by Zoe Stagg
“It’s a gift that I was given, and I didn’t realize it. Because what I love more than anything is the feeling of acting and the feeling of that connection you feel to the other actor. Acting for me brings connection to people.”
Give the nearest Magic 8 Ball a shake, and all sources point to this: in a few months, Jessica Chastain will be the name on every marquee, every movie poster, and quite possibly, in a few awards envelopes. She will have starred opposite Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes, Al Pacino, and Helen Mirren in any one of nearly a dozen movies with upcoming premieres. The inclination might be to assume she couldn’t possibly be real, that she couldn’t be down to earth, that there’s no way she could be someone you’d want to sit on a sofa and giggle with.
But she is. She’s one of those one-in-a-million people possessing an entirely enviable life, and yet so lovely, so relatable, so effervescent, you don’t want to envy her in the least. You just want to be her friend. And when “Jessica Chastain” completes the sentence, “And the Oscar goes to…”, you will want to jump around and cheer.
Jessica is humble, shy, soft spoken, quick to laugh, and entirely rooted. And though she will soon be endlessly talked up as an overnight phenom, she has been fated for this life since her grandma took her to see her first play at the age of five. Yet despite years of hard work, a Juilliard education, and an unending stream of parts, her career is still in previews. “It is really funny. I’ve been the up-and-coming newcomer for like, four years.” She laughs, a genuine peal. “Part of me wonders if people even think really I exist.”
She won’t be wondering much longer. Projects including Wilde Salome, Coriolanus, The Wettest County in the World, The Help, and May’s The Tree of Life with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, have stacked up to fire off one incredible burst. It’s the culmination of a red carpet vision hatched in her five-year-old head, a universe away from Hollywood, in her small town California upbringing. “My family are all from the wine country; it’s a very easy way of life.” Jessica acted in community productions, exercising her passion and talent for the stage. “It’s a gift that I was given, and I didn’t realize it. Because what I love more than anything is the feeling of acting and the feeling of that connection you feel to the other actor. Acting, for me, brings connection to people.” That passion grew enough to inspire her to audition for Juilliard. “I didn’t know how I was going to go about it because my mom is the furthest thing from a stage mother.” But even this turned out to be another brick in her blessed path. “I’d be in a very different place if I’d had a stage mom.”
So how does a kid with a dream wrangle herself from wine country to the silver screen? Grit, determination, and a little pioneer spirit. “I think – this is going to sound so patriotic, but this is such an American idea and I absolutely embody it – I believe that with hard work, you can accomplish anything in this country. And I’m so grateful to live here because no matter what state, what small town you’re in, you can really do anything if you set your mind to it, and you really, really work hard.” The Herculean push was set in motion the first time she saw Shakespeare on stage. “It really was like a drug to me. I really wanted to know more. I wanted to learn more. That’s probably why I chose the path of Juilliard rather than anything else. And you know what? Shakespeare’s sexy. More than anything, that turns me on. Shakespeare.”
So she’s smart, classically trained. She’s movie-married to Brad Pitt. And? And she brakes for animals. A vegan for five years, Jessica stumbled upon this life decision. “I was having so much trouble with energy and a friend of mine said, ‘You know, just go vegan for two weeks,’ and I did and I felt so good, healthwise, that I thought, ‘Okay. I’m going to stick to this.’ That’s how it started, but then you start to read. Once I started doing that I thought, “I don’t know that I’ll ever not be vegan.’” So she dropped animal products cold turkey, for health and compassion. “I just did it and that was the end.” And a New York City vegan will never starve. “My favorite restaurant is Blossom, and I also love having brunch at Candle 79 on Sunday morning. They have the best pancakes.”
And the one thing she hasn’t pocketed yet is one thing she’s glad she hasn’t: capital-F Fame. An actor uninterested in celebrity Sure. “To me, fame kind of gets in the way of the work. I love the idea of someone seeing a film I’m in and not having to forget about you know, ‘The Jessica Chastain that’s in all the papers.’ I hope to be the kind of actor where you could go into the theater and instantly buy the character that I’m playing.” She’s not chasing the celebrity dragon for work or play. “Sometimes I’ll be with a group of people, strangers at a dinner party, and we’re all talking and it’s friendly and everyone is cool and normal and then someone asks me about myself. I try to kind of keep it private but I don’t want to lie so I’ll say, ‘Oh you know, I just finished this movie that’s coming out with Brad Pitt and…” She giggles, realizing how unreal those words sound to most people. “You can see them get quiet, then they get really confused because they’ve been sitting with me for 45 minutes and they realize, ‘Wait, she’s an actress?’ and all of a sudden it’s not the same relationship that it was before they found that out.” The separation of celebrity chafes, because more than anything, she wants to stay grounded. “Because if I can’t connect with people, then I can’t be an actor. How can I play the every-woman if I can’t have a conversation with her?”
Multiple new movies, and she’s just like us? “I’m just someone who really wanted to see what it was like to be someone else. I wanted to delve into the depths of my jealousy and compassion and hatred and love. That, to me, is more interesting than being set apart and put on a pedestal. I came from very, very humble, meager means. And now I get to go to Paris for Fashion Week.” It’s as if she says things out loud in order to make them real, knowing how preposterous they actually are. “I get to have all these wonderful experiences, but this is not my life. This is not normal – for my family, for my friends.” As foreign as her life might seem to people looking in, she’s peering at it right along with us. “It’s never normal for me. Sometimes I meet famous people and I cry.” Her laugh tinkles out nervous and true. “Through my whole childhood I feel like movies, they raised me. I’m a huge film lover. So for me, when I see these actors who I’ve watched for years and years, it’s really emotional. I think that on first meeting someone, it will always be a little intense. I’ll always be a little starstruck.” She’s quiet for a moment, and then, “I wonder when that will go away. I’m an incredibly, incredibly shy person. It takes me a while to feel like, ‘Okay. I’m worthy.’”
Jessica has worked with the greats, and even they’ve noted and encouraged her emotional rawness. “I had a teacher tell me, ‘If you lie in your real life, you’re going to lie on stage.’ That really struck me, that statement. Ever since then, I’ve tried to live a life of truth as much as I can. When you do that, it kind of ends up opening your heart in a way and making you incredibly vulnerable. Because in relationships you don’t say, ‘Oh I don’t care.’ You actually live a life of…” she chokes up. Her reaction underscoring this very truth – that when you mean what you say, it grabs you deep down. “Now I’m really sad!” She says in the laugh-cry combo that comes when you realize that you’re emotional at what feels like a silly time. “You live a life of vulnerability and openness. And the longer I live like that, the more I do wear my heart on my sleeve. I can get emotional very easily because of that. And my new challenge now is to is to figure out how, if someone makes a comment to me that isn’t a loving comment, or that is critical – I have to figure out how to deflect it. Because I’m not good at that. I take everything in and I have to figure out how to stay open and vulnerable but at some point put on a cover.” Her words sink in. “It makes me very, very vulnerable, especially in my personal life.”
In The Tree of Life, there are two forces that guide a being: nature and grace. Jessica embraces both. “I think both nature and grace live within everyone, and I always strive to be in a world of grace and compassion. And loving others before yourself. But I definitely have moments where I’m not at my best self. On that film, for nine months, I got to cultivate that quality in myself, just immense
compassion and grace. It’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I want to get closer to living every day like that, but I’m not there yet.” Though she’s still on the road of self-realization, it’s clear that Jessica’s career is soon to change from being in “previews” to being a riveting Feature Presentation.