IT WAS 11am and 37,000 feet up in the air when Jessica Chastain woke up to the news that she would be joining the media mayhem of this month’s Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
In the middle of a whirl of international promotional engagements, she was on a flight to Los Angeles when the whispered congratulations started to come in on her second acting nomination in two years.
“There’s so much emphasis on winning,” she says demurely, “but for me it’s a really big deal just to be recognised and acknowledged – especially when I had years of not even getting an audition.”
Most actors brush aside Oscar talk as bad luck but, just as some girls dream of wedding dresses, Chastain always focused on Oscar dresses. She cried last year during the fitting for her first red carpet gown, designed by Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton. “I never used to imagine my wedding dress as a little girl, but I’d always imagined my Oscar dress,” she says with her trademark wide smile. The question is, who will be her Oscar date? Last year she drank champagne with her grandmother, who was instrumental in introducing her to acting when she was a child.
However, recently there’s been talk that she has broken her cardinal rule of not mixing business with pleasure. Around Christmas she was photographed alongside Britain’s Tom Hiddleston, an equally tall, talented redhead. They would make a nice couple, except, “I am not dating Tom Hiddleston,” she laughs.
“He is a very good friend, but I am not involved with him. It’s funny because many times I’ve said that I have only one rule: I don’t date actors.” This goes back to drama school apparently. “First of all, I don’t want to talk business, which means I don’t want to talk about auditions or what movie I’m going to do next. That’s boring.”
The fascination with boyfriends extends to her films. The question she is asked most often about her Oscar-nominated role in her most recent release, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, she says resignedly, is ‘Why didn’t the character have a boyfriend?’
“I kept thinking, ‘Why is everyone focusing on this?’ until I worked out it’s because we’re not used to seeing women in films who are defined by their work, rather than their personal life.” Good luck to her – and good luck in keeping a private life, especially since interest in Chastain shows no sign of subsiding. Right now she’s at the top of the US film box office with Mama, a low-budget horror flick released here later this month, and Zero Dark Thirty just behind.
Like episodes of QI, Chastain seems to be everywhere at the moment, yet just two years ago no-one had heard of her. Then came a tsunami of Chastain films, including her Oscar-nominated role as the 1950s bombshell in The Help, a vengeful Mossad agent in The Debt, and an exasperated wife in Take Shelter.
She also played an ethereal mother in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, all cuddles and nurturing, a reflection of maternal perfection she now turns on its head with Mama, produced by Spanish horror favourite Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andrés Muschietti.
Apparently Chastain will try anything once; the problem, for those who want actors to be familiar brands, is that she refuses to go on doing it. “It was astonishing how quickly I was typecast,” she says. “Every script had a devoted wife and mother. I don’t accept that as an actress I have to play one personality over and over when Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman – all these great actors – are allowed to change what they look like. Women in Hollywood? I’ve noticed that they’re not.”
These are ferocious words, although Chastain is so petite and soft-spoken she could pass as a schoolgirl. This makes her transformation to no-bull rocker all the more startling in a good old-fashioned ghost story that is a cut above the usual shockers and shivers. Even so, Chastain could be forgiven if she now wished this Mama had stayed at home and knitted socks until the Oscars were over. She’s a favourite, along with Jennifer Lawrence, to win Best Actress for her role in Zero Dark Thirty, but the theory is that Oscar- winning actresses don’t do horror films – at least, not until the statuette is safely stashed away.
Mind you, she is almost unrecognisable in Mama, with goth-black hair and a lot of badass attitude, after she gives up her job as bass guitarist in a punk rock band to help her boyfriend raise two nieces. The girls have been found, apparently alone and feral, after living in isolation for years. The question as to whether a selfish rocker can locate her own inner mama is beyond old fashioned: it’s conservative. But Chastain is the heart of the film, as the reluctant guardian of two young girls haunted by a relentless ghost in a film that is a little bit Exorcist and a little bit The Others. It’s hardly a complex work but she took it seriously. Research included listening to Lou Reed, a hairstyle modelled on Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass’s jet-black bob and learning bass guitar, just as she learnt the martial art of krav maga for The Debt and, for Zero Dark Thirty, read books about Osama bin Laden and posted photos of terrorists on her walls.
Pick any metaphor that describes a period of dramatic upheaval and it will capture the past two years of Chastain’s career. Zero Dark Thirty’s director Bigelow wanted her for the lead character, but had been told Chastain was too busy. “And I said, ‘OK, look, I am a huge fan of Kathryn Bigelow, she is a great hero of mine, of course I am interested.’ So I read the script and by the second page I knew it was something I had to do.”
Maya, the strong-willed CIA agent who uncovers a trail of information leading directly to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, won her a Golden Globe last month, and possibly an Oscar on 24 February. Now the curtain of secrecy has been lifted, Chastain admits that some aspects of Zero Dark Thirty proved difficult. “One day we had lunch in a hotel restaurant in Oman, which is a pretty liberal city, with Jason Clarke and two other actors, but the waiter brought three menus for the men and nothing for me. Jason ordered for me that day, which made me feel invisible. I didn’t like that.”
The oppressive atmosphere finally came to a head when they spent a week filming torture scenes in a Jordanian prison. Mobile phones were confiscated, no-one spoke English and Chastain, with her red hair and fair skin, was far from invisible.
Eventually, at the end of one scene she broke down and cried. “It wasn’t even a torture scene, it was an interrogation scene – but I was emotionally frazzled by this point,” says Chastain. “My character has trained to be unemotional, but I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything. I just had to walk away.
“I’m interested in diversity,” she says earnestly, which is just as well, since she has appeared in five films since the last time I met her to talk about playing a young Mossad agent in The Debt. Back then, she was very sweet and polite, but also fluttery and inclined towards wafty talk of spirituality and blessedness: a combination of alluring and elusive.
Yet also, it emerged she had an iron will. She wasn’t even keen to reveal her age (she’s now 35), and still tries to keep her home town under wraps because her family continue to live there, and some of her siblings are at school. So let’s just say she grew up in the suburbs of northern California, where her father was a firefighter and her mother a vegan chef with a food truck.
A dancer when she was a child, her career path changed at the daftly-young age of seven when her grandmother took her to the theatre, hoping to broaden an enthusiasm for the arts in her solemn, eldest grandchild. “It’s very hard to explain why I wanted to act in the first place,” she says. “I was a loner. I had a very active imagination, but had difficulty expressing my emotions and she always used to tell me when I was a child, ‘Why don’t you smile? You have a beautiful smile.’ And the narrator of the play was a little girl, just like me. Immediately, I knew this was something I could do.”
She started nagging her mother to take her to Los Angeles so she could audition for commercials, but her mother refused to take on the role of stage mom. So her daughter started taking part in school plays and avidly researched film actresses instead. “When I was 12, I changed schools and the teacher asked what was the last book I’d read. It was a biography of the comedy actress Carol Burnett, but that was what I’d been reading. The one before that was Barbra Streisand.”
She won a place to Juilliard, the Yale of acting schools, on a Robin Williams scholarship (“I still haven’t met him”) yet her rise wasn’t as quick and effortless as it seems. From 2003, after she graduated from Juilliard and moved to Los Angeles, she “just couldn’t get an audition”. She used to hoard quarters for the launderette and, when she did get roles, it was as “rape victims or women who weren’t mentally stable”, she says. “One time, I was a corpse.” One of her more successful bit parts, she recalls, was an episode of David Suchet’s Poirot, where she survived murder on the Orient Express.
The big break was as Salome, at the Wadsworth Theatre in LA. Oscar Wilde’s play might not have been A-list but her director, not to mention co-star, was Al Pacino, who staggered her with his enthusiasm at her first audition. “I started reading from the play and as I was acting I could hear, ‘Oh, wow. Oh, my God,’” she recalls, with another face-splitting smile.
“I could hear him from the audience saying all of these things, that made me feel like, ‘Yes. I am doing great.’” The play became a film, Wilde Salome, which remained unreleased – although ironically the heat generated by Chastain two years on may give it the push it needs into cinemas.
In the meantime, it was Pacino who got her work with the notoriously fussy director Terrence Malick. “Tree of Life was a big film and I hadn’t worked much, so I think Terrence wanted to make sure I was OK to work with. So he phoned up Al, who reassured him that I wasn’t crazy. And that I turned up on time.”
She paid her own fare to Texas to meet Malick, a man so reclusive he makes JD Salinger look like Amy Childs. Then he sent her to the Metropolitan Museum to see Raphael’s Madonna and study Lauren Bacall’s languorous diction. The result was an idealised mother-figure of the 1950s, with renaissance serenity and a grave beauty
“It changed everything,” says Chastain, seizing on the idea of beauty. “Because before that, I was always being told I wasn’t pretty enough.” Or more particularly, not blonde enough. “I have a friend who is a writer and also a redhead, and he said that when scripts talk about the look of a character they might say ‘blonde’ or ‘brunette’. But it’s never ‘red’. Being a redhead just doesn’t seem to be normal.”
She resisted going down the Lindsay Lohan route and dying her hair a preposterous shade of platinum, which is just as well because with her ivory colouring, her auburn hair makes her striking in a way that harkens to her grandmother’s Celtic ancestry. Nevertheless, when she did go blonde, to play the helpless sexpot whose only friend is her maid in The Help, she turned heads – and got her first Oscar nomination.
“I’d walk out of the trailer in a red dress with the blonde hair, and I have never seen guys look at me like that,” she says ruefully. “They would drop their food when I walked by. And then I would go back in my trailer after shooting and come out in my jeans, my hair in a ponytail with my face washed of make-up. You could see the look of disappointment on every man’s face when they realised it wasn’t true.”
Chastain has returned to an understated look for her Broadway production of The Heiress, which reaches its final curtain this weekend. Best remembered as a film with Olivia de Havilland as the mousy spinster who falls for the ardent gold-digging Montgomery Clift, Chastain deflects the glamour of this revival on to her co-star Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey. “When he walks out on stage you get a lot of whooping, like Elvis,” she says, sweetly. “He’s become quite a sex symbol.”
After that, there’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, co-starring James McAvoy, Chastain’s equal when it comes to output. Their film is a single relationship story of a marriage that comes apart. “One film follows his point of view, and one film follows her point of view. It’s his perspective of what happened and it’s her perspective of what happened, which I find that really exciting.”
Chastain is currently based in New York, which she likes for the bustle although she misses having a garden. However, no sooner has her play finished than she’s planning her next project. “I’m going to go to Europe and just … disappear,” she says eagerly. “Up till now I’ve been working so hard because I don’t want it to go away. That uncertainty doesn’t go away, but I think that I might be able to take a month off. That’s progress, isn’t it?” n
Mama is released 22 February (www.mamamovie.com)