Jessica Chastain’s acting career successfully straddles critically acclaimed arthouse projects and blockbuster stardom. By Andy Hazel.

Actress Jessica Chastain

Actress Jessica Chastain.
Actress Jessica Chastain.
Credit: Ambra Vernuccio

Few actors sum up 2023 as neatly as Jessica Chastain. The Academy Award-winner was often the most articulate person on a picket line during the writers’ and actors’ strikes that brought Hollywood to a standstill for much of the year. Within weeks of their resolution, she was vocally calling for a ceasefire in the Israel–Hamas conflict – all the while championing up-and-coming women in the industry.

After beginning the year with a slew of awards for playing country star Tammy Wynette in the television series George & Tammy, Chastain turned down offers to appear in big budget films. She spent the next four months onstage at New York’s Hudson Theatre, a decision that inadvertently resulted in TikTok virality.

Chastain played Nora Helmer, the protagonist in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In the play’s final scene, Helmer leaves her family to begin a new life. Lloyd staged Nora’s decision as a transition between eras: Chastain exits the theatre through a loading dock and walks into New York’s very busy West 45th Street. Embodying Nora’s uncertain new freedom, Chastain gazes nervously around at her new world, ignoring the small crowd of live-streamers and their forest of phones around the security barrier, and then scurries back inside through another door.

“It was 10 years since I had gotten back onstage to do A Doll’s House, and that was because of the director,” she says. “Jamie Lloyd is incredibly subversive and provocative. I saw his Sunset Boulevard in London. I’ve seen that musical so many times with so many great actresses. I just don’t even understand how it’s possible that he can do what he does. It was like I was discovering it for the first time.”

Chastain is capping the year with her latest film, Memory, the first of what she is confident will be multiple collaborations
with the Mexican director Michel Franco. It was her first project after she won her Academy Award for Best Actress in 2022 for her role in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She says she is drawn to arthouse films and theatre “because in some way it’s allowed to break rules that a studio doesn’t sometimes allow you to break”. This balance of theatre, film, critical success and low-key passion projects has marked her career since she was catapulted to stardom in 2011.

“After The Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter and all the attention I got that year, the next film I did was a movie made by Andy Muschietti called Mama about the anti-mother,” says Chastain. “It could not be more different than how I felt the industry and the world saw me as an actress. I look for directors and creators who are subversive and take huge risks and I demand the same thing of myself. I never want to allow myself to get too comfortable. I could start to get a lot of attention for doing one thing and then I’ll immediately go and do, like, X-Men or a bunch of silly things, to kind of show that no one is really in charge of me except me.”

In Memory, Chastain plays Sylvia, a social worker in New York City wrestling with alcoholism and the memory of traumatic childhood sexual abuse. At a high school reunion she meets the silent and intimidating Saul, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who follows her home and sleeps outside her house. Saul has early-onset dementia and no recollection of Sylvia or the connection she believes they had at high school. Over the next 90 minutes, the two create a strange but loving friendship. Franco frames his film as a series of single takes illuminated by natural light. No make-up, no hairdresser, no trailers. On the first day of filming, Chastain arrived on set to find she was part of a real Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that on a set before,” she says. “There is an immersion that you really have to fall into. In the same way that Terrence Malick works, you have to be ready to be filmed at all times, to be filmed with non-actors who are who their character is. And I love that, because I find that to be an incredible challenge as an actor – to try to not look like an actor. ”

Chastain is reluctant to speak in detail about her upbringing, although some aspects are well documented. Born in Sacramento, California, to a teenage mother and absent father, Chastain and her younger sister, Juliet, had a series of adult males in their lives. They led an itinerant life until her grandmother, Marilyn Herst, gave the family a stable home. While living with Herst, Juliet developed a drug addiction and depression, and Chastain an obsession she believes saved her life: Shakespeare.

Though she disliked high school and never graduated, Chastain went on a school trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There she saw Marco Barricelli play Richard III, an experience Chastain credits with widening her vision of life and giving her a vocation. “There was something about the rhythm of the language,” she says, “and the way the language fed into the emotion of the text.” Amid the chaos of her family life and her inability to fit in at school, Chastain says Shakespeare “just saw me”.

When she returned home, Chastain discovered one of her grandmother’s many decorative books was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which she read from beginning to end. During a production of Romeo and Juliet, the actor playing Romeo told her he was auditioning for The Juilliard School, the prestigious New York acting institution. Chastain decided to audition as well and was offered a full scholarship from an endowment established by actor and alumnus Robin Williams. As her reputation blossomed on the other side of the country, Chastain’s sister Juliet took her own life.

“I think that, without even being aware of it, feminism just always has been within me,” she says. “And I think it’s probably from my childhood – being raised by single mothers, being raised in a situation where in many cases we didn’t have food or we were being evicted from houses. I remember this feeling of being invisible in society.

“I didn’t feel it was fair how my grandmother was being treated by society or the responsibilities she was forced to take on. The inequality in wages, in opportunity, in education and in getting jobs. It was implanted in me at a really young age that it was not just. So I think it just became who I am and if I see some kind of inequality or discrimination, I can’t help but speak against it. It’s part of who I am, it’s going to be part of my work, because I put everything…” – she pauses to emphasise the word – “everything of what I am into my work.” 

After graduating from Juilliard, Chastain landed small roles in television series but her slight frame, red hair and the predispositions of casting directors meant she was typically cast as a psychologically disturbed young woman. In 2006, her performance opposite Al Pacino in a production of Salome in Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theatre brought her to the attention of a number of high-profile casting directors. Chastain turned down underdeveloped roles, even though this meant years of surviving on residual payments, and auditioned to play more demanding characters.

“I’m really interested in subversive, provocative stories,” she says. “And with the female characters I’ve played, I’ve been really interested in ones that go against any gender stereotype or of what society expects a woman to do or be.”

Chastain says the roles for which she is best known – CIA operative Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, gambling mogul Molly Bloom in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game and NASA astrophysicist Murph, in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – are the most psychologically demanding. In 2024, she will star in the television series The Savant, based on a real-life story published in Cosmopolitan about an undercover investigator who has infiltrated online hate groups and has foiled a number of large-scale public attacks.

“​​I’ve played real people that I could talk to, like Maya from Zero Dark Thirty,” she says. “A lot of people came out and claimed to be Maya from Zero Dark Thirty; none of them have been [her]. I spoke to her before I played the role ... I’ve also played characters where I didn’t have the benefit of meeting with them and working with them, like Tammy Wynette. With The Savant, I didn’t feel that it was as important to get all of her mannerisms because she’s undercover. I wouldn’t want to look and behave exactly like her, because I want to keep her hidden.”

Throughout our interview Chastain’s minder has remained by her side, eyeing me warily. In the week before our chat, several celebrities and agents lost work after speaking about the Israel–Hamas conflict. I’ve been told there is a fear Chastain may say something that could be misinterpreted.

As she sits by her minder, wearing a heavy beige coat, luminous emerald sweater and matching silk skirt, her face half hidden by large Gucci sunglasses, the word that recurs in my mind is “flinty”. She has a kind of Katharine Hepburn toughness and focus, a sense that she wants to be understood, that what she believes is important. As the interview progresses, this intensity eases into an uncommon grace. Her hands move expressively as she speaks. When I ask about her proclivity for challenging roles, and why she thinks she has said the word “subversive” three times already during our conversation, she leans forward.

“Sometimes when you have a broken bone you have to break it completely in order to heal it,” she tells me. “Sometimes you really have to break our ways of thinking or ways of relating to the world. A film may not be technically perfect, or a painting, but it grows within you from the moment you encounter it. Guernica is … I don’t want to say the word again,” – she laughs – “but especially when it came out, it was confronting.

“I think great art should be confronting, because when we’re living a life when we’re asleep, are we really living? It’s so important to have something wake you up so you can really question every day who you are. And I don’t believe we should really be able to answer that question, because I think we should be constantly evolving.”

Now living in New York with her husband, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an executive at the fashion house Moncler, Chastain’s decision to “never get too comfortable” is intriguing. By most measures, she has made it. She has no reason to work as consistently as she does – she could, like many of her peers, become a producer or take on less-demanding roles.

But she is driven to create films and plays with lasting impact. Especially now, she says, when there is a need for resilience in the creative industries. I question her about this and see her minder visibly tense as she answers.

“It’s really important when there is darkness, when there is conflict, when there is, ahhh …” – she pauses to choose her words – “a sense of hopelessness, to make art … I have the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a person who has different desires and fears, and love that I have, and in doing so, I am learning about myself.

“When you look at a painting from a different side of the world you learn something separate from yourself. Art is a way to heal and to unify, and with the sadness of the pandemic when we were all sealed away from each other, and the sadness of everything that is happening in the world, it is so important to channel conflict and pain through art, as a way of being human and being part of a community.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Woman of the year".

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