On Eve of Oscars, 'Zero Dark Thirty's' Jessica Chastain Is Finally Able to Relax (Video)
For the second year in a row, the actress Jessica Chastain is Oscar-nominated for a performance in a film that is also a best picture Oscar nominee. Last year, she was a best supporting actress nominee for The Help, which was joined in the top category by another film in which she starred, The Tree of Life; this year, she is a best actress nominee for Zero Dark Thirty, for which she has already won the Critics' Choice Award for best actress and Golden Globe Award for best actress in a drama. And, for the second year in a row, she has starred in films that were number one and number two at the box-office in the same weekend. Last year, The Help and The Debt proved to be blockbusters; this year Zero Dark Thirty and Mama were big hits.
With a critical and commercial track record like that, it probably won't come as a surprise to learn that the delicate-looking but ferociously ambitious 35-year-old redhead is now one of Hollywood's most in-demand actresses. Her mentor Al Pacino recently told Roger Ebert, "I never saw in my career, in my entire time doing this, anyone in the business who's not a household name yet, but so sought after as her." So how is Chastain celebrating her recent coronation as a member of Hollywood's A-list? By performing in eight shows a week as the title character of The Heiress on Broadway.
During one of Chastain's recent blink-and-you'd-miss-it trips out West to support her film, I managed to corral her for a half-hour conversation about her life and work -- which seem to many to be one and the same. "This is my dream come true," she told me of the storm of which she now finds herself at the center. "Some people say I'm a workaholic, but I don't think that's what it is. I think I just love it so much and, for me, it doesn't feel like work. This has been a dream of mine for so long, and it's taken longer than I hoped it would. But, since it finally has come to me, I've been so scared that it's going to go away. So there's this kind of, like, grasping at it and, like, working all the time." But, she smiles, "Something really beautiful has happened in the past 10 days. I'm starting to feel like, 'Okay, I can breathe. It's okay.'"
Chastain was born in Sonoma to a firefighter and a vegan chef. As a youngster she was an unspectacular student without any particular passions, so her grandmother hit her with a "barrage of exposure" to various arts and crafts, she says, including one life-changing trip to the theater. "I was seven years old and she said, 'Jessica, this is their professional job, these people.' She was trying to tell me this was a real thing. I didn't quite understand it, but we went in, and then the lights went down, and a spotlight came up on -- I think it was, like, a 10-year-old girl. And immediately," she snaps her fingers, "in my mind, I was like, 'Oh, this is what I am.'"
In junior high school, she joined the drama club, which provided her with her first real outlet of creative expression. Moreover, she says, it made her feel "like one of the characters from Glee, like I'd found my people." After a brief stint at city college, she played Juliet in a San Francisco-area theater company's production of Romeo and Juliet, and also made a life-altering decision: she auditioned for Juilliard, the most renowned performing arts conservatory in America. "I knew someone who got in who was going to go," she recalls, "and I thought, 'Well, you know, I think we're pretty similar, so if they can get in, then maybe I can get in.' And I went and auditioned, and I got in." Thanks to a scholarship paid for by Robin Williams, she was able to afford to move across the country and enroll at the Manhattan-based institution, and, she says, "It completely changed my life." She explains, "Those four years -- that B.F.A. program -- really shaped me into the person that I am."
While at Juilliard, which focuses on stage acting, she was offered her first opportunity to try screen acting: she was signed to a holding deal with John Wells for his TV company and given a guest spot on E.R. "It was the first time I was put in front of a camera," she says. "That's how I got my SAG card." After graduating from Juilliard in 2003, though, she moved back to California and came to realize that most professional gigs do not came easily. The name Juilliard didn't seem to mean as much as it did back east, and she faced some humiliating ordeals. "While I was in L.A. I probably tested for eight television shows," she says. "I never got one. I was in situations where I would get 30 pages of dialogue and stay up all night memorizing them. And then, you know, the producer looks at you and then decides you're not right, and they go, 'We just need the first scene.'"