Jessica Chastain - Hollywood's secret star will finally be released

Jessica Chastain is fed up with making movies that take years to come out. So she's elated that two, including Terrence Malick's latest, will play in Cannes. Kaleem Aftab meets her
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The Independent Culture

It's about time the ship came in for Jessica Chastain. The actress, who turned 30 in March, has been touted as the next big thing for way too long. But Chastain is not too blame, she has just had the worst luck when it has comes to films coming out, even to the extent that she jokes that her mother has started believing that she's been telling fibs.

"It's insane," she exclaims. "I did some of these movies four years ago. My poor mother, I tell her I'm doing a movie with Al Pacino, I'm in a movie with Brad Pitt, she tells all her friends and years go by and the movie doesn't come out, and now she's like, 'erm... I don't know what you're doing in LA but you're not doing movies!'" That, though, is all about to change as the California native is set to be the star of the Croisette at Cannes. She's in two films at the festival, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, in which she gets to fulfil many people's fantasies by playing Brad Pitt's wife, and Take Shelter, in which she stars alongside Michael Shannon.

It is The Tree of Life that everyone has been waiting longest for. Of course, there is an expectation when working with Malick, who has only made five films in 37 years, that a movie may take its time to come out. After all, Malick is notorious for continually tinkering in edits, but everyone expected that The Tree of Life would premiere in Cannes last year.

In the incubation period Chastain found herself being continually called from the sets of other movies to record more dialogue for the director. She says: "We filmed it three years ago and he always works on it. He would call me up and say, 'can you do some voice-over for me?' And he'll send me 30 pages. I'll be in London or wherever and go into a sound-booth and whisper these lines, you know, in Terrence Malick fashion, and then he would use maybe one line, maybe nothing, and he would edit, I did that maybe over 30 times."

Not that Chastain is complaining. She gushes when she talks about "Terry" and has nothing but good words to say about him. While most people would sing about being in a film with Pitt and Sean Penn, Chastain saves her praise for the director. Before she went to the audition for the film she watched all of Malick's films in chronological order – an experience that felt "like you've been to church."

The red-haired actress is equally gushing about the final result. "The beautiful thing about Terry is that he captures memory in a way that I've never seen before, like if you want to show a life and something happening, generally you'll see a flashback and it's a scene. With Terrence, instead of a scene it'll be an image, the perfect image, it's captured in a way where he makes the perfect film. It's hard to explain, but in The Tree of Life he has created a lifetime, this journey without big long scenes. I'm a big Terrence Malick fan."

If the star wasn't such a good actress she could easily have had a career in publicity, you think, as she gushes: "I think you see this movie and you can't help but be changed, and you can't help but think about your life and your relationship with your family, and nature, and some kind of spiritual being – it's really special."

I decide to test the resolve of the actress and her fan status by arguing that I thought The Thin Red Line was overrated and, as for The New World, it was hard to stay in my seat. She takes the bait and exclaims: "You weren't a fan of The Thin Red Line! Because that for me is the best war film ever made. Normally in war films there is a lot of fighting, and that film makes you question what it is all for and what it is all about. I'm like a groupie, he could do anything."

She is such a groupie that, when Malick invited her down to the set of his next film, a romance starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem, she jumped at the chance. While she was on set, Malick asked if she would like to have a small part in the film, and the next day she was filming, although she admits that it's anyone's guess whether she'll make the final cut. Malick famously cut nearly all of Adrien Brody's performance out of The Thin Red Line, so he has form.

The lack of urgency with which the director cuts has meant that Chastain has already worked on eight films since shooting The Tree of Life. One, Taking Shelter, will play in the Critics' Week sidebar section of Cannes.

The film stars Michael Shannon as a father haunted by nightmares of the Apocalypse, but it's Chastain who has been winning rave reviews for playing his wife Samantha, struggling to hold the family together in the midst of the father's unstable behaviour.

Chastain also won good notices at Toronto for her performance as a Mossad agent in The Debt. Surprisingly, her biggest challenge in the John Madden film was not learning how to do fight scenes. She plays a character in flashback, and playing her older self in the present day is Helen Mirren. Mirren is trying to run away from her past and an incident in East Berlin, which is the focus of Chastain's scenes. Chastain says that they didn't get together and swap notes or try to have similar ticks.

As for the action sequences, the actress claims that her childhood pursuit of ballet helped her choreograph the fights: "Fight scenes are like a dance in a way, because you have to move to the count so as not to get hurt. So because it's like dance training, it came really easy to me."

Her co-star in The Debt is Australian superstar Sam Worthington, who came to the set straight from Avatar and took it upon himself to become Chastain's fight coach. The stars became fast friends and both signed up to star in The Fields together. "Sam would joke that we have a three-picture deal, so I guess we have to go find the mountain after The Fields."

The Fields is yet another change of pace for the actress, and is shot in Texas; "Over 30 years there have been 60 murders, or over 50 bodies in these fields, it's crazy," she says. "This film is based on some of the cases, and the woman I'm portraying is a real woman who I talked to, who is like a rodeo queen turned detective, and she has these long acrylic nails and always carries her Glock with her. It was amazing to meet this woman, so at the time we really got to hear some dark stories."

The actress trained at Juilliard in New York, and her school years were spent acting in Shakespeare and Ibsen plays. With the film she most wishes she was in being The English Patient it's no surprise that she jumped at the chance to star in Coriolanus, the directing debut of Ralph Fiennes. The British star also plays the title role and Chastain plays his wife Virgilia.

"I love Kristen Scott Thomas's part, I love both the women in The English Patient so I would have loved to have played both those parts."

Not that she's struggling to find roles. Keeping up the theatrical theme, she is appearing in the film Wilde Salome, which is starring and being directed by Al Pacino.

"He's playing King Herod, which he played in theatre, and he wanted to make it into a movie he directed, so I had a wonderful transition from the theatre world and all of my training which was stage, stage, stage, and then was curious to see how actors would change and adjust their performance for a camera. I got to see it by acting with him, but then, because he was my director, he was my teacher. And I think that is 100 per cent informed by performances in everything I've done."

And as if that wasn't enough, she has also landed a role in the adaptation of the bestselling novel The Help. She plays a redneck who is the town pariah and secretly takes on a black maid to impress her husband. Once again, the rising actress is called upon to show her versatility.

"My big fear is to be typecast, because I love playing different accents, different women, different-coloured hair." No wonder Chastain says that she likes living on the beach in Santa Monica because, "I'm away working so much, I like to feel like I'm on holiday when I'm home."

'The Tree of Life' and 'Take Shelter' play at Cannes, which opens on Wednesday