The Catch-Up-Quick Guide to Jessica Chastain
It’s not often the movies produce a genuine “over night star”, but Jessica Chastain fits the bill. It’s been a Champagne year for the American actress, who has gone from a mere blip on the cultural radar to delivering acclaimed performances in some of the most-talked about films of the moment on what feels like a monthly basis.
I suspect the first most of us heard of her was when Terrence Malick cast Chastain as Brad Pitt’s wife in The Tree of Life.
It wasn’t her first film. Back in 2006 she starred in a US independent film, Jolene – a road movie about the adventures of a wide-eyed free spirit between the ages of 16 and 26 (she was 25 at the time). The movie premiered at the Seattle Film Festival in 2008 but didn’t get any distribution until October 2010, when Chastain’s career was starting to generate some buzz.
And that’s something to bear in mind when considering her “year”. Her scenes in Al Pacino’s documentary Wilde Salome (which premiered in Venice in September) was shot in 2006 and 2007. Pacino apparently recommended his Salome to Malick, who filmed Tree of Life in 2008. The Debt was shot in 2009. Coriolanus, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields and The Help in 2010. It’s a bizarre quirk of fate that they should all come into release within such a short window, a bunching effect that explains why Chastain has suddenly become inescapable.
A similar thing happened with Jude Law a few years back, when Cold Mountain, I Heart Huckabees, Alfie, Closer, The Aviator and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow all came out within months of each other. Whether this kind of spike helps a career in the long-term is hard to say, but it’s clearly not sustainable.
Mind you, being “hot” does tend to land you bigger pay cheques. Chastain has been cast as the love interest opposite Tom Cruise in the scifi thriller Horizons (currently in preproduction), and, if news reports prove correct, as Princess Diana.
Before then we’ll be seeing her in a Prohibition gangster flick, The Wettest County in the World (with Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy, under the direction of John Hillcoat), and there’s another Malick film in the can – this time with Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem and Rachel Weisz (title and release date pending).
So there’s a lot of her about. But what makes Chastain so special and what do you need to know about her?
As Joe Friday used to say: just the facts, ma’am:
She was born Jessica Norman in northern California in 1981, the daughter of a fireman and a vegan chef. She took up dance at 9 and decided she wanted to be an actress from a young age. She attended the famous Julliard theatre school, and on graduating she was put under contract to TV producer John Wells (ER; The West Wing; Southland).
She’s 5’4, a redhead, with pale skin, a slim frame and the biggest smile this side of Julia Roberts. She’s played Desdemona opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in a New York production of Othello, and Anya in The Cherry Orchard with Michelle Williams, as well as Salome with Al Pacino.
On screen, she levitated for Malick – and embodied a kind of angelic maternal love – but I would say we get a better sense of her potential in a far inferior film, The Help, where she plays Celia, the blonde from the wrong side of the tracks, ostracized by polite white ladies but a rare non-racist who treats her maid with genuine respect.
It’s a gift of a part, or at least she makes it seem so: Celia is so much more alive than anyone else in the movie, an irresistible combination of deep insecurity, energy and determination. She’s not only the most likeable person on screen, she’s also the most fun.
She’s equally compelling in Take Shelter, where she plays the housewife (Samantha) who is forced to decide whether to stand by her man as he suffers what amounts to a catastrophic nervous breakdown: losing his job, pouring their financial security into a hole in the ground, and alienating their friends and loved ones. It’s a more reactive part, but Chastain is so fierce in her commitment to her marriage that by the end, the film becomes as much a test of their bond as anything else.
Watch Take Shelter, see if you don’t agree that Chastain is here to stay.