The Mysteries (and Broken Curse) of Jessica Chastain

9:24 AM PST 01/14/2013 by Jordan Zakarin
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Two years ago, she thought she was hexed. Now, Jessica Chastain is the Golden Globe-winning lead in the year's most acclaimed and controversial film. So what went right?

The news broke while Jessica Chastain was in the air, sleeping through the early portion of her latest cross-country flight. It was a brief respite during a marathon year and a half, the last five days of which had been an all-out sprint. She had run through two awards shows, two film premieres -- including one in D.C. -- and two performances on Broadway, all within 72 hours.

When she woke up midmorning Thursday, gliding above the clouds somewhere over the middle of the nation, Chastain was taken by storm: She found out she had been nominated for a second Academy Award in as many years, this time for her lead role in Zero Dark Thirty. She had to hold in her screams; hers was a commercial flight to Los Angeles, where she was headed for a weekend of revelry and flattery that would end with a teary-eyed victory speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday.

"What would you do if you were on a plane and someone started screaming?” she asks rhetorically, though perhaps not realizing that a yelp from her would attract cell phone photos, not the ire of the TSA.

STORY: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Stars Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke on Torture, Tears and 9/11

Chastain is 35, a petite redhead with sharp features who has seemingly appeared out of the blue. She graduated with her BFA in 2003, then made cameos in TV procedurals for several years while doing stage work, including a 2004 regional festival performance of The Cherry Orchard with Chris Messina and Michelle Williams. ("I think she was right out of Juilliard," Messina remembers. "She was fantastic.")

She made movies, too. Lots of them. But Hollywood’s peculiarities and business largely kept them unseen, in postproduction limbo. If there was an excuse, she heard it: the director’s exhaustive editing, Miramax’s finances and plain distributor indecision all blocked her work from theaters.

"That was something we joked about: The Chastain Curse," she says with a laugh, which is easier to do now that her fortunes have reversed. "I had worked for so long. I even played a dead body on TV. I did so many things. I finally got my big break."

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Soft-spoken yet serious, Chastain first captured the world’s attention at Cannes 2011 as the angelic mother in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. She walked the Croisette on the arms of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the mysterious star of the enigmatic director’s return to filmmaking, which won the Palme d’Or as the festival’s best picture. And then suddenly, she seemed to be everywhere, as if Hollywood had been building up a stock of Chastain films to rain down on the public. The artistic and legal battles had been settled, and it was showtime.

There was The Debt, in which Chastain played a vengeful Israeli Mossad agent; Take Shelter, as the terrified wife of a paranoid Michael Shannon; Texas Killing Fields, a police drama; Coriolanus, the Shakespeare production; Wild Salome, with Al Pacino; and The Help, the smash-hit civil rights film for which the slender vegan gained 15 pounds, put on a blond wig and sassed her way to her first Oscar nomination, for supporting actress.

She uses words like "blessed" and "beautiful" to describe her recent spate of good luck, and somehow it doesn’t sound contrived.

VIDEO: Mark Boal Breaks Silence on CIA's Role in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Originally from Sacramento, she headed east to Juilliard and was midway through her education in New York when two planes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center.

Nearly a decade later, right before that fateful Cannes, Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS. Chastain was back in New York at the time, having dinner when the late-night announcement of the terrorist leader's death was reported.

"I remember when the waiter came and told us what had happened," Chastain says. "It wasn’t like a fist-pumping, 'Go America' type of feeling. It was more this shock; it was emotional. It was the end of the circle of a very long, intense decade for us, but also it didn’t feel like the ending. It felt like the end of a chapter but the beginning of a new chapter, and I didn’t exactly know what it meant."

That feeling of uncertainty soon would become a factor in the biggest role of her life. That November, having just spent two months being honored by critics, guilds and academies across the country, Chastain received a voicemail from Kathryn Bigelow. The Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker was plotting a return to the Middle East with a film about the United States’ hunt for bin Laden and wanted Chastain to be its star.

"It’s still saved to my voicemail to this very day. I listen to it often," the actress confessed the assembled guests at this year’s NYFCC Awards. "When she offered me the role of Maya, it was a dream come true."

Maya is the young, steely, determined CIA agent who provides the spine to the agency's flailing story; the film is episodic in nature, depicting various key events on the 10-year timeline that led to bin Laden’s capture in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

STORY: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal Fire Back at 'Zero Dark Thirty' Controversy

Men move in and out of the film -- Jason Clarke is a CIA tough guy and Kyle Chandler a station chief, among others -- but it is strictly Chastain's show, as Maya drives the action with a near pathological mix of confidence and desperation. She finds strength as the bounds of morality are pushed to the brink. Her resolve deepens with each turn in the anfractuous search.

There is a real "Maya" somewhere, but because she’s a covert agent, Chastain could not meet her. The Oscar-nominated script, by former investigative journalist and Hurt Locker Academy Award winner Mark Boal, included little about her background.

"Anything I couldn’t find in the research about Maya, I then used my imagination to create," the actress explains. "Like silly things, like what her favorite candy in America would be. I also had to create a backstory. In the movie, you see there’s a drawing by a child. You see postcards."

Maya helped deliver one of the most pivotal moments in the early 21st century; it would have been easy to treat character as incidental to the bigger context. Instead, Chastain is able to draw empathy through tiny cracks in Maya’s stoicism.

"She does something that is not that easy to do, which is she takes this very esoteric stuff and she makes it emotional,” Boal says. "In my mind, she makes it moving."

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That was natural: The character was a still-new recruit, plucked from high school, while Chastain says the role's emotional requirements ran entirely counter to her years of acting training.

"I’m playing a woman who’s trained to be unemotional and analytically precise," she offers. "I’ve been trained my whole life to be emotional and to let all my walls down and be very vulnerable." As such, filming the movie's infamous torture scenes -- which were done in an active Jordanian prison -- required her to "not follow my instincts; and my instincts, it seemed like, would be to cry."

In a way, those scenes have become Chastain’s co-lead, and have encroached on her spotlight. An uproar over the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” -- waterboarding, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation -- have drawn anger from columnists, human rights organizations and grandstanding senators. Additionally, questions over whether CIA officials leaked confidential documents to Boal and Bigelow to help them craft a decade’s worth of story have become the fodder for an official Senate inquiry, while the acting CIA director has gone the other way, calling the film inaccurate.

"Honestly, I’m not actually so surprised, because when we were making the movie, we knew it was going to be a very hot-button topic," Chastain reasons with a smile, the only thing she can do in her place in the national debate. "People were already reappropriating it before they even knew what it was about. They were saying it was a campaign commercial, they were saying all these things about it.

"To be honest, in my opinion, if the movie came out and everyone backed it up completely, then that makes me wonder, 'Is that the right story?' But I think that which perhaps makes people nervous and creates a conversation is probably a film that needs to be made. And I applaud Kathryn Bigelow for her bravery in that, and telling the story that they researched and discovered."

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It is only appropriate that, amid all the politicking in Washington and Hollywood, yet another of her films will be released: the supernatural horror film Mama, one of the final remnants of her pre-fame buildup. It takes a moment to be convinced that it is Chastain in the film; she is punked out with a black wig, heavy eyeliner and plenty of tattoos to play the rebel-turned-reluctant guardian of two young girls haunted by a relentless ghost.

"Maybe the Senate will write a letter about ghosts kidnapping children," she cracks.

Guillermo del Toro, who produced Mama for rookie feature director Andy Muschietti, first noticed Chastain while watching a screener of The Debt. He had to wage a two-front battle to cast the still-largely unknown actress: persuading the studio to take a chance on her, and persuading Chastain's agents to let her take a chance on a genre film.

"Everybody knew she was a great actress, and they didn’t want to have her go do a thriller or a genre piece,” del Toro remembers. “Fortunately we had Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage and other pieces that I had produced or directed that proved to them that we were going to do this the right way, that we were not just making a scary movie."

The fight was worth it, the filmmaker says, not just because of her stature now but because of rare intangibles he saw back then.

"She has two qualities that are very unique, and you don’t work on them. Either you have them or you don’t. One of them is that the audience cares what happens to you, and you don’t learn that. You have it or not," he offers, echoing Boal's assessment of the actress. "There are some great actors that don’t have it. And she, second of all, is an actor that makes every emotion seem real, and these movies depend on that a lot. People ask, 'What do you need to make a good horror film?' Frankly, you need good characters at the center, and Jessica has that, times 10."

An exhaustive researcher -- she learned the martial art of Krav Maga for The Debt and for Zero Dark Thirty read books about bin Laden and posted photos of terrorists on her walls -- Chastain got to dive headfirst into the punk scene, both old and new. She listened to Lou Reed, modeled her hair after Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass’ jet-black bob and learned multiple songs on bass guitar.

In between awards shows this winter -- she won a Critics’ Choice nod on Thursday, and still has the Screen Actors Guild and Oscars on the horizon -- Chastain will finish up her first run on Broadway in The Heiress. She’s no stranger to the stage, but it’s ironic that it took becoming a movie star to end up traveling back to her theater roots. She also has a pair of innovative, dueling-perspective dramas, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and Hers, set for release this year. It’s a single relationship story told from two points of view, with one film seen from Chastain's character's eyes and the other from those of co-star James McAvoy. From there, a pile of scripts awaits, and probably some increased tabloid attention, too.

Her personal life remains essentially mysterious; one rumor she heard said that she was sisters with her Help co-star Bryce Dallas Howard, the illegitimate daughter of director Ron Howard. She laughs at that one but doesn't seem to want the sort of attention that would expose her actual family to the world.

"She’s still a solid, honest, strong woman who loves what she does, loves being an actor and works really hard at it and really respects the craft,” Messina says. "Sometimes, people will have just got to the moon with it all, which is easily done, but she hasn’t at all."

Again, that might be because she’s doesn’t know that she’s a star -- and it's unlikely that Sunday's Globes win for best actress in a motion picture drama will change that.

"The first Oscar nomination, I was worried it was a fluke," Chastain says. "Now, I feel like an established, working actress."

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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