"I liked that it was a political thriller and that I didn't know what my character was going to do next," says Jessica Chastain, describing what drew her to the role of a Washington, D.C., lobbyist at the center of the gun debate in John Madden's new film Miss Sloane, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. It's the latest in a long line of performances the 39-year-old has given over the last five years - including those in The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, Coriolanus, Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty, Mama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Miss Julie, A Most Violent Year, Interstellar, The Martian and Crimson Peak - which have firmly established her as one of the finest screen actresses of her generation. She's been hailed by critics. She's twice starred in films concurrently at No. 1 and 2 at the box office. She's played a key part in three best picture Oscar nominees. And she's received two Oscar nominations herself. Now, a third might be on the way.
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Chastain was born into a working-class family in Sonoma, Calif., and her greatest influence was her grandmother, who introduced her to the performing arts. A poor student, she got into drama while in junior high school, falling in love with Shakespeare, winning a monologue competition and deciding to apply to Juilliard. She was accepted - the final two years of her BFA were made possible by a Robin Williams-funded scholarship - and by the time she graduated, she had landed a nine-month holding deal with John Wells' production company in Los Angeles.
That promising start to life in the real world was followed by many frustrations and indignities, such as auditioning for a casting director's assistant for a guest spot on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that didn't pan out. But she powered through, went back to New York and was performing in an off-Broadway play at Playwrights Horizons. It was there that the Swiss actress Marthe Keller saw her and recommended Chastain to Al Pacino, who was looking for a newcomer to star opposite him in a Los Angeles production of Salome. "It completely changed my life," Chastain says of meeting Pacino, who did indeed cast her and performed opposite her for a year. "All of a sudden, film auditions started pouring in."
Pacino vouched for Chastain to Terrence Malick, who was seeking a newcomer to star opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, and who took a gamble on the actress, who had appeared in only a few small films up to that point. "It's always a scary thing casting an unknown as a lead in a film because you're unproven," Chastain acknowledges. But Pacino and Malick's faith in her spurred many others to reach out as well, and she ended up appearing in six movies released in 2011, which, along with the best supporting actress Oscar nomination she received for The Help, quickly made her "the It girl" for both film and fashion people. Chastain recalls with a laugh, "I was like, 'What is happening in my life?!'"
She followed that remarkable run with a tour de force performance in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to her best picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, playing "Maya," the woman who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden. For Chastain, it was a joy to play a woman defined not by her looks or love interest, but rather by her work. And she reveals, for the first time, that she did indeed communicate with the person who inspired her character: "I spoke to her on the phone. I don't think I was allowed to say that - I was afraid to say that - when we were releasing. But yeah, before we started shooting, I'd spoken to her." She adds, "It was really helpful in creating the interior of the character."
Zero Dark Thirty brought Chastain an Oscar nom for the second consecutive year, this time in the lead actress category, but the film itself didn't fare as well, for reasons that many, including Chastain, find suspect. "It's an interesting thing, this whole Oscar awards situation," she vents, "and that was the first time I realized, 'Oh, it's almost like a political campaign.' I mean, people hire strategists! And I definitely think when Zero Dark Thirty came out, it immediately - as soon as people saw it, it won New York Film Critics [Circle], it started winning everything, and it was the film to beat. And I think some people set their sights - their target. It was a target." She continues, "What upset me the most was how Kathryn Bigelow was treated. I remember someone at one point compared her to - who's the woman that had made those - " Hitler propagandist Leni Riefenstahl? "Yeah. A journalist actually did that. And I wanted to just murder everyone." Bigelow did not get a best director Oscar nomination. "I believe that there was a take-down." She adds, "Because she didn't come out there and say either, 'This is a pro-this film' or a 'pro-that film,' it left it open to attack."
In the years since, Chastain has continued to do strong work in films big (her space movies Interstellar and The Martian) and small. She starred in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, directed by her ex-boyfriend Ned Benson (and she shares her "preferred order" for viewing the two parts of the movie). She also headlined A Most Violent Year, which she made with her ex-Juilliard classmate Oscar Isaac. And Chastain has come to feel more at peace with her career, overall. "A few years ago I had this strange moment," she volunteers. "Now I'm more interested in, and excited and happy about, creating platforms for other people." (For example, she pushed for the casting of Johan Heldenbergh, "the beautiful actor" who starred in the 2012 Belgian film Broken Circle Breakdown, as her husband in the upcoming film The Zookeeper's Wife.)
Miss Sloane, which reunites her with The Debt director Madden, is the sort of film she aims to support, in front of or behind the camera, in the coming years: It is smart and nuanced (she spent time with female lobbyists in D.C., studied Jack Abramoff's memoir, etc.) and centers around a strong female protagonist. Looking to the coming years, Chastain says, "I'm probably going to act less. I'm feeling like my career's starting to transition into something else. I'm wondering maybe if I'm more interested in producing and maybe even directing. Yes, of course, I'll always act. But I have noticed I'm more interested in putting the spotlight on someone else, maybe just because it's been a really exciting, intense five years, and I'm like, 'It's okay, I'm happy to share this with other people.'"