s showing that she is equally comfortable doing big-scale action: wormholes, time travel, swooping strings on the score. Nothing says you’re a star more clearly than appearing in a film about the stratosphere.
The workload, however, has been immense. Chastain was so wired by the sudden blast of success that she didn’t stop working for three years, back to back, project to project, one immersion after another until the inevitable realisation hit. If you act the way Chastain acts, surrendering herself to a character (and these aren’t just any parts: Chastain’s CV is fairly light on romcoms), then it ‘really takes a toll… If you’re doing something dark, when you leave, part of you is going to be empty.’ And if you do something dark over and over, you veer dangerously close to burnout. To keep acting the way she acts, you need a break. So what was it like to stop? ‘Super-weird.’ Holidays aren’t really in Chastain’s repertoire. She can’t even lie in, loathes the feeling of wasted time; it puts her in a bad mood for the rest day. Not working felt ‘a little bit like grief ’, she says now, her wide smile fading, ‘and I started to feel really negative about myself, down on who I am, and then I realised it’s because I’ve had so much time away from me that I don’t really know what I like to do anymore. I’m out of it now, but there was this feeling of being sad or depressed… wanting to go to another project’. Like an addiction? ‘Yeah, perhaps it is like that… maybe the [past] three months were my withdrawal!’ Gradually, though, her life started to reassemble, a life away from work. Her family came and stayed with her in New York; she travelled to Italy with her sister; has spent time with her boyfriend; and has come to this interview straight from a long lunch with friends in Malibu. Slivers of normality.
Perhaps the greatest shock of the past few years has been the realisation that she can’t spend time with people in the way she used to. She says how ‘fortunate and happy’ she feels to be with Passi de Preposulo, but ‘this is a difficult business to be in and try to maintain personal relationships’. It’s the same for her friends, the ‘ragamuffin crew’, as she calls them, of fellow actors, writers and directors, most of whom she had known for years before fame hit, either from studying at Juilliard, or in her early years in the business in LA. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at least allowed her to work with them. The movie is directed by Ned Benson, who Chastain met at the Malibu Film Festival just after she’d moved to LA 10 years ago – she’d seen him act in a short film that he’d also directed, and accosted him afterwards, insisting they work together. They became close friends, and Benson wrote the part of Eleanor Rigby expressly for Chastain, and the part of Eleanor’s sister for Jess Weixler, Chastain’s best friend from Juilliard. Benson saw the pair together – the cocktail of affection and silliness that only a true, long friendship can mix – and wanted to capture the dynamic on screen.
Weixler’s now engaged, and Chastain says they were talking the other day about how strange it would be if one of them has a baby, ‘because you grow up in the mirror of your friends, right?’ Motherhood seems to be at the front of her mind. She likes living an itinerant life, a life where she never knows quite where she’ll be, or for how long, from one year to the next. The one definite element in her future is becoming a parent, ‘in whatever incarnation that is, because, you know, sometimes things don’t unfold the way you imagine they would’. At the moment, she’s at the research stage, trying to work out how you balance life as an actress hitting her stride with the needs of small children. ‘I’m talking to a lot of families who are travelling circuses… trying to figure out how that is possible in this business.’ Chastain doesn’t say any of this lightly: she’s clearly giving the matter serious thought, aware of the profound challenges parenthood opens up, and though she feels no societal pressure to settle down, she does feel a self-imposed pressure to be ‘a good mother’. Every child on Earth blames their parents for something, everything, at some point, but she wants to raise her own ‘with the least possibility that that happens’. Her thinking seems so deep, I wonder if this will happen soon. ‘Hopefully. Who knows? I hope so… I know a lot of women who want to be mothers, but, you know…’
She doesn’t need to spell it out. There are no certainties. Playing Eleanor Rigby acquainted her with the worst-case scenario: what happens to a mother when she loses a child. Chastain’s Eleanor is buried in grief, hardened by it. She’s in acute pain, but there are no histrionics, no gushes of tears. She wears the loss like a suit of armour. Or, as Chastain thought about it, in the way a wild animal suffers a wound: ‘If they’ve been through a trauma, they’ll bite you.’ What intrigued her about the part was how grief on this scale transforms a person, how they experience their own partial death when someone they love dies. ‘I thought, “How interesting – she has no idea who she is now, and she doesn’t want to think about who she was.”’
Portraying someone in a state of such existential uncertainty came fairly naturally to Chastain. She says repeatedly during our conversation that she doesn’t know who she is. Not that she seems overly perturbed by the fact – it’s more of an article of faith. People who are sure of themselves, who know their place in the world, should travel more, she says. Such clarity suggests they’ve stopped exploring, aren’t open to the possibility of change. For Chastain, that’s the joy of her job. Acting offers her a way of figuring herself out: ‘There’s something about when I go on set and play a character, even the more different the characters are from me, the truth of who I am can come out and can be seen when a camera is looking into you.’ A camera, she believes, sees you far more clearly than another person can: you can’t lie to it, you can’t hide. For someone who’s shy, she has no problem watching her performances back. More than that, she finds them instructive: ‘I learn about myself when I’m watching myself on-screen.’
If acting is a portal to self-discovery, it’s also what makes Chastain feel free. She has known since she was a young girl that it was what she wanted to do, and was single-minded in her pursuit. She came from a family without much money – her mother was a vegan chef and her stepfather a firefighter – and she was able to attend Juilliard thanks to a scholarship funded by the late Robin Williams (he ‘changed my life’, she said on Facebook). ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t acting. It doesn’t mean I have to be in movies or have success… I was an actor in community theatre in northern California and I was very happy.’ I believe her. If all the fanfare, great parts and magazine covers fell away tomorrow, there’s no doubt that Chastain would contentedly throw herself into whatever she could find, any play, any character, anywhere. For her, it’s oxygen. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have this form of expression because it offers me a freedom I don’t have in my personal life.’ In her personal life, she cowers at the thought of a party, questions her every move. On-screen, she discovers parts of herself she never even knew were there. And so she works, and works, and works. She smiles. ‘It’s a beautiful prison I’ve created for myself.’
‘Interstellar’ is released nationwide on 7 November.