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For the second year in a row, the actress Jessica Chastain is Oscar-nominated for a performance in a film that is also a best picture Oscar nominee. Last year, she was a best supporting actress nominee for The Help, which was joined in the top category by another film in which she starred, The Tree of Life; this year, she is a best actress nominee for Zero Dark Thirty, for which she has already won the Critics’ Choice Award for best actress and Golden Globe Award for best actress in a drama. And, for the second year in a row, she has starred in films that were No. 1 and No. 2 at the box office in the same weekend. Last year, The Help and The Debt proved to be blockbusters; this year Zero Dark Thirty and Mama were big hits.
With a critical and commercial track record like that, it probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that the delicate-looking but ferociously ambitious 35-year-old redhead is now one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses. Her mentor Al Pacino recently told Roger Ebert, “I never saw in my career, in my entire time doing this, anyone in the business who’s not a household name yet but so sought after as her.” So how did Chastain celebrate her recent coronation as a member of Hollywood’s A-list? By performing in eight shows a week as the title character of The Heiress on Broadway.
During one of Chastain’s recent blink-and-you’d-miss-it trips out West to support her film, I managed to corral her for a half-hour conversation about her life and work — which seem to many to be one and the same. “This is my dream come true,” she told me of the storm of which she finds herself at the center. “Some people say I’m a workaholic, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I think I just love it so much and, for me, it doesn’t feel like work. This has been a dream of mine for so long, and it’s taken longer than I hoped it would. But, since it finally has come to me, I’ve been so scared that it’s going to go away. So there’s this kind of, like, grasping at it and, like, working all the time.” But, she says with a smile, “Something really beautiful has happened in the past 10 days. I’m starting to feel like, ‘OK, I can breathe. It’s OK.'”
Chastain was born in Sonoma to a firefighter and a vegan chef. As a youngster she was an unspectacular student without any particular passions, so her grandmother hit her with a “barrage of exposure” to various arts and crafts, she says, including one life-changing trip to the theater. “I was 7 years old and she said, ‘Jessica, this is their professional job, these people [who we will be seeing].’ She was trying to tell me this was a real thing. I didn’t quite understand it, but we went in, and then the lights went down, and a spotlight came up on — I think it was, like, a 10-year-old girl. And immediately,” she snaps her fingers, “in my mind, I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I am.'”
In junior high school, she joined the drama club, which provided her with her first real outlet of creative expression. Moreover, she says, it made her feel “like one of the characters from Glee, like I’d found my people.” After a brief stint at city college, she played Juliet in a San Francisco-area theater company’s production of Romeo and Juliet and also made a life-altering decision: She auditioned for Juilliard, the most renowned performing arts conservatory in America. “I knew someone who got in who was going to go,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘Well, you know, I think we’re pretty similar, so if she can get in, then maybe I can get in.’ And I went and auditioned, and I got in.” Thanks to a scholarship funded by Robin Williams, she was able to afford to move across the country and enroll at the Manhattan-based institution, and she says, “It completely changed my life.” She explains, “Those four years — that B.F.A. program — really shaped me into the person that I am.”
While at Juilliard, which focuses on stage acting, she was offered her first opportunity to try screen acting. She was signed to a holding deal by John Wells for his TV company and given a guest spot on E.R. “It was the first time I was put in front of a camera,” she says. “That’s how I got my SAG card.” After graduating from Juilliard in 2003, though, she moved back to California and came to realize that most professional gigs do not come that easily. The name Juilliard didn’t seem to mean as much as it did back east, and she faced some humiliating ordeals. “While I was in L.A., I probably tested for eight television shows,” she says. “I never got one. I was in situations where I would get 30 pages of dialog and stay up all night memorizing them. And then, you know, the producer looks at you and decides you’re not right, and they go, ‘We just need the first scene.'”
She says she will never forget her first experience of this sort out west: “They called me in to pre-read for an audition for, like, a day-player on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I was, like, ‘Wait a minute, I have to audition to audition before I get the audition with the producers?’ It was, like, the most incredible shock. And it was such a shock, too, to be in a room with the most stunningly, incredibly beautiful women and not feel like I really belonged here in this industry. So it just took me a while.” During her period of struggle, she fought hard to keep up her spirits and drive. She remembers, “I would do impromptu play readings at my house and just really silly things that reminded myself every day that I was an actor.”
In 2004, she was back east, acting in an off-Broadway play called Rodney’s Wife at a not-for-profit theater, when she received a communication that changed everything. She recounts, “I got a call that said, ‘Al Pacino has requested that you audition for Salome.’ It was really shocking. I guess Marthe Keller, his friend, had seen me in this play and suggested me. And I went in, and I auditioned for Al Pacino. Then I was told, you know, after a couple of auditions, that they wanted me for this play — but they didn’t know when it would happen.” In the meantime, another amazing opportunity came her way: “I got an offer to test for a David Mamet television show. And I really love David Mamet.”
“It was this moment of: Here’s one opportunity to do a play with Al Pacino where I’m going to learn so much about acting but not make any money or whatever, but it’s going to feed me as an actor. Or instead I go — and who knows if I would’ve gotten the role, but I go — test for a television show that I could be on for a long time, working with David Mamet.” It was a daunting dilemma of the sort that seemed unimaginable to Chastain only a short time before. In the end, though, she had to make up her mind, and did. “I decided to not test and to risk doing Salome,” she says. “It got moved a couple of times, but then it finally happened, and it was well worth the gamble.”
Why, you ask? Because, she explains, “It really helps when you’re a struggling actor in Los Angeles if you’re playing the title role in Salome, in a play in L.A. with Al Pacino, because so many agents, casting directors and other actors will come see it. And they can’t help but go, ‘OK, who’s the unknown girl on stage writhing about?” She laughs. “All of a sudden, the kind of auditions I wanted to get, I was getting.”
The first film that Chastain shot — which has still not been released — was the Pacino-directed adaptation of Salome, entitled Wild Salome. Her first film that made it into theaters, though — if only a few art-house locations — was Dan Ireland‘s Jolene (2008), inspired by an E.L. Doctorow short story, for which she won the Seattle International Film Festival’s best actress award. But then she hit another lull. “I couldn’t get cast again for a very long time,” she remembers with a sigh. “It was about a year I didn’t work.” (During that year she played Desdemona in Othello opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s Iago, traveling to New York and Europe.)
Then, something amazing happened: Terrence Malick offered her the opportunity to star opposite Brad Pitt in his film The Tree of Life, playing a 1950s Southern housewife who is the picture of innocence and virtue. This was obviously a huge opportunity for a young unknown, but she had to reign in her excitement because, she now laughs, “We know what happens in Terrence Malick movies,” referring to his frequent elimination of characters during post-production. “You have to wait until the movie comes out.” She did — for almost three years.
In the meantime, she won one of the leading roles in John Madden‘s The Debt, as the younger version of Oscar winner Helen Mirren‘s Mossad agent, “and then my career started to really pick up.” Sometimes when it rains it pours, as Chastain soon discovered. While working on The Debt, she was contacted by the Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes about appearing in his directorial debut, Coriolanus, and won the part. He lost his financing, but she remained attached and eventually shot the film. In the interim, she shot Ami Canaan Mann‘s murder mystery Texas Killing Fields and starred in Jeff Nichols‘ dystopian indie Take Shelter opposite Michael Shannon. And then she was offered a key supporting role as a voluptuous blonde bombshell in Tate Taylor‘s adaptation of the best-selling novel The Help, which required the stick-thin redhead to quickly pack on some considerable weight and don a wig.
In the end, six films featuring Chastain came out in 2011: The Tree of Life (May), The Debt (August), The Help (August), Take Shelter (September), Texas Killing Fields (October) and Coriolanus (December). She looks back and can only marvel at her good fortune. “All of these incredible things happened the first year my movies finally came out,” she says. “I had almost two films in every festival. I had six films coming out in movie theaters. I had the No. 1 and No. 2 films at the box office with The Help and The Debt. I got nominated for an Oscar [best supporting actress for The Help], an Independent Spirit Award [best actress for Take Shelter], a Golden Globe Award [best supporting actress for The Help].” She chuckles, “It was like planes circling an airport all landing at once, and it was the perfect storm of wonderful.”
After that great run and massive exposure, many big names in the film industry wanted to work with her, but she had other priorities. She had already shot John Hillcoat‘s Lawless, which, after a long delay, came out in August 2012. She then signed up to make Mama, an indie horror movie, largely to break away from the wholesome image that was sticking to her after The Tree of Life. And she began nailing down plans to make her Broadway debut as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, a part originated on Broadway by Wendy Hiller; subsequently played by Peggy Ashcroft on the West End; and for which Olivia de Havilland won a best actress Oscar 64 years ago.
While shooting Mama, she received an odd text from billionaire producer Megan Ellison, with whom she had collaborated on Lawless. It read, “If I ever ask you for anything, it’s just to talk to me right now for five minutes, just five minutes.” “I was like, ‘Well, that’s a super dramatic text,'” Chastain recalls, “so I called her back and she said, ‘Listen, there’s this script. I can’t tell you what it’s about right now. It’s to work with Kathryn Bigelow. It’s an exceptional role of a real woman. It’s history-making, this character.'” Chastain says she already knew through the grapevine that the project had to do with the hunt for Osama bin Laden and was very excited about the prospect of working with Bigelow, but she had to tell Ellison that it did not appear that she could make it fit into her schedule.
Later that day, however, a crazy coincidence convinced her that she had to find a way to make it work. “I believe in signs,” she says, “and I fell asleep on the couch watching NatGeo — I’m a little bit of a nerd. And as I was waking up, I kept hearing, ‘Osama bin Laden.’ What is going on? I open my eyes, and it was, like, a show about the last days of Osama bin Laden.” Soon after, Bigelow called her and then sent her Mark Boal‘s script, and by page 3, she knew she had to play Maya, the CIA agent based on a real woman — not a composite of people — whose relentless conviction that the way to find bin Laden was through his courier ultimately proved to be correct. “As an actress, it’s very rare that you get to play a woman who isn’t defined by the villain or the boyfriend and to play a woman defined by her work,” Chastain says. “But I see movies all the time with men defined by their work, and to see that and to know that I get to play this, which is unlike anything I’ve ever played? I just had to do it.”
Maya’s real identity has been kept a closely-guarded secret, since she would be an obvious target of retaliation from al Qaeda or other groups sympathetic to bin Laden. Boal, however, is an investigative journalist who conducted exhaustive research into the events that led to the killing of bin Laden, and in the three months between when Chastain signed on to the project and when she shot her first scenes, the two worked closely together. “I needed to find out things,” Chastain says. “Maybe I could use them, maybe I couldn’t, maybe it’d be too dangerous to use.” Does she know more than she was able to use in the film? “Yes, but I think — I hope — you can see some things in scenes where there’s no dialogue. Like, there’s no line where Maya says, ‘What if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong about this?’ But hopefully there’s a moment in there where you see it.”
Her way “into” the character was the realization that she was playing an “opposite,” just as she had in The Help, in which she portrayed a beautiful woman who is incredibly insecure and uncomfortable in her own skin. “I don’t know how much I can say — but whatever, I’m going to say it anyway,” she tells me. “In the description it says she is, you know, very small, petite, young, almost like a girl — looks younger than she is. So the impression in the script was at first glance you would completely discredit her because of her voice — everything about her was like, ‘She’s not able to do this.’ And I thought, ‘Well, as an actor, I love playing opposites. How incredible to be this strong, fierce woman in the CIA but to play it almost like you’re a girl?'”
She was able to flesh out the character using another technique, as well: “There’s a trick that I do — it sounds simple, but it’s shocking how much it gets you. If you go through the script and make two lists, one list is everything my character says about herself, and the other list is everything the other people say about my character, and you write those down, and when you look at it, immediately you feel like, ‘Well, that’s a person separate from me.'” For Zero Dark Thirty, she explains, “There were so many clues, like, ‘I believe I was chosen to finish the job.’ That says so much about this woman who believes she was chosen. By who? By God? That’s a very big thing for someone to say. Or Washington says, ‘She’s a killer.’ Or, ‘It’s the child’s crusade,’ referring to her as a child or too young. So that’s incredibly helpful when preparing the character.”
All of the advance work in the world couldn’t have had her fully prepared for the Zero Dark Thirty shoot, she says. “It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” The day after losing to her Help costar Octavia Spencer at the 84th Oscars, she took a 25-hour flight to Chandigarh, India. When she landed, she recalls, “They handed me a cell phone, and I called in to set. As a joke, I said, ‘Hey, guys. I’m here. Come on, when are you going to use me?’ And they said, ‘Come to set.'” She was thrown into the deep end and forced to swim, she says, from that day until four months — and 2 million feet of film — later when the production wrapped. During that span, the cast and crew moved from Chandigarh, which is a three hour drive from Pakistan, to Amman, Jordan, and then further south in Jordan, and then to England, where a structure “actually subbed really well for the CIA building.”
Post-production work on the film — which was so voluminous that it necessitated two film editors — was completed late in the fall of 2012, and the finished product screened for the first time for members of the press on Nov. 25. Critics raved, and it ultimately won more best picture awards from critics’ groups — including those from New York, Boston and the D.C.-area — than any other 2012 film. But, before it was even released in theaters, it became engulfed in a massive controversy, egged on by politicians in Washington, over its depiction of torture. Some suggested it endorsed the methods; others said it falsely implied that bin Laden wouldn’t have been found without the use of them. Increasingly, the conversation among pundits about this non-political movie (U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are seen only in brief TV clips and mentioned by name hardly at all) became politicized. But as the film expanded into wide release, the public had a different take: They flocked to it, making it, against all odds, the No. 1 film at the box office for the weekend before Christmas. The $40 million film has grossed more than $85 million and is still going strong.
Chastain’s take on the controversy? “I mean, I expect it. I can see why it’s happening.” But, she hastens to add, “With every scene we shot, the emphasis was on accuracy — like, even what was on the desk.” And, she says, “What I’m really encouraged about is it’s creating a discussion in our society about what is right and what is wrong. And perhaps that will change government policy. Perhaps we’ll look into it. And, for me, when a form of art can do that — a painting, a song, a story, a film — I think that’s really exciting.”
Another big source of discussion surrounding the film has been the decision of the Academy’s directors branch not to reward Bigelow with even a nomination. While the snub of Ben Affleck (Argo) in the category has received more attention, Bigelow’s exclusion is just as hard to understand, considering that just three years ago she was not only nominated for but won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, which was received with similar critical enthusiasm but was not nearly as commercially successful as Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain’s take? “The raid at the end of the movie is some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. I mean, in real life the raid was 47 minutes. In the film it’s around 36… It’s so intense, and it bucks all the conventions that you would expect for an action scene. And to see this incredible woman make a piece of filmmaking like that, and then also write a statement to the LA Times like she did [rebutting the criticisms of the film]? She’s just an incredible filmmaker, and I feel so proud to be in her film. I hope to be in more.”
I am one of many who has written that Maya and Bigelow seem to share an awful lot in common, and Chastain seems to agree. “I didn’t really notice it until I had distance from it,” she says, “because when you’re playing a character you just see it as, like, ‘This is me.’ You know what I mean? But then when I walked away and when I saw the film — I can’t help but compare the women. I mean, when you’re on set with Kathryn Bigelow, you never go, ‘And she’s a woman!'” Chastain continues, “She never talks about being a woman director because, for her, that energy is better used when working, and she doesn’t want to waste energy, just like Maya doesn’t have a scene in the movie where she talks about the glass ceiling in the CIA. There’s many scenes where she could say, ‘You’re sexist. You’re not taking me seriously.’ But then she’s not saying, ‘I’m looking for bin Laden. Do you know what I need? Three tanks in Rawalpindi.'” Chastain concludes, “They’re two women who allow their expert work to stand before them, and they’re not defined by a man or by something else. They want to be known for their work.”
So, too, does Chastain — although she plans to be working a little less frequently now that her run in The Heiress is over. She seems to be at peace with herself right now, perhaps for the first time. As she puts it, “I wish I could go back to Jessica Chastain in December 2003, you know, and say, ‘It’s OK. Like, calm down. It’s all right. You will be heard at some point.'”
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