What was odd about Jessica Chastain’s ascent in the age of internet teen stars was that, in 2011, when she seemed to come out of nowhere to become a sensation, she was already in her mid-thirties having carved out a career in character roles.
Her overnight success was in fact the culmination of years of graft – attending acting classes at Juilliard, stage work, travelling to film festivals, meeting film-makers and then waiting for the famously meticulous Terrence Malick to finish The Tree of Life, the Palme d’Or winner that would finally bring her to wider attention.
Now after two Oscar nominations – a Best Supporting Actress nod for her hilarious turn as a working-class outcast married to a socialite in The Help and in 2013 a place on the Best Actress shortlist for playing an agent on the trail of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty – she is in her most high-profile role yet, starring in her first bona-fide blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
In a year when no sure-fire Best Picture favourite has emerged from the Venice or Toronto film festivals, many are expecting Interstellar to be the horse that gallops home. Nolan’s first film since he completed his Batman trilogy is a space opera in which Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut charged with finding a new planet for humans to inhabit.
hastain plays his daughter Murph, or the older version of her, a smart scientist. While McConaughey is out in space, time is distorted; an hour for him is years on Earth so he must act fast before his children’s generation dies out. Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley and Casey Affleck also star in a film that Chastain cryptically describes as a “love story”. It’s likely that she means it is a film about a father’s love for his child but she remains firmly vague on details.
In any case, Chastain doesn’t think of Interstellar as a blockbuster. “It’s something different. It was great because Christopher Nolan is an independent film-maker who happens to work at a studio. Yes, Interstellar is a big budget film, but it’s his voice, you feel completely like it’s his movie all the way. When I’m on a film the only thing I don’t want is 20 people directing me. I don’t want everyone showing up to the hair and make-up test, where the director doesn’t have a say on what I look like and what I should wear. That’s not so exciting to me, because then it feels like I’m making a movie for a corporation.”
The sense that she works for the art and not for the money or fame is something that Chastain reinforces throughout our interview: “I’ve been very lucky when I choose a film, I don’t think of the paycheck first. I think, when we end the film, how are we going to be more enriched as human beings? For me I’ve never taken a role and thought that I’ll get something out of this. If you think, ‘I’ll get recognition’, often the opposite happens.”
Interstellar sees Nolan venturing into Stanley Kubrick territory. “He’s so capable, it’s scary,” says Chastain admiringly of Nolan. “It’s one of those things. He’s so much more capable at anything – like life in general. He doesn’t believe in wasting time. We finished the movie two weeks early.” Nolan is just one of many Brits Chastain has worked with recently and she admits to finding the class system baffling. “It’s a really strange thing to me, like who your parents are, where you come from, is it a good home? In the US they cheer you on if you come from nothing and achieve success. With a lot of my friends in England it’s the tall-poppy syndrome, you come from nothing and get success and they try to cut you down.”
The actress took the call about Interstellar while she was on set filming an adaptation of Miss Julie, directed by Liv Ullmann. The pared-down version of the play, which Ullmann has moved from Sweden to 19th-century Ireland, stars Chastain as the lead, Colin Farrell as the valet John and Samantha Morton in fine form as Kathleen. Chastain’s admiration for Nolan is nothing compared to her infatuation with Ullmann, the woman who appeared in 10 Ingmar Bergman films. “I just wanted to hang out with her for two months,” chimes Chastain. “She’s such an important part of film history. And I knew it would be an experience that I would always remember, like working with Al Pacino. I love the partnership that she had with Ingmar Bergman. Most people say that she was his muse, but I wonder if he was her muse, because he probably inspired her as much as she inspired him.”
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Chastain took her research for the role seriously. First came homework on the character, Miss Julie, which involved going to every theatrical production that she could find, reading every book on the play she could lay her hands on and watching recordings of other productions, including her first exposure to the August Strindberg play – a video tape of Helen Mirren performing the role in a 1972 TV film directed by John Glenister and Robin Phillips. Then, almost more important, it seems, was her research on Ullmann: “I loved the documentary Liv & Ingmar... it’s so beautiful. I read her books, which are amazing, she has one called Changing where I read about her whole experience living on the island [of Faro] with Bergman and making the films.”
It was Malick who first told Chastain that she resembled Ullmann. “He told me I looked like her, when we were shooting together. And that was the most beautiful compliment anyone could have ever given to me.” That said, she admits to getting “embarrassed” when people give her compliments. A latecomer to the A-list, she says that she often has to pinch herself when she thinks about her success: “I don’t get used to it, I feel like I’ve found a place in the industry, but that I’m observing everyone. That I’ve got into the coolest concert ever, and I’m backstage and I get to hang out with the Stones. I don’t feel like I’m part of a band,” she says.
Chastain was raised in Sacramento, California. Her mother is a vegan chef and her stepfather a fireman. A keen dancer and thespian, she appeared in stage plays in San Francisco and studied classics before winning a scholarship provided by Robin Williams to attend Juilliard. It was there that she met Jess Weixler, her best friend, who plays her sibling in her next film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. “My family consists of not just my biological family, but my best friend – she’s like a sister to me – and all the people in my life that help me through this craziness.”
The big change in her life came when she worked on stage with Al Pacino, a collaboration that is central to his 2011 documentary film Wilde Salomé. It was Pacino who first told Malick about her.
She now craves a relationship with a director that mirrors the one that Ullmann had with Bergman: “I hope to some day have a film-maker where we are each other’s muses and we have a collaboration that can go on for years.” That film-maker was almost Ned Benson, the director of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – three films dealing with a single relationship, each one told from a different perspective – Him, Her and Them. Benson’s script started as a story about a break-up told from a man’s perspective and made it onto Hollywood’s Black List, the annual line-up of the best scripts that have not made it to production. Then Benson met Chastain at a film festival and the pair began dating. She encouraged Benson to write a version of the script from Rigby’s perspective, which remained on the page until Chastain became Hollywood’s most talked-about actress and the project finally received the green light.
James McAvoy was cast as her love interest and the two films showed back-to-back in a 190-minute version at the Toronto Film Festival last year. At different screenings, “Him” and “Her” were shown in different orders. Harvey Weinstein bought the film, but the question of whether audiences would sit in the cinema for over three hours has proved a tricky one. At the London Film Festival this month a mash-up called Them was shown which, Benson told me, “isn’t how I want people to see the film”.
In the meantime, Chastain and Benson broke up but they remain on good terms and promoted the film together at Cannes. She is now dating the dashing fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposula and spends her time between New York and her beach house in Santa Monica. Yet she hasn’t forgotten the years of struggle and often takes to social media to campaign for more female participation in cinema both on- and off-screen.
“It’s silly we don’t have more female directors,” she states. “I don’t feel different working with a woman than a man. I think a good director is a good director. A lot of times when I’m talking to the press and say that there are not many roles for women, I’m not talking about myself, I know that I have a great choice of roles, I’m talking about actresses I want to see act, like Samantha Morton and Viola Davis.”
If Interstellar doesn’t give Chastain her hat-trick of Oscar nominations, the word is that she gives another stellar performance in crime drama A Most Violent Year, from All Is Lost director JC Chandor. It will be released in America on the 31 December just in time for Academy Award consideration. It seems the Best Actress Oscar could well be Chastain’s for the taking.
‘Interstellar’ is out on 7 November; ‘A Most Violent Year’ on 25 January. ‘Miss Julie’ and ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’ will be out in 2015
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