Jessica Chastain: The slow road to overnight success

An Oscar early next year would be overdue reward for an actress who long ago won acclaim in her industry

Jessica Chastain wept openly on the tense Jordanian prison set of her new film, Zero Dark Thirty. She once cried on camera at the Palm Springs film festival, after Gary Oldman accosted her on the red carpet to say how much he admired her work. Shortly before a recent interview with Vanity Fair, she welled up thanks to a ticking-off from a security guard. She even has to fight back tears at fashion shows. Speaking to The New York Times, Chastain explained she often emotes physically in rehearsals. "They'll say, 'Save it, save it.' I tell them: 'Don't worry. I have a bottomless well of tears.'"

Given her habit of bursting into floods, it's some measure of Chastain's skill that in Zero Dark Thirty, this hypersensitive actress so convincingly portrays Maya, the tough, dogged CIA targeter who tracked down Osama bin Laden. Maya – based on a real agent – allows herself just a single tear at the very end of the film. The role has already won Chastain acclaim and awards, and few would bet against her second nomination for an Academy Award. "She may well win the Oscar for Best Actress this year," says Jon Weisman, awards editor at Variety. "Last year, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The year before that, most of America didn't know who she was."

In an era and an industry where youth is prized, it is remarkable that an actress in her thirties should emerge, from what seems like nowhere, to contest two awards races in consecutive years. Of the other thirtysomething actresses to appear on recent Oscar shortlists, Kate Winslet starred in Titanic aged 21; Michelle Williams – Chastain's erstwhile roommate – was 17 when Dawson's Creek was first broadcast; Anne Hathaway made The Princess Diaries at 18; and Natalie Portman broke through in Leon at just 13. Perhaps the only comparable star today is Amy Adams, who made her screen debut in 1999's Drop Dead Gorgeous, but didn't receive her first Academy Award nomination (for Junebug) until 2005, when she was 30. Chastain is at an age when many actresses might begin to worry about the lack of roles that await them in middle age; instead, she is thriving.

Perhaps concerned by Hollywood's inherent ageism, she has in the past declined to reveal her exact age to the media. The Internet Movie Database records, however, that she was born Jessica Howard in a small town somewhere near Sonoma, in northern California, on 24 March, 1977. Her mother (whose maiden name is Chastain) is a vegan chef, her father a fireman; one of her four siblings, a brother, recently served in Iraq. Chastain decided her own future aged seven, when her grandmother took her to see David Cassidy in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. "When the curtain went up," she recalled later, "there was a 10-year-old girl on stage as the narrator. And as soon as I saw the girl … I just knew it was what I was going to do."

Overnight success, though, would be the work of many years. At high school in Sacramento, Chastain has said, "The other kids would be smoking and drinking and I'd be reading Shakespeare." As a teenager, she took part in a number of amateur Shakespeare productions in the Bay Area. At 21, the age when Winslet starred in the second-highest grossing film of all time, Chastain was onstage in a modern-dress version of Romeo and Juliet at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, near San Jose.

Prompted by a co-star in that production, she applied to the prestigious Julliard performing arts school in New York. After auditioning with one of Juliet's most passionate monologues, she was awarded a scholarship, making her the first person in her family to go to college. The same grandmother who had inspired her acting vocation flew to the east coast to help her to move into her dorm room. "I have always known I wanted to be an actress," Chastain told Vogue, "but my New York experience made me realise that my desire had nothing to do with becoming famous or making money. I was interested in exploring the human soul."

Opportunities to explore the human soul satisfactorily were scarce in the years after she graduated, in 2003. At a Julliard showcase, she was signed to a 12-month holding deal by TV super-producer John Wells, which led to her first screen credit, a small role in an episode of ER. A selection of TV bit parts followed, including an episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot for British television. Each small break led to another slightly less small one, and, in 2006, she was cast in the title role of Salome, at the Wadsworth Theatre in LA. Her director, not to mention co-star, was Al Pacino. Two years later, she had her first film credit, as the lead in the little-seen Jolene, a story that spanned 10 years, allowing her to demonstrate her considerable range.

By 2008, Chastain's work had been seen and admired by the industry, if not by much of the public. Pacino recommended her to director Terrence Malick, who cast her opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. She'd have to wait a further three years to see the film on screen, thanks to Malick's famously lengthy editing process, but in the meantime he'd passed her CV to Steven Spielberg, producer of civil rights drama The Help, and to Jeff Nichols, writer-director of the psychological thriller Take Shelter. In 2011, Chastain finally came to public attention as she promoted all three films at once. At the Cannes Film Festival last year, The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or, while Take Shelter took home the Critics Week Grand Prize.

Meanwhile, her performance as the voluptuous and vulnerable Celia in The Help, an unexpected box-office hit, earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 2012 Oscars. Add to that her turns opposite Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, Sam Worthington in the thrillers Texas Killing Fields and The Debt, Tom Hardy in prohibition drama Lawless, and Pacino in the film version of Salome, and Chastain made some 11 films in four years, all of which thundered into cinemas within 12 months of each other. Until very recently, she had managed to keep her choice of career secret even from her parents' friends, but, she told The Independent in 2011: "I must be the first unknown actress that everybody is getting sick of. People don't recognise me when I walk down the street, but they'll hear my name and say, 'She's everywhere.'"

As her fame has ballooned, and as the awards campaigns continue with Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain has managed to maintain a rare level of privacy for a Hollywood actress. She has no teen or twentysomething indiscretions to be ashamed of, and she claims not to date other actors. Of the few details of her private life that she has voluntarily revealed, the most interesting are her veganism and the two rescue dogs who live with her in Santa Monica: a corgi-spaniel cross, and a chihuahua mix. "If you want to go balls out to campaign in awards season," says Jon Weisman, "you have to give a lot of yourself, but there is an option to hold on to some of your privacy, too. I get the sense she's juggling those options."

For Chastain, then, the headlines are always about the work. She is currently appearing on Broadway in The Heiress, with David Strathairn and Dan Stevens. Despite the natural temptations of Hollywood, she continues to pick interesting projects, as opposed to conspicuous ones. She was cast in Tom Cruise's action sci-fi Oblivion, in Iron Man 3, and as Princess Diana in a forthcoming biopic, but turned them all down to star in the experimental double feature The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her. Chastain didn't even show her face for her biggest box-office success to date, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, for which she gave voice to a leopard.

This year, as a measure of her sudden star power, Chastain was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. Gary Oldman, who once made her cry, wrote the entry.

A Life In Brief

Born: Jessica Howard, Sonoma, California, 24 March 1977.

Family: Her mother is a vegan chef, her father a fireman. She is one of five children.

Education: El Camino High School in Sacramento and Sacramento City College. Won a scholarship to study drama at Julliard in New York.

Career: After many years in television shows including ER and Law & Order, as well as on the stage, in 2011 she appeared in films including The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help, for which she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She stars in new film Zero Dark Thirty, for which she has been nominated for a Golden Globe.

She says: "When I first moved to Los Angeles, I don't think anyone knew what to do with me."

They say: "She has this elegance that you can't attain unless you're born with it." Brad Pitt

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