Jessica Chastain: This Year’s Model Knows ‘It Will Never Happen Again’

She came out of nowhere in “The Tree of Life” — but with “The Help,” “The Debt” and five more movies on the way, she’s inescapable

A few months ago, she was unknown. Now she's ubiquitous.

Jessica Chastain isn't yet a household name, but the 30-year-old California native and Julliard graduate has turned 2011 into a remarkable cinematic coming-out party.

Jessica ChastainIt started with Terrence Malick's adventurous "The Tree of Life," in which she played Brad Pitt's wife and the ultimate nurturing mother figure.

She's currently on screens in the hit "The Help," as the ditzy but open-minded black sheep of a racist Mississippi town.

Still to come: Jeff Nichols' festival favorite "Take Shelter," in which she plays a long-suffering wife whose husband (played by Michael Shannon) has disturbing visions of ecological catastrophe. And "Coriolanus," director/star Ralph Fiennes visceral Shakespeare adaptation, in which she's the title character's wife. And Al Pacino's daring documentary "Wilde Salome," the unconventional chronicle of a Pacino staging of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," in which Chastain plays the title character. 

More? There's "Texas Killing Fields," a murder drama from Ami Canaan Mann, the daughter of director Michael Mann. And "The Wettest County in the World," a Depression-era crime drama bought by the Weinstein Co. at Cannes.

Jessica Chastain in The DebtBefore those last five movies hit theaters, though, Chastain will show up in "Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden's "The Debt" (right), which opens on Wednesday.

The story follows a trio of Israeli Mossad agents, including Chastain, who track down and capture a Nazi war criminal; it flashes back and forth between the agents' original assignment in the 1960s, and its haunting aftermath 30 years later.

"She's got a whole bunch of movies coming out, which she's quite nervous about," said Madden of Chastain. "She's not nervous about the movies themselves, but the fact that she's suddenly going to be everywhere. The commodification of young actresses is such a desperately difficult thing to negotiate, really, because the female move star is still the biggest and best way to sell publications and other things, I'm afraid."

You've got this deluge of movies on the way. Regardless of when you shot them, you've got to talk about them all at once.
Yeah. I have two films in every festival: two in Deauville, two in Venice and two in Toronto. Plus an international press tour for "The Debt," plus "Take Shelter" press.

And I'd already done a lot of press for "Tree of Life," because of course Terrence Malick doesn't do press. And then I had "The Help" — I did press for that and then went to the premiere the day before I started doing press for "The Debt."

[laughs] It's a good thing I like these movies.

In a way, this whole stretch began at Cannes, which must have been surreal for you. "Take Shelter" won the grand prize in the Critics Week sidebar, and then three days later "The Tree of Life" won the Palme d'Or.
And there was a bidding war for "The Wettest County in the World," which Harvey Weinstein bought! I just can't get my mind around it. It was really my first festival like that, and I had these great characters in these really interesting movies. Of course there's Terrence Malick and Brad Pitt, but there's also this very small film I made for like $100 a day.

Jessica Chastain and Brad PittSo the fact that we take both films and we win the grand prize and the screenwriter's prize at Critics Week for "Take Shelter," and then the Palme d'Or for "Tree of Life," and then there's  a crazy bidding war for "Wettest County," I don’t think there could ever have been a better introduction.

I'm smart enough to know it will never happen again. For some reason all the stars were aligned for that festival for me. But don’t expect this again, Jessica, because then you're going to go crazy.

Did you listen to the people who were talking about how "Tree of Life" could win the Palme d'Or?
I didn’t think there was a chance — and I didn’t even know it was happening. I was having breakfast with one of the producers of "Wettest County" Sunday morning, and my phone kept going off. And I finally picked it up, and there was a text: "Palme d'Or, Tree of Life." I actually started crying in the middle of the restaurant.

You mentioned making "Take Shelter" for $100 a day.
We had no money. We had four six-day weeks for "Take Shelter." And I went straight from the set of "Take Shelter" to "The Help," which was all heart.

As an unknown, how did you sell yourself to Madden?
I knew I really had to fight for it, but I loved the script. I said, "I know you don’t know who I am, but I went to Julliard, I love doing accents, I'll train in martial arts and take a German course, I'll study the Holocaust … "

Jessica Chastain and Helen MirrenAnd I had heard that it was probably going to be Helen Mirren, so I said, " … and I know it's probably going to be Helen Mirren. She's 5-foot-4 and I'm 5-foot-4. And you don’t want a really famous face, because you’ve got to buy that it's a young Helen Mirren. I was really aggressive in that meeting, and a month later I had a screen test.

Is that a "be careful what you wish for" moment, when you find that you and Helen Mirren are playing the same person?
Oh, I was incredibly fearful. She's a goddess. How am I ever going to have .08 percent of the power and the force that she has?

Having said that, she was incredibly generous with me, even though we didn't have any scenes together. We worked on the accent together to make sure we had the same voice, and talked about the back story, what happened with Rachel's family, where is she coming from, why she joined Mossad.

And then some physical gestures. For example, there are sections where the younger Rachel and the older Rachel both answer the question, "What were you thinking at the time?" And her response both times was, "I was thinking of my mother, it helped me get through it."

We decided that when she says it, we would both put our hand over our heart when she says the word mother. It was Helen's idea. She said, "It's like a fake answer that you say over and over again. It’s kind of like when people ask you the same question during press, and you get to the point where it becomes routine, like you stop thinking of it." And because it's a lie, it's absolutely Rachel playing a part.

When you first see it you might think of it as Rachel being spontaneous, but no, this is Rachel playing a role. I don’t know if an audience will even pick up on that, but we tried to pepper the role with little things like that.

You acted with another legend in Al Pacino in "Wilde Salome."
That was my very first film. I got to see how his performance changed, and I also got to take his little lessons. Some things he said to me as a director, I take to every film. Like, "It absolutely has to be real. You have to think the thoughts, you have to believe it's happening."

Wilde Salome

And I know that's true. For theater, it doesn’t have to be real for me. If it's real for you and you're doing theater every day for months, you're going to go crazy. It's why Daniel Day-Lewis ran off the stage when he was doing "Hamlet," I think. You have to use your technique or you'll go insane. But for film, it absolutely has to be real.

Madden was talking about the commodification of young actresses, and how hard it is to avoid it. Are you worried?
Yeah. I always try to stretch myself and do things that I've never done before. I hope I'm going to be the actor that people won't know what to do with. Maybe that means I'll be really bad in some films. And I'm willing to be bad in some films, because the actors that I truly love do things like that.

Do the scripts you're seeing these days tend to be one particular kind of role?
I think people are really confused. For a long time, even right when "Tree of Life" came out, I was getting so many scripts where it was the stand-by-your-man woman. And I was thinking, here we go with the typecasting, it's already started. The great thing is I'm now starting to get scripts where the female characters are incredibly complex.

What's the next step?
I'm going to do a genre film for Guillermo del Toro's company. It's very similar to "The Ring" meets "The Oprhanage." It's a first-time director [Andres Muschietti], and he's expanded a short that he made that I love so much. It's called "Mama," about a woman that starts at the beginning of the script kind of closed off, and she learns throughout the story to kind of be a hero to people.

When I talked Guillermo, he was telling me about the wonderful actress in "The Orphanage," and how it was so difficult for her to keep the level of intensity all the time. So here goes a risk. We'll see if I can do it.

In June I went to the Palm Springs Shorts Festival, where I saw a short film, "The Westerner," that starred your 12-year-old brother Daniel. You Chastains are inescapable this year.
[laughs] Oh, I thought he was so good in that film. He breaks my heart. I asked him afterward, "Do you think this is something you might want to do?" "Nope." "You don’t want to make any more films?" "No, I'm good."