From “Take Shelter” to “The Debt,” Jessica Chastain is an actress who feeds off risks.
But in a still relatively young career that has seen her push the boundaries while working with demanding auteurs like Terrence Malick and Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-nominee is about to embark on her biggest challenge yet -- taking on the iconic role of Catherine Sloper in a revival of “The Heiress.”
The lonely spinster at the heart of the tragedy has been a favorite of actresses over the years, with the likes of Olivia de Havilland, Cherry Jones and Jane Alexander putting their indelible mark on the character. Chastain insists that despite making her Broadway debut in a play associated with such formidable women, she is not intimidated.
“I don’t feel trepidation because what it shows is what an exquisite role Catherine is,” Chastain told TheWrap. “There’s no way my Catherine will be the same as Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine or Cherry Jones' or Jane Alexander’s. We’re such different women with different sensibilities. I don’t feel the nervousness of it, because I could never be the wonder that is them and I just have to find who Catherine is to me.”
Still, Catherine, a plain-looking woman, who is dominated by her emotionally frigid father and manipulated by her caddish suitor, seems a physical stretch for the luminous Chastain.
Unlike say Jones, a powerful stage presence who is nonetheless severe looking, Chastain, with her fiery red mane of hair, alabaster skin and dazzling, fulsome smile is no one’s idea of dowdy.
Moisés Kaufman, the two-time Tony-nominated director and playwright who will be staging the revival, insists he was most concerned with finding an actress with the emotional intelligence to play Catherine.
“To me it was more important for the actress to be able to understand the sense of the character,” Kaufman said. “We’re in the theater. In the theater we transform ourselves. As long as you’re true to the character than plain is in the eye of the beholder.”
Previews begin on Oct. 6 with the show set to open on Nov. 1 for a limited run.
When TheWrap caught up with Chastain, she only had a week of rehearsals under her belt and admitted she was still finding her way to the character. Her co-stars -- an august group that includes such theater and film veterans as two-time Tony winner Judith Ivey and Oscar-nominee David Strathairn along with “Downton Abbey” heartthrob Dan Stevens -- insist that Chastain is already making the role her own.
“I think she’s interested in finding this paper thin frailty that is wrapped around a steely core,” Stevens, who is also making his Broadway debut in the play, told TheWrap.
For Ivey, who previously appeared in “Washington Square,” Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 film adaptation of the story, Chastain has begun to unveil a unique spin on the role.
"She is finding the gentility of this young woman and the ignorance of her in a way I’ve never seen it interpreted before,” Ivey said.
The rewards for getting Catherine Sloper right are substantial. De Havilland won an Oscar for her portrayal of the heartbroken heroine, while Jones scored a Tony award. It’s a role that charts Catherine’s emergence from a timid creature, smitten with a man who only wants her for her money, to a colder and more calculating woman, who knows how to operate in an oppressive society.
Although "Washington Square,” the Henry James novella that inspired the play, was written in 1880 and adapted for the stage in 1947, the revival’s cast says that Catherine’s nascent feminism will allow the play to stay fresh for a newer generation of theatergoers.
“I find her so modern,” Chastain said. “It’s shocking to me that this adaptation was written in the 1940s. For her at the end of the play to stand alone and believe it’s OK not to be married -- for 1940 to have a woman be independent in that way and make decisions without the influence of a man -- I find that shocking. Thirty years from now, this story and this play will still be relevant.”
When it comes to attracting a crowd, Chastain already has one thing in her favor -- the curiosity factor. Of all the movie stars treading the boards on Broadway this fall, a group that includes Al Pacino and Katie Holmes, perhaps none is more hotly anticipated than Chastain. That’s somewhat surprising given that she is relatively jejune to the New York theater scene. But, as Kaufman points out, Chastain spent four years at Julliard studying Chekhov and Shakespeare.
She has also appeared the 2006 Los Angeles Wadsworth Theatre production of “Salome” opposite Al Pacino and in the 2004 off-Broadway production of "Rodney's Wife" with Strathairn.
If she pulls off "The Heiress" it will be another triumph on Chastain’s meteoric rise out of obscurity, a journey that began less than two years ago. Thanks to a remarkable string of performances in the likes of “Tree of Life” and “Coriolanus” capped off by an Oscar nomination for her work in “The Help,” Chastain established herself as one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood, starring in eight high-profile films and doing voice work for the latest “Madagascar” sequel. She next appears in Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” a true-life thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
With that run of success, it would be tempting for Chastain to double down on her film work, but the actress says she views her Broadway stint as more than just a one-off.
“I’’m always going to do both theater and film, always,” Chastain said. “I love theater and I love the ensemble feeling of it. I love the community. I love being in New York. I love the idea of finishing a show and then seeing people from other shows and then all leaving for a late night dinner, but you know this is my first time so we’ll see how it goes.”