Jessica Chastain was in Morocco when we spoke, jurying on a film festival. Or was she in Toronto filming a movie? No, maybe she was right here in New York City or in Los Angeles for a premiere or event? Who can say. It's been a dizzying year. Her definition of "staying put", I quickly discover, is staying in one place for a whole week. "I don't think this is a normal year for an actor," she says understating the case.
She sounds bright and cheerful and ready for more movies, believe it or not, though she admits that the year has been tough on her personal life. This past summer she starred in two of the most talked about films of the year (The Tree of Life and The Help) and in the fall she was doing press for four more (The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, The Texas Killling Fields).
Though her characters are already multiple, she is but one woman. The movies we're seeing all at once she made over the span of a few years and she helpfully provided the order when asked:
- Wilde Salome ("My first film. It hasn't come out yet")
- Stolen ("very small role")
- The Tree of Life
- The Debt
- Texas Killing Fields
- Take Shelter
- The Help ("I went straight from the set of Take Shelter")
I figure her sudden ubiquity is a good place to start the conversation...
Nathaniel R: It's almost like you've sprung full grown from the head of Zeus for moviegoers.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Which is so funny because I've been working so long! But it does feel like this year with people starting to see my films they're asking "Where did you come from?" Well, I trained. I have been working for a long time. You guys are just getting caught up . I didn't come out of nowhere.
NR: It just feels that way for us! I want to ask you about Take Shelter first. Long suffering wives of male leads -- how shall I put this? This type of part always runs the risk of feeling like a thankless stock role. How did you make it feel as specific as it does? That marriage is so vivid.
JC: It's funny. I think I teased Jeff [writer/director Jeff Nichols] quite a bit when we first started working together. I'm sure they were like "oh no…" because I do a lot of work before i show up on set. My script, it's not necessarily filled with answers but there are a lot of questions that I write down. In a scene in Take Shelter I might write down 'When's the last time he told me he loved me?' Something like that which gets me thinking 'hmmmm, okay...'
For that movie I did that throughout the whole script. I had to make it so specific because my entire subtext in that film is "what's wrong with you?" but I can't say that the same way in every scene so I had to look for what's happened before each scene to make it as specific as possible. I really wanted to grasp it so much that on our first day I really embarrassed Jeff and Mike [Michael Shannon]. We're at lunch. The three of us sat down and I've got some questions. I looked at Jeff and said 'When do they have sex? I just wanna know.' Mike's mouth opened up, Jeff turns beet red.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Sex in a marriage is so important. I want to know in this story between these two people: Are they ever intimate? When's the last time they were intimate? Jeff was so embarrassed and could hardly answer the question. He's not used to someone asking him a question like that. Then once he realized he was going to have to deal with those questions he was fine. Both he and Mike were so collaborative and we really created this whole backstory for the character.
NATHANIEL R: Cool. But you realize this begs the question of how often you imagined having had sex with Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien for The Tree of Life.
JC: [Laughter] You know I didn't. For the reason that in Take Shelter the husband and wife -- that's the whole story basically. Jeff told me at the beginning that this movie is about marriage and faith. We as an audience need to see what Curtis has at stake. What does he have to lose? And it's this relationship, this family. So there needs to be incredibly intimacy between these characters even though they're not communicating.
Now The Tree of Life is about these two opposing forces who aren't able to connect or meet so when working with Brad... we did meet for rehearsal but the time period we were playing we wanted to defintively have more formality in it. The energy of what it was -- it wasn't Mr & Mrs O'Brien, you know, tell each other their deepest secrets and love and fears. There is this separation that they're trying to bridge the gap between. I think it would have been a disservice to the story had we discussed those issues.
NR: You've worked with Terrence Malick twice now. His films are notorious for not being what actors were expecting in their finished form. How did you feel about The Tree of Life when it was complete?
JC: Oh my goodness. The Tree of Life was very similar to the script that was written. There were no big surprises. It wasn't like I saw the film and thought "WHY ARE THERE DINOSAURS?!?" [laughs] It was absolutely written. I guess the most surprising thing was it would be written but you wouldn't know how it would be expressed. Like the son wondering about the mother's other life, for example. It didn't say in there that the mother starts talking about flying in an airplane and then he imagines her flying, dancing in the sky. He never said that but it's a moment we caught that he put in the film. Those were the biggest surprises for me. It was a very very personal film for me because the thing with Malick is no acting is allowed. You just have to be the characters. For months and months before I got there I had to find who this woman was and then just live in her while I was working on the film because there was no 'action, cut, okay break.' You had no idea when the camera would go on. It was always this moment. You had to be ready. When I saw the film the first time I was very emotional. It felt like I was watching a home video.
NR: Do you get nervous working with massive stars like Brad Pitt? You're working with Tom Cruise soon. You've met Madonna, Helen Mirren.
JC: I always get nervous. First and foremost more than anything I am in this business because I grew up watching movies and watching performances of people that were really inspiring and taught me something about life and about the woman I want to be. So when I meet someone who has imprinted on my soul, I guess, it is a huge wall for me to overcome. Because I really feel there's no way that I could be equal to this person because they have affected me in ways they couldn't even know.
When I'm acting with someone I have to get rid of that immediately. I am not the most comfortable in the beginning. If it's something like Take Shelter where we had one day to play husband and wife -- we were filming the last scene at the beginning -- I had to throw my arms around Mike and start giving him hugs. I have to push myself through the uncomfortable shyness. I always feel just so embarrassed in meeting celebrities.
NR: The Help was the last of your movies we're seeing this year that you shot?
JC: Yes. I went straight from the set of Take Shelter to The Help.
NR: I have to admit that I didn't even recognize you in The Help. It took me a few scenes. I thought "isn't Jessica Chastain supposed to be in this movie?"
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Oh, that makes me feel good. That's amazing. But you know also that's probably why it was very very hard to get cast in that role. It was definitely an uphill battle that Tate Taylor really fought for me. At one point I really thought 'this is not going to happen'. I had auditioned more than once, I had a screen test -- all of these things to do it. I am definitely not the expected choice and physically I really am not the look of what Celia Foote is. That's great that you said that because that means hopefully that we got close to where Celia needs to be.
The very last week of shooting Take Shelter Jeff and Mike were teasing me because I was eating a lot. I have to put on some weight for this role. And then I had two weeks of rehearsal so basically I had three weeks to gain weight.
NR: Yeah, I was talking to the art directors a couple of weeks ago and they were mentioning that you were frequently seen downing melted soy ice cream!
JC: I'm vegan and there weren't very many options for me. I was going to lose the weight I put on so I just did whatever I could. The fastest thing was melted soy ice cream.
NR: You lead a tough life. Ice cream for every meal.
JC: People were like "oh that's gross" and after you've had a lot of you don't want anymore but in the beginning I was very proud of my creation. Trust me, It's a really good problem to have when they're like 'Okay. You're going to play Celia Foote in this movie, and you have to drink sweet tea and eat fried food all day.' It's just not a problem at all. The problem comes afterwards when you don't fit into your clothing.
NR: We're still just meeting you as moviegoers and Celia was already a big surprise. How do you view your own screen persona? Are you a lead movie star just waiting to happen, maybe an off hollywood provocateur? Or still testing the waters?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Oh my gosh. You know, I don't know what my label would be. I know for sure it's going to be in parts that are exciting and different from what I've played. I loved playing Celia so much. I learned so much from that character but if I got some other part that was like Celia, I wouldn't go the route of 'the public likes this character, it's done well for me so I should do it again!' -- I'm not going to be that actress.
I'm always going to be someone who takes big big risk. And probably because of that I will fail many times with performances. People will be like "What was she thinking?!?" For me it's more important that I continue to grow. I find that you do learn more from failure than success. I'm going to push the envelope. The actors I love like Isabelle Huppert, I feel she does that. I just hope to always challenge myself.
NR: You say you learn more from failures but, Jessica, it doesn't seem like you've had any! Or maybe you think of some of these performances as misses?
JC: You know, I'm not kind of the neurotic actor who can't watch themselves. Some people I know they can't see a performance and they're really critical and they can't get beyond what they look like. I'm definitely not that. I can watch a film and I can actually separate myself from what I'm seeing onscreen. I look at it more like I'm learning. In the film I just did Mama, and in many of the other films, I can do a scene and I'm very comfortable with playback and watching dailies. I go in there and I go "What do i need? Where is this performance going? How can i make it better?" I can look at it, I guess, from a scientific point of view.
More than just me beating myself up about performance I can look at something and go 'This is what I'm not hitting. Did I go as far as I could have gone with this characters? Was I scared? Why did I take the role? Was I talked into it? Did I follow my instinct?' In that way I can see my failures.
NR: Your next film, Mama, is a horror film?
JC: It's a drama as well.
NR: And then you have a sci-fi picture with Tom Cruise. Is it your aim to conquer every genre by 2015?
JC: (Laughs) No, I don't have things I'm checking off. But I do want to be... I went to Juillard and my career started in the theater with repertory where you do like a restoration comedy one night and then the next night a Shakespearean drama and then maybe you're doing a Christopher Durang absurd comedy. So for me it doesn't feel strange to go from the drama of Take Shelter to a comedic role like Celia to a genre film like Mama or sci-fi.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I'd love to do a musical. I'd love to do everything! I feel like when you do that you learn the most and you experience life more. I also want to do a film in another language.
NR: Are you multilingual then?
JC: I speak a little bit of French, not well enough to do a film in French. But, you know, for The Debt, I timed it -- 7 minutes of speaking German. And I'd never spoken German! I love the idea of an actor putting themselves through training before they show up on set. If I had the opportunity to work with Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, or Isabelle Huppert, these great foreign artists, I would go into training. I would move to the country. I would study the language for months. That's something that I hope to challenge myself with.
NR: If that's where you have your sights set you'll continue to be a critical darling.
JC: I hope so. Really, I love those guys.
As we wrapped up, I wished Jessica good luck this awards season, though she doesn't appear to need any. She presumably hung up and jumped right back on a plane to wrap up this final month of her star-making year. Judging on the precursor attention received thus far, Jessica will need to touch down in Los Angeles for ceremonies in January and February. But no matter which ten women Oscar picks as his favorites next month, Chastain's star-making year is only her opening act. She assures me that another seven-film year is unlikely but in 2012 we may see her in a handful depending on the whims of distribution. Her next four films are all in post production: the biography Tar, the horror/drama Mama, the star-studded western Wettest Country and the new Terrence Malick film.
Related: Jessica Chastain and Madonna | The Help Review
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