While most people's childhood dreams remain just that, Jessica Chastain is living hers. After being taken to a play by her grandmother at the age of five, and been awed by the spotlight falling on its 10-year-old narrator, the redhead from northern California announced that what she really wanted to be when she grew up, was an actor. She never wavered in her ambition, and when she was old enough enrolled in Juilliard on a scholarship funded by Robin Williams. Today, Chastain – born Jessica Howard - is one of the best kept secrets in cinema.
In the past four years she has made almost a dozen films with some of the most respected names in the business - Al Pacino (who directed and starred opposite her in Wilde Salome, which is due to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September), Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus), Helen Mirren (The Debt), Emma Stone (The Help), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), John Hillcoat and Gary Oldman (The Wettest County in the World) – but only now are most of them being released. First out of the gate is Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or winning cosmic epic, The Tree of Life, in which she plays wife and mother to Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, respectively.
It's an impressive body of work and Chastain is happy that finally people, including her mother - who wondered for some time what her daughter was doing in Los Angeles, because she didn't seem to be making movies - will get to see it. But she is also understandably anxious. “It makes me a little nervous, to be honest. Because I think, 'Okay, I made 11 films over four years and, gosh, how is my life going to be different at the end of the year when six come out?' My family and my friends are so supportive and helping me to kind of embrace the unknown, which is the only thing I can do, I guess.”
For her, acting has always been about “connecting to other people and exploring humanity," she says, "and by doing that it makes me feel whole. So the idea that I could, when the movies come out, meet strangers and them no longer be able to relate to me because they would no longer see that we could be the same, because I'm an actor, that worries me.”
Chastain has seen up close how “some people can be too nervous to talk to actors [because they're famous] or try to put them on a pedestal,” and she wants none of it. “I just want to be normal," she insists. "And if someone tries to treat me that way it's going to make me crazy. I'm going to become a crazy actress, and I don't want to be.”
If her advancement seems meteoric, the 30 year old has, in fact, been working in TV – she was given a holding deal with producer John Wells before graduating - and the theatre for a number of years. She puts her current success down to making the transition from stage to the big screen under the auspices of Pacino. They worked together on the stage version of Oscar Wilde's Salome, and when they adapted it for film she got to see how the legendary actor modulated his performance for the cinema. “My whole life it had been theatre, theatre, theatre. So I was a little afraid because there's this myth of the camera. Everyone says, 'Theatre's big, the camera's small,' and I didn't quite understand. Then I got to watch Al Pacino go from the stage, where there's 1400 people in the audience, to the camera. And because he was also directing me, it was like an acting class every second. I don't think I would have this career without my acting teacher for that year,” she insists.
No one, though, has made as big an impact on her life as Terrence Malick. An air of mystery surrounds the press-shy auteur behind Badlands and The Thin Red Line, and Chastain had no idea what to expect when she flew to Texas to discuss The Tree of Life with him for the first time. “I guess because of the myth I expected someone in all black and a hat, with weird glasses, and messy.” Instead, she found a “normal, very simple man,” in a brightly coloured shirt, who took great interest in learning about her. “He's like my Tolstoy,” she says, smiling. “He's so educated, he knows so much about music, about theatre, about literature. He translated Heidegger. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He played football at Harvard. He's the first person I've met in my life that's good at everything.”
When it came to filming, his set was an ego-free environment, she says, where cast and crew were encouraged to be spontaneous. So spontaneous, in fact, that she instinctively rubbed pepper in Pitt's face during a domestic argument scene. The actor took it in his stride, apparently, and played along. “He's so inventive and spontaneous, I think he's a true actor,” says Chastain. “It's almost like he's a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man.”
She admits that the looseness of Malick's style, which included being allowed to say dialogue in any order, took a while to settle into. “The very first week of rehearsal I was so nervous, because I had so much insecurity. I thought, 'I'm going to get fired.'” She wasn't, of course, and the experience proved liberating. It also proved somewhat lengthy, because even after the film had wrapped, Malick would phone Chastain to ask if she'd record more lines for him.
“I'd be on sets or even up at Thanksgiving with my family and I would get a call asking me to put some stuff on tape, which of course I was very happy to do, and I would get a FedEx with 30 pages. I would go into a sound booth in Budapest or London, or wherever I was, with someone who had no idea who I was or what I was there for or what the movie was, and I would just whisper these lines, like 'Where are you?'” Most of it didn't make it into the film, she laughs, but it didn't matter. “I loved doing it. Maybe because I came from the theatre I just loved the idea of collaboration, and I liked not having a timeline.”
We may see her in Malick's next project, The Burial, for which she shot some scenes with Ben Affleck, although she's not confident she'll make it to the final cut this time. It won't matter if she doesn't, just the experience of being around American cinema's most secretive director again was enough for her. “I don't have a greater teacher in my life than Terrence Malick," she says adoringly, "and I think he will always be the greatest teacher I know.” Indeed, such is her devotion, you get the feeling she'd be happy to whisper her way through the Yellow Pages if he asked her to.
A version of this story appeared in Scotland on Sunday, 3/7/11