Six Years since The Three of Life made her a star, Jessica Chastain has garnered two Oscar noms and major Hollywood respect. With new movies Miss Sloane and The Zookeeper’s Wife on the way, and a blossoming producing career, Total Film meets a power player who’s fast becoming unstoppable.
Published on Total Film (June 2017) – Interview by James Mottram
It’s a cold winter afternoon in London, but Jessica Chastain floats into Claridge’s hotel like a summer breeze. She’s just flown in from San Francisco after enjoying a precious three days off, going on a wine-tasting trip with her family in Napa Valley. Now she’s back to the day job: styled in navy skinny jeans, silver flats and a blue woollen jumper, she’s just spent the afternoon at a photography studio. “I’m feeling very actor-y and famous right now.” she giggles. “Photo shoots and all this stuff.”
Truth is, the 40-year-old Chastain is one of those actors better known for her work than her profile. Since breaking through in Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life in 2011, this red-headed star has collaborated with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed filmmakers: Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year), Ridley Scott (The Martian) and Guillermo Del Toro (Crimson Peak).
There have been two Oscar nominations – for her comedic turn as the voluptuous but vulnerable southern belle Celia Foote in The Help and, in arguably her best performance to date, as Maya, the CIA intelligence analyst on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. All of which has elevated Chastain to the upper echelons of the A-list, where scripts rarely have other’s fingerprints on them. Not that she sees it that way.
“Most of the time I’m shielded from that,” she says, drawing her legs up onto her chair. “Most of the time when a script is sent to me, I don’t know who else has read the script. I don’t know if anyone is vying for it. All I know is the director has sent it to me. So I don’t think in terms of I’m in some group, rather, it’s that there’s something in me that they think would be right for this. There’s no strange auditioning. Thank God – it’s terrible, auditioning.”
If Hollywood is all about forging relationships, Chastain is going the right way about it. Her latest film, Miss Sloane, sees her reunite with British director John Madden. They previously made 2010’s The Debt, and ‘exhausting’ experience that saw Chastain playing a Mossad agent in pursuit of a Nazi war criminal. “Someone asked me recently if I’ve ever felt close to burnout and I was like, “I did when I finished that movie!”.
Miss Sloane was no less taxing. Chastain stars as Washington DC lobbyst Elizabeth Sloane, who becomes embroiled in the controversial issue of gun control. “It’s a study in addiction,” says Chastain, whose ruthless workaholic Sloane is more interested in passing a bill that’s been repeatedly shot down than she is in regulating firearms. “For her, it’s the impossible thing. She’s got to look for the biggest high.”
Chastain spent time in Washington with lobbysts, senators and congressmen and women for research, and she’s not afraid to speak out about the rights and wrongs of Capitol Hill. “She’s politically quite fearless,” says Madden. “It certainly doesn’t faze her to take on this issue or anything to do with the whole political princess. She’s very commited to empowering women in the current political context, both within the industry and politically.”
After joining the Women’s March in Washington earlier this year, Chastain’s other new movie, Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, is another example of her feminist beliefs. It’s based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book, about a couple at the Warsaw Zoo during World War II who saved 300 Jews from the ghettos, and Chastain is credited as executive producer. It’s her second behind-the-camera adventure, after producing 2013’s dark story The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
In Caro’s Film, Chastain plays Antonina Zabinska, whose own unpublished diary spawned Ackerman’s book. But the importance here was making a movie with a female director, screenwriter and producers. “I’ve never been on a set with so many women,” Chastain wrote in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re not even 50 per cent of the crew – we’re probably something like 20 per cent women and 80 per cent men – but it’s way more than I’ve ever worked with on a film.
Chastain launched her own production company Freckle Films a year ago, and intends to use it to support women in the industry. “I bought a lot of books and life-rights and hired writers, and I’m producing things that are not even for me to act in.” Among those on her slate, The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister, and Camille Pagan’s Life and Other Near-Death Experiences. “I want to create more stories with diversity,” she says.
Its a conversation that’s been “strong” for the past two years, but are things changing for better in Hollywood? “It’s definitely changing,” nods Chastain, sipping tea from a white porcelain cup. “I think the danger is to say that’s it’s fixed. Whenever you have anything like that… like, ‘Ok, I’m on a diet’ and you lose the weight and you go ‘I’m done!’ Then you go back to the way you were before! So I think it’s something you have to work on.”
Her forthright beliefs in finding three-dimensional female roles is doubtless why she’s rarely seen in franchise movies – bar a disappointing outing as the knife-wielding heroine in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. “Things have come my way but I don’t want to play the girlfriend or the daughter that doesn’t do anything and sits there and goes, ‘Have a good day at work!’ That’s not me at all,” she says. “I’m very supportive of everyone but I’m not a prop!”
There is talk that Chastain will star in/produce Painkiller Jane, an adaptation of the graphic novel series by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada about a cop who develops indestructible powers after a near-death experience. At least that might just tick off the blockbuster box, but not since The Help has she really played light. “There’s a lot of darkness in the characters that I play, a lot of intensity,” she says. “I’m starting to realise I need to balance out the energy. I have to find a comedy!”
Laughs may come courtesy of The Death and Life of John F Donovan, the first English-language project from French-Canadian wünderkind Xavier Dolan, co-starring Natalie Portman and Kit Harrington, who features as the titular character – a rising Hollywood star. Chastain plays Moira McCallister-King, the editor of a tattle magazine called The Gossip. “It’s a very heightened reality,” reveals Chastain, who compares it to the colorful work of Pedro Almodovar. “My character,” she grins, “let’s say we didn’t go for realism!”
Yet Chastain reveals in dramatic roles. Coming up Woman Walks Ahead, which tells the story of the infamous Sitting Bull, the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe, and his relationship with Catherine Weldon, a portrait painter from 1890’s Brooklyn. “It’s the true story of this deep love that they had for each other,” says Chastain. Then there’s the hugely exciting Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing).
Adapted by Sorkin from the real-life memoir of Molly Bloom, this former champion ski star became a target of the FBI after she moved to Los Angeles and started up an exclusive high-stakes poker tournament. “It’s about that people will sell for fame – of themselves or of other people – for their minute in the spotlight,” Chastain notes. “People who are being asked to sell other people out for fame. It explores our society as we are right now.”
As for Chastain, that’s just not her. “I don’t want to sell anything for fame!” she says, almost chocking on her tea. In her case, it helped that she didn’t become a household name until her mid-thirties. “The great thing about not being famous when you’re 18 or 19 years old is that you have time to really sit back and look at the industry,” she says. Those she admires – the Cate Blanchetts, the Isabelle Hupperts – she knows little about their personal lives. “And I love that. I really wanted that for myself.”
It’s understandable. Born and reaised in northern California by her vegan chef mother, Jerri Chastain, and firefighter stepdad Michael Hastey, Chastain’s early life was rocked with difficulties. Estranged from her late biological father, Michael Monasterio, the actress also had to endure the pain of losing her young sister, Juliet. Just three weeks before Chastain graduated from Juilliard, her sibling – who had struggled with drug abuse – took her own life.
Chastain’s own youth was all geared towards acting. Watching a stage production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, aged seven, inspired her to act. By her teens, she was skipping class to read Sheakespeare. Then came Juilliard, “probably the best time of my life”, she says. “It was really just an exposure to the arts in a way I never knew. Before I went to Juilliard, I’d never seen a foreign film. My mind was really blown open!”
Juilliard led to small TV roles, though it was a state production – of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé – directed by Al Pacino that exposed Chastain to the industry. Pacino recommended her to Malick, who cast her in The Tree of Life. But the notoriously slow Malick took four years to cut the film. The Debt, meanwhile, was held up due to distribuction problems and the Pacino-directed Wilde Salomé, based on the stage play, still hasn’t been released in the US. “When things don’t come out, you just look like a liar!” she laughs.
No such problem now. The actress, who has quietly been dating Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi these past few years has also just bagged potentially the role of a lifetime: country singer Tammy Wynette. “I’m terrified about it,” she recently stated, but it may be the part that pushes her towars Oscar glory, just as Reese Witherspoon found playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. “I’ve been lucky,” she says. “I find dynamic roles.” Luck doesn’t come into it.