JES­SICA CHAS­TAIN

TAKES TIFF BY STORM

NOW Magazine - TIFF - - FRONT PAGE - By NOR­MAN WIL­NER normw@now­toronto.com

If it feels like you’re see­ing Jes­sica Chas­tain all over the place… well, you are.

Vaulted onto the global stage at Cannes in Ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Tree Of Life, where she em­bod­ied grace and love as the ethe­real mother of Mal­ick’s young pro­tag­o­nist, Chas­tain sub­se­quently turned up as the so­cially hap­less Celia Foote in sur­prise sum­mer smash The Help, and just re­cently as the younger ver­sion of He­len Mir­ren’s Is­raeli spy char­ac­ter in the thriller The Debt. Sud­denly she’s ev­ery­where. Lit­er­ally. “Get a load of this sched­ule,” she says from an air­port lounge at LAX. “I do press in Paris for The Help, and then I go to Venice for Wilde Salome, and then I go to New York for Take Shel­ter, and then I come to Toronto.”

Chas­tain’s com­ing to the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val with the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller Take Shel­ter and the Shake­speare adap­ta­tion Co­ri­olanus, two very dif­fer­ent fea­tures that should ce­ment her sta­tus as one of the most ver­sa­tile and in­ter­est­ing Amer­i­can ac­tors of her gen­er­a­tion.

Her role in Jeff Ni­chols’s Take Shel­ter ini­tially seems fairly straight­for­ward: as the con­cerned wife of Michael Shan­non’s fam­ily man, she spends most of her screen time wor­ry­ing about her hus­band, who’s ex­pe­ri­enc­ing re­cur­ring apoc­a­lyp­tic night­mares and spend­ing far too much time re­in­forc­ing the storm shel­ter in their backyard.

“Peo­ple have asked me what parts have been harder – The Help, The Debt, Take Shel­ter,” she says. “And for me, Take Shel­ter was very, very dif­fi­cult. We didn’t shoot in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, and I have to be so aware of what has hap­pened the mo­ment be­fore. Most of the time, with my char­ac­ter, the sub­text is ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I have to have dif­fer­ent grades of what that means. It had to be so sub­tle, and Jeff and Mike both re­ally helped me.

“Be­fore we shot a scene, I would pull out my bind- er and look at ex­actly what had hap­pened be­fore – even if we hadn’t shot it – and we’d all talk through it so I could have it in my head.”

As Shan­non’s per­for­mance grows big­ger and more manic, Chas­tain be­comes stronger and more res­o­lute, ground­ing the story in psy­cho­log­i­cal re­al­ity. To bor­row the old line about Fred As­taire and Ginger Rogers, Chas­tain does ev­ery­thing that Shan­non does, only back­wards and in heels.

“It’s funny that you’d say that,” she says. “I al­ways try to work with ac­tors who are bet­ter than me, be­cause they make me bet­ter, and he’s like that; I re­ally had to keep on my toes. Be­ing in a scene with him, it’s a wild ex­pe­ri­ence. Ev­ery mo­ment with Mike is dif­fer­ent, and he’s so in­tense – he has this great power and strength – and at the same time he has a deep well of vul­ner­a­bil­ity that is so beau­ti­ful.”

We should be dis­cussing her per­for­mance, but Chas­tain is so fond of Shan­non – and so clearly in awe of him – that she keeps steer­ing the con­ver­sa­tion back to his work.

“He’s just not self-con­scious,” she says. “A lot of ac­tors are – you can see it some­times, when they’re a lit­tle bit in­tim­i­dated. He’s just free. He’s free in his body, he’s free in his voice. He’ll do any­thing – he doesn’t get em-

bar­rassed. And to watch some­one have that mo­ment in front of a hun­dred strangers – be so ex­posed and so free to it – was a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It inspires me to be more like that.”

Many ac­tors who come up through the Hol­ly­wood sys­tem have a mo­ment when they stop let­ting other peo­ple steer their ca­reers and start chas­ing projects they care about.

Work­ing with Mal­ick gave Chas­tain in­stant le­git­i­macy, putting her on the radar of ma­jor film­mak­ers. She’s made the most of that op­por­tu­nity, pur­su­ing work that of­fers the chance to grow and ex­pand rather than en­hance her star sta­tus. She took the role of Vir­gilia in Ralph Fi­ennes’s mod­ern-day adap­ta­tion of Co­ri­olanus just to be part of the cast.

“I went to Juil­liard and stud­ied Shake­speare for four years,” she says. “I re­ally missed do­ing Shake­speare and the clas­sics. So when I had the op­por­tu­nity to sit down with Ralph and he told me Vanessa Red­grave would be play­ing Vo­lum­nia? Okay, this is a sit­u­a­tion where I’m go­ing to be in a room with Vanessa Red­grave and Ralph Fi­ennes watch­ing them do Shake­speare. The learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble.

“To know that I was go­ing to watch Vanessa Red­grave ev­ery sin­gle day.... I was go­ing to watch her re­hearse, do her scenes. And in 30 years I’ll be able to tell peo­ple I did Shake­speare with Vanessa Red­grave. That, to me, is be­yond any­thing.”

Not that she’s averse to be­ing in some­thing pop­u­lar, of course. More peo­ple will see Chas­tain in The Help than in all her other movies to date – though she doesn’t think it’ll do all that much for her.

“Peo­ple are gonna be so dis­ap­pointed when they see me in real life,” she says. “They’re gonna think I’m this volup­tuous, gor­geous blond bomb­shell, and they’ll see me and be like, ‘Oh, you’re noth­ing like we wanted you to be!’

“That started hap­pen­ing on the set,” she laughs. “All the men, all the crew would look at me – I’m not used to be­ing looked at, I’m not a bomb­shell – and at the end of the day I’d take my wig off, take the makeup off, put on my cut­offs, put on my T-shirt and walk out of the trailer. The look of dis­ap­point­ment on ev­ery man’s face when they re­al­ized I wasn’t Celia Foote was quite sober­ing.”

We’ll be see­ing a lot more of the real Chas­tain in the months to come. In ad­di­tion to star­ring in Al Pa­cino’s Wilde Salome, a meta-tex­tual ex­am­i­na­tion of Os­car Wilde’s play, she’ll be re­united on screen with her Debt co-star, Sam Wor­thing­ton, in the thriller Texas Killing Fields.

She’ll have so many movies go­ing, you’ll think you see her in line at Tim Hor­tons. That might ac­tu­ally be the case; she’ll be in Toronto shoot­ing Mama this fall for ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Guillermo del Toro.

“When I come to the fes­ti­val, I’ll have like a week to get to know Toronto,” she says. “Then I’m back at the end of Septem­ber un­til De­cem­ber.”

De­tails are scarce about the pro­ject, and Chas­tain’s keep­ing mum. “All I can tell you is that it has very sim­i­lar el­e­ments to The Ring and The Or­phan­age. I play a char­ac­ter un­like any­one I’ve ever played. She’s a bit of a punk, and she’s the guardian of two girls. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

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