You wouldn’t call it rags to riches. There was no last-dollar bus ticket bought in Kansas or Kentucky, destination Los Angeles. But if Hollywood still has the power to transform a no-name’s life, and at dizzying speed, the example of Jessica Chastain is a good one.
Two years ago she was “super poor”, an actor from Northern California who hoarded coins for the laundrette. She shared her LA apartment with at least a dozen mice (they lived in cutlery drawers and the oven). Chastain has always had vivid red hair, a distinctive pinched chin and an arresting smile, but whenever she got a part in a film, no matter if it was her eighth, or her eleventh, so few people recognised her she would be asked: “Aren’t you excited? To be in a film?”
In 2011, Hollywood worked its indefinite magic and now, she says: “Nobody asks that any more.” The 35-year-old flew into London recently from America, where her two latest films, the military thriller “Zero Dark Thirty” and the horror flick “Mama”, occupy the top two spots at the box office.
She has just won a Golden Globe for “Zero Dark Thirty” (welling up during a speech thanking Grandma), and there is a possible Oscar to come. The bottled water in her London hotel room is labelled Deliciously Still, and a few corridors away a group of aides remind each other, direly, that “Jessica isn’t vegan — she’s very vegan”.
They go on to strategise in tones really best suited to leaders at war, or foreign-territory publicists deciding where to treat an American star to lunch.
Chastain, oblivious, sits on a sofa in her room, feet pulled up and a grey McQueen dress arranged over her knees. She talks me through her recent schedule, which as well as this visit to the United Kingdom somehow incorporates eight shows a week in a Broadway play, “The Heiress”.
“Matinee yesterday, then straight to the airport. Landed this morning, then tomorrow morning I fly back and go straight to the theatre.” Just hearing it said is tiring. She guesses she will slow down soon.
“You know when you’ve worked so hard for something? And you finally get a taste of it? That’s how I felt last year. Like: oh my gosh, I’m an actress getting to the point where [‘Zero Dark Thirty’ director] Kathryn Bigelow will call me on my cell phone. You want to grasp it, not let it go. This year’s the first time I’m starting to think that I don’t need to be so terrified it’s going to go away. I don’t have to work every single second. It’s new — starting to exhale.”
Her breakthrough came in the summer of 2011 — two superior indie movies creating a stir at Cannes: Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter”. In both Chastain played a devoted wife.
“And it was palpable, after that, how quickly I was typecast. Every script, the devoted wife and mother.” She signed on to make a horror film instead: “Playing a woman who hates children and plays in a punk band.”
This is Annabel, her character in “Mama”, a tattooed rebel who ends up having to protect a pair of children from ghouls. “I don’t accept that as an actress I have to play one personality over and over. Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman — all these great actors are allowed to change what they look like. Women in Hollywood? I’ve noticed they’re not.”
Even on “Mama”, a job expressly taken to void a developing stereotype, there was a row. Between the contract signing and her first day on set, Chastain had appeared in “The Help”, a commercial hit that later earned her an Oscar nomination.
She was a commodity, and “they” (a term I take to mean producers, money men, a crust of mean and unimaginative Hollywood elders) wanted her in “Mama” with her tumble of red hair on show. It wasn’t how the part was written, and Chastain said no — give me the dye job and tattoos set down in the script.
It is how she appears in the finished film, Lisbeth Salander-ish, not immediately identifiable. “If someone tells me ‘you can’t do that’, I’m going to try to do it even more. It doesn’t mean I’ll succeed. But it means I’ll fight you.”
Chastain’s grandmother, thanked through tears at the Golden Globes, is from Kansas; an actor inside, who might have got on a bus bound for Hollywood but for pressure to start a family.
“I’m her first granddaughter. She saw a lot of herself in me.” Chastain, daughter of a chef and a firefighter, wasn’t so cheerful as a child. She was tall and teased for being ginger. People asked: “Why don’t you ever smile?” A frustrated creative streak was diagnosed, and the grandma, Marilyn, took Chastain to dance classes, to musicals.
At a Broadway show, Chastain saw a child her own age in the cast and thought: yes please. “The second that clicked, I became happier. I had a sense of myself.” Juliet, Hero, Helen of Troy, Juliet again — she seemed to spend her formative years, in rep and training at Juilliard, getting the good parts. Then, in 2006, she scored the title role in a production of “Salomé”, opposite Al Pacino, and “all the agents came. That’s what started my career in film.”
Among her distinctions Chastain can claim an IMDB page that is genuinely funny. The upper half of her filmography is impeccable. “Zero Dark Thirty” and those Cannes indies, also “The Debt” with Helen Mirren and “Coriolanus” with Ralph Fiennes.
Moving back, the work thins (not much in 2009, 2008) and suddenly we are at “Blackbeard”, a pirate special, and an episode of a TV serial called “The Rapist Next Door”. She is the dead body in a discontinued cop show and a bit player in an episode of “ER” most memorable for a tank attack on County General. “I was frustrated,” Chastain recalls.
Less a problem after “Salomé”, when she made 11 films in the build-up to that breakout summer of 2011. Delays bunched the releases (completed work left like “planes circling the airport”), but when a series of her films hit cinemas in succession, the actor became ubiquitous.
“It’s a Jessica Chastain universe and we’re only living in it,” the comedian Mindy Kaling said in late 2011. “The warmest actor of her generation,” wrote the New Yorker.
“Everyone’s been very generous,” Chastain says. Really the only demerit on her CV, at least since her days as a corpse, was “Othello”, an ambitious staging in 2009 that reworked the tragedy with modern trappings (senators, mobile phones — who knows, a handkerchief made from a polyester blend).
There were boos at the curtain call, critics panned it, and Chastain swore off theatre, only changing her mind when a role in “The Heiress” was offered. Why? She shrugs. “I guess it’s like going through a bad break-up. You say to yourself in the aftermath: ‘I’m never dating again!’”
I guess. Chastain’s romantic life is a mystery, fenced off. Sometimes the gossip pages guess at boyfriends. Sometimes she makes a denial. She says to me: “Being on the sidelines for a long time gave me the opportunity to strengthen myself to the idea of what fame is. I’ve had time to understand the kind of actor I want to be. Personal life. Age. ‘Who are you dating?’ All of those things get in the way of playing characters.”
Maya, the character she plays in “Zero Dark Thirty”, is an ideal fit. A CIA agent hunting Osama Bin Laden, we see almost nothing of her social existence. There is a quick restaurant meal with a pal, boys are mentioned then the building explodes. “She’s defined by her work, not by a male counterpart.”
It is true, and a strength of the film. But Maya’s stiff, professional façade is emphasised by director Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, to suggest a starkness. That there is very little to Maya beneath the job. She is all business. Are there similarities here between actor and character? “I think it’s different,” Chastain says. “I have a very rich personal life. And Maya doesn’t.”
Grandma Marilyn, anyway, has become an acceptable, discussable proxy for the rich personal life. At the 2012 Oscars, Chastain took Marilyn down the red carpet, where they charmed interviewers together. Same again this year? (The ceremony is on February 24.) “Of course. Even though my grandma’s a media hog, man.” Chastain will be up for best actress for “Zero Dark Thirty”.
I can’t have been the only one who watched her in that terrific film and thought: clear statue space on the mantelpiece, dude. She is not so sure. “I keep hearing: ‘Oh, there’s so much politics involved.’ I mean, I’ve been doing a play on Broadway. I’ve been on stage, so I haven’t had time to do the schmoozing that goes along with it. So you never know what happens.” Maybe it occurs to her this doesn’t sound sufficiently grateful. The actor — forthright and articulate, on the sidelines until recently and only more plain-spoken for it — tacks on a rare red-carpet cliché.
“It’s incredible to be nominated,” she says, and beams.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd