Like most Hollywood success stories, Jessica Chastain’s started with a phone call. In 2008, she was an unknown, Juilliard-trained actor, albeit one who’d already worked with Al Pacino in his 2006 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at LA’s Wadsworth Theatre. But for Chastain, the stage wasn’t enough—she wanted to break into film and television. The trouble was, her experience in front of the camera was limited to guest stints on middling television shows like Law & Order: Trial by Jury and Journeyman. She had also starred in Jolene, a then unreleased independent film chronicling the cross-country travels of a resilient young woman. Then her agent called.
“She said they were casting the new Terrence Malick film,” recalls the 30-year-old actor, whose alabaster skin is set against an inferno of red hair. “I was told that the character was supposed to be from another time, and have a grace about her.” Malick, an intensely private auteur in the vein of Thomas Pynchon, has made only a handful of films since his acclaimed 1973 debut, Badlands. The new project was called The Tree of Life, his long-gestating, highly classified fifth film, rumored at the time to center on a family in 1950s America, and to somehow incorporate dinosaurs (it does). The role Chastain read for was that of a beautiful housewife locked in a battle of wills with her husband over the raising of their three sons. She prepared by watching all of his films in chronological order, to “get the acting style into my skin.” Malick was absent during her first audition, where, among other things, she was asked to pretend to put a baby to sleep. Then came the line reads. “I think I was the only actor who recognized that the material came from a Eugene O’Neill play,” she says. A few days later, she flew to Texas to meet the reclusive filmmaker.
Chastain races through these and other stories. So much has happened to her in the past three years that it feels like she could talk uninterrupted for hours. One of her more surreal memories, the moment she discovered who’d be playing her husband in The Tree of Life, still astounds her. “Terry called me up and said, ‘I cast the role, and it’s going to be Brad Pitt,’ and I just sat there at my kitchen table, shocked. No one ever imagines they’re going to play Brad Pitt’s wife,” Chastain says. Pitt was hired to replace the late Heath Ledger, who passed away a full year before the film entered production, and Chastain wondered what landing the world’s most famous actor would mean for the film, and for her. “He’s such an icon, and so it was actually really scary for me,” she says. “When I met him, though, he couldn’t have been nicer. He just wants to be an actor.”
Despite The Tree of Life’s star power—Sean Penn plays a grown-up version of one of Chastain’s character’s sons—the collaborator who left the deepest impression on the actor was Malick himself. Since he remains an almost mythic figure (he even refused to pick up his Palme d’Or when The Tree of Life won the award at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival), fans have been creating their own mental sketches of a man who, by most accounts, is an artistic genius. Chastain draws in a few details: “I knew after first meeting him that we could be friends. He’s not someone who separates himself from other people. He makes an effort to connect to everyone around him and to have a shared experience.” How, then, did he influence her acting style? “Terry is the kind of director who instills great confidence in an actor—he made me feel like I could do anything. The greatest lesson he taught me was to be in the moment, every moment, and to be free, fluid, and open. That was my class, he was my teacher, and now I’ve got my degree.”
When Malick showed Chastain The Tree of Life for the first time in its entirety, she broke down. “I just hugged Terry,” she says. “I was really embarrassed that I was crying.” She shed more tears when, at the 17th Annual Elle Women in Hollywood gala, someone introduced her to Patricia Clarkson, a personal hero. Indeed, now that Chastain has punctured the Hollywood bubble, the actors she admires have gone from idols to colleagues, something she’s still getting used to. “I can be really self-conscious, especially when I’m around great actors,” she says. “I don’t know what to say to people. If I was ever to meet, say, Isabelle Huppert, I would probably sob. She’s my acting goddess.”
Since wrapping The Tree of Life, Chastain has shot five more films, none of which has been released in theaters yet. As such, she finds herself in the unusual position of having—barring any eleventh hour delays—a total of seven projects to promote in the second half of 2011. There’s the edgy Nazi-hunter suspense drama The Debt, in which Chastain plays a Mossad agent (and a younger version of Helen Mirren’s character); The Help, the Emma Stone–starring adaptation of the 2009 best-selling novel, in which Chastain plays the peroxide-blonde Marilyn Monroe clone Celia Foote (a role for which she gained 20 pounds by drinking melted soy ice cream—she’s vegan); the slow-burning arthouse thriller Take Shelter, about a man (Michael Shannon) who must protect his family from his own hallucinatory visions; The Fields, the bayou cop thriller that reunites Chastain with her Debt costar, Sam Worthington; Coriolanus, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, which also marks the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes; and Wilde Salome, Al Pacino’s pseudo-documentary about his obsession with Wilde’s controversial play, which was filmed four years ago and stars Chastain in the title role. The actor, who was born in California but is “from, like, seven different towns,” works so much that she’s barely at her Venice Beach home, 10 blocks away from where her best friend and Juilliard classmate, actor Jess Weixler, lives.
This backlog of movies has created an aura of legend around Chastain inside her industry. “It’s getting kind of silly,” she says of her unprecedented situation. “When I walk into the first read-through of a movie, I get the feeling that everyone’s like, ‘Who is this? Show us what you’ve got.’ I’m sure they’re not actually thinking that, but I still feel like I’ve got to prove myself, because there is this idea that has been created, since I happen to have done 11 films that no one’s really seen. It’s a lot to live up to.”
Chastain most recently proved herself on the set of The Wettest County in the World. Director John Hillcoat (The Road) cast her after seeing her in The Debt, marking the first time she didn’t have to audition for a role, an obvious milestone for any actor. Based on the book by Matt Bondurant about his grandfather’s moonshine operation, the Depression-era film also stars Shia LaBeouf, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, and Tom Hardy, with whom Chastain shares most of her scenes. “I think he’s the next Brando,” she says of her British costar. “That’s so embarrassing to say, but he’s got the right blend of masculinity and femininity, and he doesn’t rely on his good looks. Every part he approaches, he tries to figure out how the character is different from him. I always try to act with people who are better than I am, because they’ll make me better. I’m definitely better for having worked with Tom.”
But the actor who prepared Chastain most for her career in front of the camera was Al Pacino. After first hearing about Chastain through his former costar and onetime girlfriend, actor Marthe Keller, Pacino auditioned her for his Salome projects. Over the course of one year, Chastain got to watch Pacino, a pillar of American acting, at work. “I was given the opportunity to see how he changed between theater and film, and that made me reconsider everything as a film actor.” She adds, “I was so scared of the camera before I worked with Al, and he taught me that you have to love it. Most actors think they need to ignore it, but Al taught me that you have to be intimate with it, because, even more than your scene partner, it will see into you. When he said that to me I resolved to make sure the camera always sees into my soul.”
Photography by Santiago Sierra. Styling by Anda and Masha. Hair by Ted Gibson @ Jed Root, Inc. for Tedgibsonbeauty.com. Makeup by Jake Bailey @ Starworks Artists. Manicurist: Susan Nam @ Artistsbytimothypriano.com for Polished Beauty Bar. Producer: Cesar Leon. Digital Tech: Chris Annis. Photo Assistant: Alessandro Zoppis. Retouching by Mario Alfonso de Armas. Location Neo Studios, New York City.