With the exception of being recognized by a handful of Hollywood casting directors and the odd theater maven, Jessica Chastain was a complete unknown this time last year. Heck, she was an unknown this past March. But ever since Terrence Malick's gorgeous "Tree of Life" hit the silver screen in May -- and which comes out on DVD this week, there has been a plethora of films featuring Chastain — "The Help", "The Debt," and most recently "Take Shelter." Later this year, there will be more movies starring the ginger-haired actress: "Coriolanus" and "Wilde Salome." That's six, count 'em, six movies in the span of seven months.
Even more remarkable is how different Chastain is in each role. In "The Help," she's a bubbly Southern sexpot. In "The Debt," she's a deathly Israeli Mossad agent. And in "Tree of Life" she is a grieving '50s housewife. Her range is something to behold.
I managed to talk with her while she was on location in Canada for a horror flick called "Mama." We talked about working with eccentric director Terrence Malick, having a busy movie schedule, and the prospect of winning an Oscar.
Jonathan Crow: You're starring in six movies in one year. How did you do that?
Jessica Chastain: Yes, it's crazy isn't it? I never planned it like this. I didn't know that this would happen. But, you know, it's bizarre, my life hasn't changed at all. I went to the movies the other day and the movie theatre had three movies I was in. No one gave me a second glance. I'll be getting my popcorn, ready to go into something else and no one even looks at me. It's really kind of interesting, but… it's cool because it probably means that my characters perhaps looked different from me and maybe [viewers] don't connect the two.
Jonathan Crow: So tell me. How did you get into "Tree of Life" and all these other films?
Jessica Chastain: Well, "Tree of Life" was my big break. That was three years ago…
Jonathan Crow: You shot that three years ago?
Jessica Chastain: Yeah. I did the play "Salome" with Al Pacino and then he made it into the movie "Wilde Salome." That premiered in Venice Film Festival this year.
And then I got cast in "The Tree of Life." It was a huge audition. I knew the description of the character -- a woman from another time and filled with grace. So I tried to embody that in the audition. It was a couple of months, [the] audition process, and then I got the part and then they gave me the script.
Jonathan Crow: I am just curious: What did the script look like versus what you ended up seeing on the screen?
Jessica Chastain: It's very similar to what was on-screen. It's the exact same story that he wanted to tell. You didn't know how he was going to tell it but you knew the characters, you knew their significance. And it's beautiful; it's the best screenplay I've ever read because it's more than that. It's written almost in prose and in fact there are 20 pages of the script with no dialogue. It's all just prose, and it's beautifully written.
Jonathan Crow: And what was Malick like as a director?
Jessica Chastain: He is lovely. He is like a scene partner. He is not someone sits behind a monitor and then comes out and gives you notes. He's not like that. He is very close to the camera with [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki and Erik Brown, the focus puller, and Jorg Widner, the camera operator. And as I am acting, they are also guiding me. We were inspiring each other. It's my favorite way I've ever worked. It's unlike anything I'll ever do again.
Jonathan Crow: And you knew about the kind of cosmic element to the story, the dinosaurs and all that, that was in the script also?
Jessica Chastain: Absolutely, the whole creation was in the script. It took me so long to get through it, because I kept having to pull out encyclopedias to try to follow what was happening. It was very dense and very scientific.
Jonathan Crow: It sounds like you've had a busy couple of years. How did you prepare "Tree of Life" and the parts from all these other movies?
Jessica Chastain: Yeah, last year was my busiest year, last year I shot "Coriolanus" and "Texas Killing Fields." And then I went straight to "Take Shelter" and from there to "The Help" and then I did a couple of days on Terrence Malick's next film. So that was a crazy busy year. But for the most part I made "The Debt" two years ago and then after I finished it I went and did a play for nine months, "Murder on the Orient Express" in London.
So I'm always trying to play different characters. I always try to find a character that's unlike anything I've done before. Is it going to challenge me, am I going to have to rise to the occasion to meet it?
Jonathan Crow: Were you preparing for one role, as you were shooting another? How did that work?
Jessica Chastain: Yeah, last year I had to do that. I have never done that before. For "Tree of Life," I had four months before [when] I just read as much as I could about comfort and grace and gratitude and studying paintings of the Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and watching Lauren Bacall films.
"The Debt" required the most preparation. I trained in Krav Maga and I was taking German courses and reading about the Holocaust. I mean, the preparation for "The Debt" was really intense.
But… last year when I didn't have the time, I would just do things that would inspire me. When I read the novel "The Help," I saw that there were so many connections between Celia and Marilyn Monroe, so then I read Marilyn Monroe's biography. And then I started watching all of her films in chronological order. That helped me map out Celia's childhood and her inner life.
For "Take Shelter" the story is so subtle and sensitive it would be distracting if I tried to impose something onto the character. When I sat down with Jeff Nichols, six months before we shot that film, he told me that the movie was about marriage and faith. It wasn't about an apocalypse. It wasn't about schizophrenia. When he told me that I realized my main preparation for that film had to be my relationship with Michael Shannon. We had to be best friends on that set. And so that for me is where I focused all my time.
Jonathan Crow: With at least three of your films, there is some serious Oscar buzz. Is this something you think about or want to think about?
Jessica Chastain: I think it's really a nice thing to be in a film that gets that kind of attention because that means people are responding to something that I loved. I loved working with Mike Shannon [in "Take Shelter"]; I loved working with those boys and Brad in "Tree of Life," and Octavia Spencer in "The Help."
But I try not to think about it. I know that this has been an amazing, an amazing year. But I also know how quickly things do change and I can't attach myself to a hope of a future thing or anything that's not tangible and real. Right now, I am so lucky to have a job and that's where I try to live.
See Jessica Chastain in 'Tree of Life':