Jessica Chastain, in the new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty."
What's it like to become a movie star?
For Jessica Chastain, who spent eight years as a little-noticed television actress before a magical 2011 culminated in an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Help, the moment came in a nondescript Toronto hotel room as she was winding down after a long day's work that had left her tired, hungry, and even a bit cranky.
Then she checked her messages, and things changed in a hurry.
"I got a message from Kathryn Bigelow on my cell," the 35-year-old actress recalls, "and I was like, ‘Whaaat?'"
Bigelow, who in 2010 had become the first woman to win an Academy Award as Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008), wanted to talk to Chastain about a movie she was making about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The talks went well, and Chastain stars in Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, set for a nationwide launch in January.
"People keep asking me how my life has changed in the last year," Chastain says, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles. "To have that message is one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me. I get dream calls now. That's how my life has changed."
Zero Dark Thirty casts Chastain as a U.S. intelligence analyst obsessed with the quest to find and eliminate the 9/11 mastermind. Chastain already is being touted as a front-runner for another Oscar nomination, but that's one topic that she doesn't want to discuss. When it comes up, she changes the subject, and fast.
"The ensemble was just amazing," the actress says. "But the best part was working with Bigelow. I've always been a fan of hers. I don't want to say that's because she is a woman director — this isn't based on gender. I know, as a woman, I should go on and on about her being a female director and what it all means. But, in my heart, what I want to say is that she's a director who kicks major [tail]."
As for her own performance, Chastain reports that it was no walk in the park. After all, not only is the film based on historical truth, but the events depicted are fresh enough to have been a major topic of discussion in last month's presidential election.
"It was one of my most difficult shoots," she says, "partly because there was a lot of pressure on me. I did feel this great responsibility to the movie we were making and the truth we were telling. This was a defining moment in history. I knew that I was in this film for the long haul, which meant that I had to give it everything inside of me.
"I just hope the effort we put in and the care is seen and felt by audiences."
It's been a busy fall for Chastain, who is currently starring in The Heiress on Broadway and also starred in the film Lawless (2012), a bootlegging drama set in Franklin County, Va., during the Great Depression. She played a big-city showgirl who takes refuse in rural Virginia, where she tends bar and falls in love with a gruff, uncommunicative and legendary, tough bootlegger named Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy).
"I really like that the woman was put in the power position in that relationship," Chastain says. "I play a dancer from Chicago. She has been used. She is also used to being around men who are predatory. Then she meets Tom's character, who is a very powerful, strong man. He says to her, ‘You can live in my house. I'm not going to try to take anything from you.' We really start to see her blossom.
"When she finally goes into his room, late one night, it's probably the first time she has ever decided, ‘This is what I really want.'"
All in all, things are different for Chastain, who only a few years ago was struggling to make a living off of occasional guest shots on such television shows as E.R. (2004), Veronica Mars (2004), Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005-2006), and Journeyman (2007).
"I put money in envelopes marked ‘Rent,' ‘Groceries,' and ‘Laundry,'" she says. "I didn't even own a washer and dryer until two years ago."
Chastain grew up in a suburb in northern California, where her father was a fire fighter and her mother a vegan chef with a food truck. One of five children, she was a dancer as a child but, early on, had her eyes set on acting.
"It's very hard to explain why I wanted to act in the first place," she says. "I feel like, my whole life, I've wanted to do this. Maybe it's because, as a young child, I had a very active imagination. I didn't exactly do well in public schools. I was just always getting bored. I never really found my group."
When her grandmother took her to see a play, she was hooked.
"It was the first time I realized that acting was a profession," Chastain says. "I was 7. It was clear to me that people did this for a living, in the same way they were a fireman or a doctor. I knew at that moment that this is what I'd do for a living. I never had a moment of, ‘I want to be an actor.' It was just, ‘I am an actor.'
"I guess I like a sense of play."
She also saw herself as a future movie star, collecting fashion magazines and swathing herself in imaginary Hollywood glamour.
"I'd walk up and down our carpet in the hallway, pretending it was a red carpet," she says.
After acting in some Bay Area productions of Shakespeare as a teen, Chastain attended Manhattan's prestigious Juilliard School as a drama major. Her big break came when Al Pacino hand-picked her to play the titular seductress in his film Wilde Salome (2011). Later Pacino talked her up to a friend, director Terrence Malick, who cast her opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life (2011). She went on to make The Debt (2010), Take Shelter (2011), and Texas Killing Fields (2011).
Her biggest hit to date, however, has been The Help, in which she played an outsider in the 1960s South, a ditzy housewife who can't cook and is in desperate need of a maid. She and her co-star Octavia Spencer were both nominated for the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, which went to Spencer.
"The funny thing is, everyone always says, ‘I didn't think I'd get nominated,'" Chastain says. "Before I was nominated, people kept saying to me, ‘Oh, gosh, I love your performance in Tree of Life or The Help." Honestly, I thought it would end there. I truly wasn't expecting a nomination. In fact, I was getting really embarrassed when people were saying nice things to me."
She got up early to hear the Oscar nominations announced, Chastain continues, but wasn't expecting to hear her name.
"I was waiting for the moment it didn't happen," she recalls with a laugh. "I was ready to go, ‘Uh-huh. Told you guys. It didn't happen. What do you want to say to me now?"
Since then her career has been in overdrive. Chastain has a slew of upcoming films, including the horror film Mama, due in January. She plays a woman who becomes a surrogate parent to her nieces after they are left alone in a forest for five years. Also due next year are The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers," in which she co-stars with Ciaran Hinds and James McAvoy.
"I'm such a huge fan of cinema," the actress says. "The great thing about the last year is that it really opened doors for me to meet people where I'm the fan. I remember when I met Gary Oldman for the first time, on the red carpet. He actually knew my work. I've respected him for so long. For someone to have just seen my work is such a gift. This whole last year has been such a gift.
"Meryl Streep, what a goddess. I got to meet Cate Blanchett. I'm a big Isabelle Huppert fan. I got to go to Paris and see her in a play, and then have dinner with her. Now, when I'm there, I meet her for dinner. We just worked together (on The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby).
"Every day it's like, ‘Wow, am I dreaming? Is this my life?'"