A shadow whisperer

A shadow whisperer

Hollywood diaries

A shadow whisperer

A little over three years ago, Jessica Chastain was a relative unknown, a hard-working actress with a solid CV of theatre roles, independent films and over a decade of experience, but far from being a household name. Then, in the space of just a few months, everything changed.

Chastain herself, now 37, can pinpoint precisely the moment she felt the shift: the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, when two films she had starred in — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and the thriller Take Shelter — both won prizes. “There I was at The Tree of Life première, holding hands with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt,” she recalls. “That walk down the red carpet was a real rite of passage for me. Suddenly journalists began asking, ‘Who’s this actress?’”

She didn’t have much time to get used to the attention — in less than a year her role as a shrill, drunken Southern belle in The Help had earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. The year after that she was nominated for another Oscar and won a Golden Globe, this time for best actress, for her role as the hard-nosed CIA agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty.

Having waited patiently for her moment, Chastain is now one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, prized for her unusual versatility. But when we meet, Chastain is unstarry, and thus far seems unaffected by her rise to fame. “I’m a shadow whisperer, I hide in the shadows,” she says with a smile. “And I tend to avoid places where I might get photographed and end up with my picture in the press. I just don’t think of myself as a movie star — I’m an actress.”

Chastain’s desire for a low-key, under-the-radar lifestyle matches her level-headedness about her work-life balance. Given how long she waited to reach this point, I’m surprised when she reveals that she is halfway through a seven-month hiatus, since finishing Guillermo del Toro’s period horror film Crimson Peak, which is due out early next year. It’s a brave thing to do when you’re at the top of your game, I comment.

“I think it’ll make me a better actor,” she says. “Because, when I do show up on set, I’ll be excited again. Making films can be lonely, and that’s the part I don’t like. I don’t want to feel like I’m pressing pause on my personal life to make a movie. I want to feel like I’m still creating relationships and things are moving forward. [I needed] to find my people and find my home and check in with myself. So I left a few projects and turned some other things down.”

Over the next few months, though, there will be no danger of her being forgotten. In January, she starred in A Most Violent Year, a thriller set in New York in 1981, followed by Crimson Peak and the quirky The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. And then there’s Miss Julie, an adaptation of August Strindberg’s play, in which she stars opposite Colin Farrell.
But the most high-profile release of last year was Interstellar — arguably her biggest film to date, in terms of both budget and mass appeal — in which she starred alongside Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine.

Born Jessica Howard, she grew up in Sacramento, California, the eldest of five children in a blue-collar family. When Chastain was seven, her grandmother took her to a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring David Cassidy. A girl of a similar age to her was playing the narrator. “As soon as I saw that I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is my job, this is what I am,’” she says. “I’ve always had an active imagination, and I didn’t do  well in the public-school system, but that was a complete aha moment for me.”

Her parents were supportive, she says. “But they weren’t going to drive me to LA for auditions or anything.” So the teenage Chastain acted in plays in and around San Francisco, and, after one particularly well-received production of Romeo and Juliet, was encouraged by a fellow actor to apply to Juilliard, the prestigious New York drama school.

Chastain landed a series of high-profile stage roles after graduation — alongside Michelle Williams in The Cherry Orchard, Al Pacino in Salomé and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Othello — but her film career didn’t advance as she had hoped. A slim, redhead with a porcelain complexion, she began to worry that in Los Angeles her looks could be holding her back.

“I kept getting the weirdest feedback from auditions,” she says. “I would be told the director really liked me but then he decided to go with a model. I didn’t understand what it meant. A few times I seriously considered going blonde. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be part of the system, try to look like everyone else.’”

These days she is far more comfortable in her skin. “When I was in my 20s I was always trying to fix something to get a part, to try to make my space in the world. But when I think about it now, everything I was trying to do was about not being me. And actually, the best way to find your place in the world is just to be exactly yourself.”
She recognises that is not always so easy in Hollywood, where women are still competing for far fewer decent roles than men. “I think there is a huge problem in American cinema: stories about women aren’t nurtured or celebrated or brought to the screen as often as stories about men,” she says. “You can’t assume that a male-led movie will make more money than a female-led movie.”

In 2013 Chastain herself became the first woman in 50 years to achieve the rare feat of having the lead role in the top two films in the same week — Zero Dark Thirty and the supernatural horror-thriller Mama.

“I’m feeling a sea change coming in movies, though,” she says. “I hope I get to partake in it, but, if not, that’s fine. Anything I can do to help the women that are coming after me, that would be great too.”

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