By December, Jessica Chastain will have become a dizzying Hollywood success story. The striking Shakespearean-trained actress was completely unknown in April, but from May to Christmas, she'll have seven—yes, seven—films hit the big screen. Her resume is eclectic, but skews towards the smart: first was the Cannes' winner Tree of Life (as Brad Pitt's wife—lucky girl), then last month's tear-jerker The Help (as Celia Foote, a bimbo with a heart of gold). This week, her big release is The Debt, a Mossad thriller starring Chastain as an agent on a violent mission to capture a Holocaust villain, and as quick as you can blink she'll leap to Wilde Salome with Al Pacino, the Apocalypse drama Take Shelter, the serial killer crusade of Texas Killing Fields and, finally, back to her roots alongside Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler in Shakespeare's Coriolanus. If you're tired just reading that list, imagine how she feels. Boxoffice caught up with the crazy-busy beauty to ask her about being a young actress on the move to stardom—and why she'd rather avoid fame.
You tend to be unrecognizable in each of your roles. How important is the transformational aspect for you in terms of getting further away from either previous roles or yourself?
To me it's everything because I don't want to play the same thing twice. When Tree of Life came out, I started to get these scripts, and I was like, "These are all Tree of Life scripts." They're very supportive, stand-by-your-man-type of women. So I do see that Hollywood does try to think, "Oh she can do that so let's have her do it again." And I'm really fortunate that it goes from Tree of Life to The Help to Take Shelter, where I'm hoping that they just won't know what to do with me. And in fact after I do all my press, I'm going to go shoot a genre film at the end of the year because I've never done that before. It's called Mama. It's Guillermo del Toro's company.
Yeah. I've never done it before. I play like a punk girl, and it has elements of The Ring meets The Orphanage. For me, it's like the further the character is, the scarier it is and the bigger the opportunity I have to fail—but usually when you fail you learn a lot, and so it's either like I'm going to fail and I'm going to learn a lot about being an actor, or I'm not going to fail and it's going to be great. So win-win.
And this film is one of your first thrillers.
Do you know what the funny thing, actually, about this film though? I didn't really know that it was a thriller until I saw the first screening of it. Then I was like, "What?" Like, my heart was beating the whole time and I thought, "This is so different." I thought I was making like this sweeping drama action film, which of course when I watch it now it's absolutely a thriller. But I think probably because I approached it like it was a drama—actually, I approach everything like a drama—I approached The Help, even though she's really kind of a goofy character, like I was doing this great drama. Because then I think that really helps me fill the characters out. But for Mama, the genre film, I'm going to approach it like it's a drama. I'm going to watch a lot of films to kind of get in the zone, but yeah, that's how I approach everything.
With The Debt, you also had to study Helen Mirren who plays you when your character is older.
From the beginning I knew they were talking about her to play—well, that she was thinking about playing Rachel. So from the very first meeting I had, I'd already done some research on Helen, and I told John when I first met him, "I just want you to know, she's 5'4" and I'm 5'4", and so I think it would work perfect." And so I was really adamant about that. Once I got the part, I started to get really nervous because Helen has this presence unlike any other woman I have ever met. She's a force to be reckoned with. So I started watching her a lot on YouTube, and I found a lot of interviews—I found actually interviews of her when she was my age and I found out actually that her voice was higher, you know all these things that actually I could relate to. And I thought, "Oh, of course Rachel's going to change." We could have similar mannerisms, but you know, I shouldn't play Helen as Helen is now because I'm playing her as Rachel was when she was 25. So I watched a lot of that, and then Helen and I met in London and we met in the Pacific Palisades. We talked about where Rachel might have come from, her back story, what happened to her family, how she was orphaned. We worked on the accent with Joe Washington so we'd have the same voice, and then also we worked on certain things that we would do. Like, there's a section in the film where they ask the question "What were you thinking at that time?" And Rachel says, "I was thinking about my mother." I say it, and then also Helen says it. So we decided she says the same story twice in the film, 30 years apart. Let's try to make them very similar, so it's like this repeat she's on. We even did things like on the word "mother," we both touched our heart. So 30 years later, we made sure that it was an act she was playing.
And how was working with Sam Worthington?
I was really really fortunate because on The Debt was the first time I met Sam, and a few months before we started shooting, we all came out to London, we all had dinner together: Sam, Marton [Csokas], John Madden and I. And we knew kind of from the very beginning, the three of us guys, that this is going to work. We really liked each other, we were laughing a lot. I felt like the chemistry was absolutely there. And that continued on through the shooting. I'd never done an action film. I mean, I went to Julliard, I was trained in Shakespeare and the classics, and so the idea of me running and jumping into a moving van and shooting guns was so foreign to me. And Sam was wonderful because it wasn't foreign to him. He really was my coach during this film, my action coach, where he would show me the best ways to hold a gun. Even with the running scenes, he was teasing me. He nicknamed me Tommy Cruise because he says that my action run was as good as Tom Cruise's. So we had real good fun. After working with him on that, we joked that we had a three-picture deal. So when Texas Killing Fields [a rural thriller out in October] came up, I thought, "Well, it's another opportunity to work with him." And now I'm just looking for the third picture. Maybe we'll expand it to a five-picture deal.
How much did the physical training that you actually had to go through mirror the character development?
Gosh, I think it informed so much of it. I spent four months before shooting working in Krav Maga and learning that. I didn't know how to throw a punch. I mean, I had fight combat at Julliard, but it was more like swords and stuff for Shakespeare plays, which you don't really see in movies. This was a lot of hand-to-hand combat and my teacher was really good at teaching me to use my body weight and the different ways that you can twist someone's arm to make them fall on the ground, even if you're not incredibly strong. So that gave me a lot of confidence to approach it, but you know I just really tried to put myself in the situation Rachel was in. In a scene like in the doctor's office, you know it's an incredibly invasive spot for her to be in. Usually as an actor, I just try to think the thoughts of whatever the character is thinking and that kind of leads to something. The first time I did it was with Al Pacino. He told me it always has to be a big deal. So if I'm really feeling something, it's best if I can ask myself, "I'm really uncomfortable, why am I uncomfortable? Oh, maybe my character's uncomfortable." So I always try to connect the real to what I'm doing.
Which is worse to shoot: fight scenes or love scenes?
Fight scenes are more exhausting, especially the fight scene I had in the film with Marton and Sam because Marton's a big guy, you know? And thank goodness for him. He didn't want it to look like it was easy for me. That was a really exhausting day of shooting for me. But also when I was a child, I had a lot of dance experience, so for me a fight, I realized, is like dancing because you have your scene partner and you're both counting silently. So it's like a duet of sorts. So physically, fight scenes are harder. Love scenes are hard because they're embarrassing. Like, nudity, all that stuff. Anything like that is just really embarrassing, and once you can kind of get over that, then it's fine. Love scenes are more emotionally difficult and fight scenes are more physically difficult.
What kind of dance experience did you have?
I took a lot of ballet and tap. Like I could do a time step for you right now. And you know, street jazz. Mostly ballet. I loved dance. And that also I think you can see in a lot of films. Like in Tree of Life I think you can kind of see that I feel connected to my body, and it helps me be expressive, I think.
By the end of next year, you'll have seven movies out. What's it like to have this career pop now, when four months ago nobody knew who you were?
It's a very strange thing. To be honest, I don't get recognized, which is great. To me it's not important to be recognized. When someone comes up to me and says that they saw Tree of Life or that they saw The Help and were able to piece it together that I was in them and say nice things, of course I love that. I love talking to people who have seen the film. But for me, it's so important to be able to disappear into the roles, and I think sometimes a trapping of fame is that someone knows so much about you that they don't want you to disappear into the role. They want you to be how they think you are. So right now, it's all great. I'm getting to do the work and I'm getting to have a normal life. I am still shy, like the red carpet for me is a shy thing. Especially that Cannes one was out of this world and terrifying and exciting at the same time. So I'm learning. I'm still learning this part of the business.
Rumor is you had to go into the voice over booth 60 times for Tree of Life. Is that number accurate?
I never counted, but that would make sense, yeah. Over the past four years, I was called many times and asked if I would mind putting some voiceover work on tape. I love it. Because I come from the theater, I love the idea of work-shopping something. I love the idea of things taking their time and finding their way. So I made sure to let Terry [Gilliam] know he could ask me to go in as many times as he wanted. I love being an actor—I love the creativity of it, of creating something. It's not about me feeling, "Oh, I want my free time." I could've gone in that booth 60 more times.
But if he called you right now, would you be like, "Oh Jesus, Terry, let it go."
No, I would do it. I would be the one to be calling Terry going, "Do you need more voiceover?" That's me.
Was Marilyn Monroe was an inspiration for your character in The Help?
You know, in the book she's compared so many times to Monroe. So I thought, "Okay, I've got to figure out why this is." Because you can't just say Monroe, and then there's a stereotype of what Monroe was. So I read Marilyn Monroe's biography, and from there I thought, "Well, there are a lot of similarities from the idea of Norma Jean coming from this very difficult childhood to bleaching her hair blonde and now she kind of has this new, clean life that's very separate—but what's she running away from in her past?" And for me that's how I approached Celia. She grew up in Sugar Ditch, one of the poorest areas of the country, and what is she running away from? What kind of difficult childhood did she have? So I absolutely connected to that. And then I also thought Marilyn Monroe was probably Celia's favorite actress at the time, and so she probably wanted to dress like her—she probably saw all of her films more than once and maybe felt a kinship to Marilyn. I definitely did not want to do an imitation of Marilyn Monroe. I saw all of her films to kind of get the playfulness that Marilyn had, but I never once felt I was playing Marilyn. I felt I was playing someone who loved Marilyn.