Jessica Chastain

If you’ve been to the movies in the last six months, chances are you’ve seen Jessica Chastain. And though the actress’s feast of projects-a staggering five released since last May-simply seem to hint at a calculated, industry-driven blitz to create Hollywood’s next Oscar-buzzy girl to watch, her story is actually the result of a string of cruel, borderline farcical twists of fate. Since 2006, Chastain has made 11 films (plus a TV movie for the BBC), but due to various delays in production and distribution, only two of them saw the light of day before 2011. The most high-profile snag came with Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning 1950s epic The Tree of Life, in which she starred opposite Brad Pitt. Chastain shot the film more than three years ago, but due to a change in distributors (its original studio, Apparition Films, dissolved), it was only released this past spring by Fox Searchlight. Nevertheless, the Northern California native has even referred to the “Chastain curse,” joking how she’d promised other directors and her family upcoming roles with marquee names only to see her work linger in cinematic purgatory. “It’s insane,” she told Interview in September 2010. “I did some of these movies four years ago. My poor mother! I tell her I’m doing a movie with Al Pacino and another with Brad Pitt. She tells all her friends, and years go by . . . “

However, perhaps even more astonishing than Chastain’s sudden omnipresence is the remarkable range and pure force of will she’s already demonstrated in her career. Hers is a tale not only of ridiculous saintly patience and good humor, but one of meticulousness, versatility, and exceptional love for the craft. For her turn in The Tree of Life, in which she played Pitt’s earthy, devoted wife and a mother of three, she spent hours studying Raphael’s Madonnas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to portray the quintessence of grace. Then she packed on the pounds, strapped on a painful corset, dyed her hair blond, and conjured her best bawdy Southern sexpot for the summer civil-rights breakout The Help. For the political revenge thriller The Debt, she learned Krav Maga, the Israel Defense Forces’ official form of self-defense, as well as German, perfected an Israeli accent, and pored over haunting Holocaust photographs to depict a Mossad agent in 1960s East Berlin sent to capture an ex-Nazi guilty of wartime atrocities. Then came her recent vibrant, electric performances this season as a ballsy small-town homicide detective in the crime drama Texas Killing Fields with Sam Worthington, and as a terrified mother signing feverishly to her deaf daughter in the eerie doomsday drama Take Shelter (another Cannes winner). In January, she’ll play the wife of the titular Roman leader in Coriolanus, a modern-day adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy in which she stars opposite Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave. And Chastain is only getting started. Already on the horizon are Wilde Salomé, directed by Al Pacino, who gave Chastain her big break in 2006 in a stage production of the play, the Depression-era bootleggers saga The Wettest County in the World (with Tom Hardy), another film with Malick (tentatively titled The Burial), as well as the new Tron pic with Tom Cruise, and the Guillermo del Toro-produced supernatural flick Mamá, for which Chastain has undergone another physical transformation to play a child-averse punk-rock savior.

Actor Michael Shannon, who costars with Chastain in Take Shelter, recently spoke with her about her oh-so-rapid rise and what the future holds.

MICHAEL SHANNON: You’ve probably done a million interviews in the last six months, right?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: Yeah, but those people don’t know how to get my secrets.

SHANNON: We probably need to go a little deeper. What’s your social security number?

When I leave a film, there’s this sadness that I’m not gonna know this person anymore.Jessica Chastain

CHASTAIN: [laughs] Are you in Canada right now?

SHANNON: Yes-in Vancouver. I thought you were shooting your film in Toronto.

CHASTAIN: I am, but I flew to New York this weekend. I had three photo shoots, and now I’m at LaGuardia waiting for my flight. Before this year, I’d never really done press, and in September I was doing press for five films, so I flew to Paris and Venice and New York and Toronto and L.A. and London. I’ve never done anything like that.

SHANNON: You have a nice place in Venice [California] that you’ve put a lot of work into.

CHASTAIN: I love my home so much, and now I feel like I’ve become a gypsy. As much as I crave it, I wonder how long I could be home before I start to get antsy. But I love Toronto. I’m staying in an area called Queen Street West, which has this bohemian vibe to it, so sometimes, if it’s not too cold, I’ll walk around the street and just look at people. I’ve gone to some punk bars to see people play bass.

SHANNON: So you’re learning how to play bass in Toronto for this film you’re shooting called Mamá, correct?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. It’s produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Andres Muschietti. It’s based on a short film Andres did, which is so scary. I play this girl who plays bass in a punk band, and she wants nothing to do with kids. She’s like a teenager–emotionally she doesn’t want to grow up, but she becomes responsible for taking care of these two little girls. So you basically watch her become a hero and grow a heart because she becomes their protector.

SHANNON: Well, that’s very nice and everything, but can you shred on the bass?

CHASTAIN: I can shred more on the ukulele. The director plays ukulele as well, so sometimes we play together.

SHANNON: Thank god I’m not in that movie. Have you filmed any scenes yet where you were genuinely frightened?

CHASTAIN: Yes, I’ve done an experiment, and it’s working for me. I heard Johnny Depp has an earwig [headphones], and sometimes he listens to music during a scene. So I asked the director if I could wear one for all of my scary scenes and have them play this really terrifying music in my ear. That’s how it’s gonna be in the scene anyway, right?

SHANNON: That’s a really good idea. I should’ve done that for Take Shelter. You should have someone stand offset with a gong and just hit it to surprise you.

CHASTAIN: They did something like that last week, actually. The director wanted me to watch this videotape. So they were filming me watch it, and someone was reading a description of what I was watching off camera so that I’d know what would be on the tape, and in the middle of him reading it, someone clapped their hands. I leapt out of my seat. They couldn’t use it because [my reaction] was so big. That’s when we realized what a scaredy-cat I am. So I’m gonna be fine for this film. I’m gonna be like Shelley Duvall in The Shining [1980].

SHANNON: How do you think horror works? Do you think that in order for the audience to be scared the performer needs to be scared? Or is it more about the way they shoot and edit it?

CHASTAIN: I think that with any emotion–fear, love, nervousness–if the actor’s feeling it, then the audience feels it. I’m gonna have to be in a place where my heart’s beating fast and I have a physical reaction to what I’m feeling. It’s like this story someone once told me. They had taken a marketing class and were looking at these full-color magazines where there were ads for vodka or whatever. The ads used these models, and they dilated their eyes with the computer because a dilated eye means you’re sexually aroused, I guess. So they did these little subliminal things because then the audience looking at the picture felt this unconscious knowledge of what they were selling. They weren’t even aware of what was happening. So I do feel if an actor’s going through something, the audience feels that, but maybe not in a conscious way.

SHANNON: So you can’t fake it.

CHASTAIN: I try not to fake anything.

SHANNON: I had a teacher in middle school who taught us health. One day we looked at magazine advertisements with a magnifying glass and found all sorts of interesting things. There was a toothpaste ad with a little girl in a dentist’s chair, and if you looked at her teeth with the magnifying glass she had little dollar signs on them. So for this role in Mamá, have you had to get piercings or tattoos?

CHASTAIN: I have tattoos, but no piercings for my character. At first, the director assumed I didn’t want to physically change my look, and I said, “No, I don’t want to have red hair. I want to play this character like she is.” My character isn’t Lisbeth Salander from Dragon Tattoo. She’s not socially scary. But I’ve got short black hair and a huge octopus tattoo. It’s like a sleeve.

SHANNON: Why an octopus? Do you get killed by one? Does a giant octopus sit on you or something?

CHASTAIN: No, but remember that octopus scene from the Popeye movie with Robin Williams?

SHANNON: No, but it’s interesting that you mention Robin Williams because I heard your scholarship to Juilliard is somehow connected to him.

CHASTAIN: Yes. I’m the first person in my family to go to college. We didn’t have a lot of money, and Juilliard is a pretty expensive school. Robin Williams is a very generous Juilliard alumnus, and gives a scholarship every two years to a student, and it pays for everything, and I got it. I still haven’t gotten to meet him.

SHANNON: I met him after he did that Broadway show Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. He was fantastic . . . So there’s a scene in Popeye [1980] where he’s attacked by an octopus? I recently got the Robert Altman compendium about his life, and the chapter on Popeye made it sound like production for that movie was pretty tumultuous.

There is this immediate connection, this intimacy when you’re acting because there’s no room to be polite or shy.Jessica Chastain

CHASTAIN: Yeah, especially when you’re fighting an octopus underwater.

SHANNON: I can’t even open my eyes underwater.

CHASTAIN: You know that I can’t swim? I mean, I can swim like an old lady swims–you know, like, where you look like you’re treading water . . .

SHANNON: Oh, the doggy paddle?

CHASTAIN: It’s like the doggy paddle, but there’s also one where you stick your head above the water and you just move your arms out like a frog.

SHANNON: Isn’t that the breaststroke?

CHASTAIN: In my next movie–the new Tron sequel–I’m supposed to be able to swim, so I’m a little nervous.

SHANNON: Is this the one with Tom Cruise?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Can you believe I’m doing a science-fiction film?

SHANNON: I was going to ask when you’d get around to that. But it sounds like mission accomplished.

CHASTAIN: Mission accomplished–and mission not impossible.

SHANNON: I saw The Debt last night. I thought it was a phenomenal film and a great performance by you. I was very, very moved by it. There’s this scene where you’re looking at some disturbing photos, and I about leapt up out of my seat and ran out of the theater. Had you seen those ahead of time?

CHASTAIN: No. They asked if I wanted to, and I said, “Can we wait?” They shot me looking at them for the first time. They’re just awful. We’re used to seeing photographs from the Holocaust, but not photographs with children. The preparation I did for the film was actually more emotionally grueling than shooting the movie because I spent three months looking at photographs and studying medical experiments–you know, what they did to children and pregnant women.

SHANNON: When it was time to shoot, didn’t you feel drained from all that?

CHASTAIN: I did. I showed up on set and felt like I was carrying so much on my shoulders. My character, Rachel, is a survivor, and there’s this thing about survivors’ guilt: They feel worthless and unworthy of being alive. Like, “Why did everyone else have to die?” and “Why was I saved?” I think that helped me. She really sacrifices herself. She gives her life to her country.

SHANNON: There’s an expression in the film that you would get sometimes–for example, when you were walking down the street getting ready to go into the doctor’s office. It’s an expression of fear and panic, but underneath it’s this sensation that no matter how afraid you are, you will do whatever it takes to avenge what happened to you and your family. Did you come up with a specific backstory for what happened to your character’s mother?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. I read this book of firsthand accounts from the Holocaust, and there was a woman, a survivor who talked about her mom and her dad and her sister. I really connected to it. I felt so much sadness and empathy for what she’d gone through, so I used her story as my own.

SHANNON: I want to ask you a semiserious question. Remember when we did five thousand billion interviews in Toronto? Well, toward the end, a woman asked me, “What did you learn from making Take Shelter?” And it just stopped me in my tracks. I just looked at her like, “I’m supposed to learn something?” So, you’ve been in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter and now Coriolanus–all these films dealing with real heavy issues. Do you feel wiser for having done them, or are they just stories you’ve told?

CHASTAIN: Gosh, that really does stop you in your tracks.

SHANNON: You don’t have to answer it.

CHASTAIN: No, I want to answer it. You know, it’s recently come into focus for me why I want to be an actor: It’s because of the connection I feel to people. I met you, a total stranger, and the next day we’re husband and wife in this very serious scene in Take Shelter. There is this immediate connection, this intimacy when you’re acting because there’s no room to be polite or shy. Also, as an actor I get to connect with women I’ve never met before. After researching Rachel and reading stories from survivors of the Holocaust, I now feel this connection to these women. Celia Foote, my character in The Help, taught me so much about the joy in life and about having so much to give and nowhere to really throw it. When I leave a film, there’s this sadness that I’m not gonna know this person anymore. And then there’s also the connection you have when the audience sees it. It’s this web that connects people that’s really inspiring to me. So it’s less about what I learned on a film and more about what I got to experience on the film.

SHANNON: I did a production of Our Town off Broadway in New York, and every night I saw this beautiful message about how ephemeral life is and how you have to really cherish each moment, and I would see it around eight times a week. When you’re doing it, you feel like, Wow, I’m really going to learn this lesson here. Then a week later, you’re walking down the street saying, “Oh, god damm it, what’s wrong with people?!” You start grumbling again, and then you’re like, “Wait a minute! I did this play and it said don’t do that, and here I am doing it!”

CHASTAIN: You’ll always go back to that, though. Like for The Tree of Life, I had to play the embodiment of grace and cultivate gratitude and love, and even when I feel like, “Ugh, I’m so tired,” or, you know, “I’m so irritated talking to Mike Shannon,” I always try to remember it: “Oh, yeah, this is what this felt like.”

SHANNON: You said you studied painting before filming for The Tree of Life. Is that where you got your inspiration for your character?

CHASTAIN: Yeah, it was Terrence Malick’s idea. There was one picture in particular: Raphael’s Madonna. I would go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just sit for hours looking at the portraits of the Madonna, because I found that there’s a completely different energy when you look at a painting of the Madonna and you look at a painting of any other woman, even from that time period. There’s something in her eyes and in her hands. There’s never a direct gaze. Usually her eyes are kind of downcast, and her fingers seem like they’re reaching up towards the heavens, even if they’re at her heart. I found that was very helpful. Now when I watch the film, I see that in one of the very first shots of me, I’m sitting at the kitchen table and looking down to the right, and when I pause it, it looks like Raphael’s Madonna. It’s like, “Terrence Malick! You knew!”

SHANNON: That’s just miraculous–that attention to detail.

CHASTAIN: Okay, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m a very superstitious person. I’m walking onto the plane as we speak. I’m putting my hands on the outside of the plane and my feet are on the lip of the plane. I have to do it every time before I fly.

SHANNON: So you touch the outside of the plane so that the natural oils on your palm can help guide you to a safe landing?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. I have to do that, and I have to put my feet on the lip of the plane at the same time.

SHANNON: When did this start?

CHASTAIN: It started because I was in New York on September 11. I freaked out and was terrified to fly. I used to do a little prayer outside the plane, and now I put my hands and my feet on the plane, and I think I’ll be okay.

SHANNON: That’s a ritual.

CHASTAIN: Oh, god, I gotta get off. What if this interview is my final interview?

SHANNON: No, this cannot be your final interview. I promise. I will do my own little ritual for you. I will fold a little paper airplane and fly it around.

CHASTAIN: But you can’t let go of it.

SHANNON: I won’t let go of it. I’ll do a very smooth landing with it in honor of you. Okay, I gotta go eat. I’m hungry.

CHASTAIN: [laughs] My life is at stake, Mike!

SHANNON: Don’t say “steak.” I’m hungry.

CHASTAIN: Go. And I’ve gotta go take off. All right, Mike. Keep me afloat, man.

Michael Shannon currently stars in Take Shelter and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in 2008’s Revolutionary Road.