Box seat … Jessica Chastain studied acting on a scholarship from Robin Williams.Leading the way to the Los Angeles hotel suite where Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain is waiting to be interviewed, a studio publicist whispers nervously to me: ”And just a reminder – no personal questions.”
This seems strange because, first, Chastain is 35 and has led such a sheltered life a Google search doesn’t reveal a single reported love interest. And second, she’s extremely close to her parents and four siblings, none of whom seem to have been arrested or sent to rehab or done anything untoward. So what’s she avoiding?
It seems to be nothing. ”I’m just naturally shy,” Chastain says, looking mortified at the suggestion she might be a control freak. ”I really made an effort to not put myself in situations where my private life becomes more interesting than my work. I’m not interested in being written about for dancing on a table in a nightclub.”
Chastain is wearing an elegant blue short-sleeved dress but says apologetically: ”I have no idea who designed it.” She’s wearing barely any make-up and no jewellery, and her wiry, flamed locks are in a ponytail.
”My granny and I are the only redheads in the family,” she says with pride. She didn’t always feel that way. ”When I was in school, my classmates were so mean about it, I had a hard time feeling like I belonged. I still don’t really feel equal, and I don’t know why that is.”
The poised actress and Oscar-nominations frontrunner might struggle with acceptance, but it’s clearly one-sided. After two years of high-profile roles and back-to-back Academy nominations, Chastain has become – as she told Vanity Fair last year – ”the unknown everyone is already sick of”.
But as she acknowledged when accepting her Golden Globe award last month, it hasn’t come easy. ”I’ve worked for a really long time,” she said from the stage, choking with emotion. ”I’ve auditioned and struggled and fought and been on the sidelines for years, so to be here now in this moment is a beautiful feeling.”
Growing up in northern California, Chastain says she fell in love with acting as a young girl after her grandmother took her to a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
”I knew when she said this was a job that it was going to be my job,” she says.
”My parents [her father a fireman, mother a vegan chef] were always really supportive, and when I told them I was auditioning for Juilliard [acting school], they let me borrow the car to drive to San Francisco. But when I told them it went well, I saw them thinking, ‘How expensive is this going to be?”’
Thanks to a scholarship funded by alumnus Robin Williams, Chastain graduated with a bachelor of fine arts.
”I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college, thanks to his generosity,” Chastain says.
She has never met Williams and isn’t sure he knows about their connection. ”Sometimes I’ll be on a talk show and someone will bring it up and I’ll think, ‘Please don’t trick me by bringing him on stage,’ because I’m a very emotional person and I’m afraid if Robin showed up in front of a group of people I’d just cry and embarrass myself.”
After starting out on television shows such as ER, Veronica Mars and Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Chastain had a breakthrough film role in the 2008 drama Jolene and followed this with a string of career-changing roles: playing a younger version of Helen Mirren in the 2010 thriller The Debt, taking the title role in Wilde Salome, directed by Al Pacino, and as the wife of Brad Pitt’s character in the Terrence Malick epic The Tree of Life (2011). That year she appeared in four films: Coriolanus, Texas Killing Fields, Take Shelter and The Help, which led to her first Oscar nomination, for playing an ostracised white-trash housewife, Celia Foote.
Shortly afterwards, Chastain was approached by the director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) to play the lead role in the Oscar-nominated drama Zero Dark Thirty. She plays Maya, a young CIA officer recruited from high school whose job is finding terrorists. Working out of the US embassy in Pakistan, Maya devotes almost a decade to finding terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, sifting through reams of intelligence reports, interrogating detainees and witnessing the torture that reportedly crossed human-rights lines but helped track him down.
The film has attracted plenty of controversy over its depiction of torture, prompting a US Senate investigation into whether the CIA leaked classified documents to the filmmakers.
But Chastain’s experience of making the film on location in Jordan and India was a different kind of ordeal. ”A lot of the torture scenes were filmed at a prison in Jordan and it wasn’t a comfortable place to be,” she says.
”You would normally get driven to the front and then have to walk past all the guards to get to the entrance, where they search you and take away your phone, but there was this one day where they wouldn’t let my driver go any further to drop me off. My driver got into a heated discussion with the guards in their own language, and then he turned and said to me, ‘Sorry Jessica, they’re going to make you walk.’ So you constantly felt on edge.”
The sought-after star – who recently made her Broadway debut opposite Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens in the Tony-winning play The Heiress- smiles as she describes how she and her director bonded during the gruelling shoot.
”I’m a very happy, joyful person, so this story and this woman are very different from me,” says the strict vegan, who is devoted to her three-legged rescue dog, Chaplin. ”Kathryn sensed that and knew I loved animals, so we would send each other videos of dogs being rescued to watch when we got home at night.
”That was the beautiful thing about Kathryn – she’s fiercely intelligent and strong, but in the middle of filming something so difficult, she never lost her sense of humanity.”
Jessica Chastain laughs at the suggestion she is a magnet for Australians and has legions of fans Down Under.
But she is proud to rattle off the impressive number of Australian actors she has worked with in recent years – Sam Worthington in The Debt; Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce and director John Hillcoat in Lawless; and Joel and Nash Edgerton, Callan Mulvey and Jason Clarke in Zero Dark Thirty.
”It was my third film with Jason,” Chastain says. They also had roles together in Texas Killing Fields and Lawless.
”We met when I first moved to Los Angeles, at the premiere of his TV series Brotherhood, so we were all just starting out back then, and suddenly we were on the set of this amazing movie, saying, ‘What’s happened to our lives – this is amazing.’
”The Aussie boys really took care of me on the shoot, too,” she says.
”I would go to restaurants in Jordan with Jason and Joel and Nash, and [waiters would] give us three menus as if I wasn’t even there because I was a woman, so they would insist on a menu for me and were very protective, which felt really nice.”
Zero Dark Thirty is out now.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.