Ms Scar­let

Jes­sica Chas­tain fights sex­ism in Hol­ly­wood, plays ruth­less se­cret agents and po­lit­i­cal lob­by­ists and wins end­less award nom­i­na­tions. So why does talk­ing about her granny make her cry? El­iz­a­beth Day finds out

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CHARMED LIFE - Photographs by Tom Craig. Styling by So­phie War­bur­ton

‘If I see be­hav­iour that is un­just, I will absolutely say some­thing’

Jes­sica chas­tain still has a key ring she was given by her high-school boyfriend in sacra­mento, cal­i­for­nia. he bought it at the Ore­gon shake­speare Fes­ti­val. in­scribed on it were the words, ‘look­ing for­ward to work­ing with you here’.

‘that was my dream,’ chas­tain re­calls with a smile. ‘i was like, “Oh my God, i hope some day i get cast in t heir com­pany.’’’ she pauses. ‘so where i am now is re­ally kind of beyond.’

and where ex­actly is she now? sit­ting in an arm­chair in clar­idge’s ho­tel in lon­don, at the top of her pro­fes­sional game, with two Os­car nom­i­na­tions al­ready un­der her belt and a new film to pro­mote. in two weeks, chas­tain stars in Miss Sloane, in which she plays a hard-nosed Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ist who takes on the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. her per­for­mance has al­ready been hailed as ‘riv­et­ing’ and ‘tough, driven and un­com­pro­mis­ing’.

in per­son, chas­tain is sof ter, a nd pulls t he sleeves of her jumper over her hands as she talks. her legs are folded neatly un­der­neath her. she is wear­ing flat pumps and drink­ing tea.

half an hour be­fore, in a suite a few f loors be­low, i had watched her dressed up in de­signer clothes, full make-up and a floppy-brimmed hat as she posed for photographs: tilt­ing her face this way and that to catch the light, arch­ing her back to make in­ter­est­ing shapes against the win­dow. there was a fo­cus to the way she did it. no eye con­tact with any­one other than the photographer. a quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion to get it done as ef­fi­ciently and as well as pos­si­ble. she pos­sessed that clear in­ter­nal sense of what looked best, of how to move her own body, of what clothes would work.

the right wardrobe, chas­tain says, can be ‘an out­fit for bat­tle’. On set, it helps her get into character. as eliz­a­bet h sloa ne, t he prot ag­o­nist in John Mad­den’s new film, she wears power suits and high heels. chas­tain met with 11 fe­male lob­by­ists be­fore film­ing. seven of them wore ‘blackg reen or black-brown or black-red nail pol­ish’, she says. ‘Black is a colour that shows streng th; it’s a colour that shows power. it’s not very fem­i­nine, it doesn’t show v ul­ner­a­bil­ity, but you’re still polished, ready for work.’

Miss sloane has black nails. to­day, chas­tain’s are nude. she is a warm and in­ter­est­ing per­son to in­ter­view, partly be­cause you get the sense she takes noth­ing for granted. al­though she re­fuses to say ex­actly how old she is (‘i never talk about my age. hon­estly, in male pro­files, they never talk about the age. and i feel that the me­dia needs to treat women the same as they treat men, and not per­pet­u­ate the prob­lem’), it’s a mat­ter of record that she only be­came fa­mous in her mid-30s.

in 2011, af­ter years as a job­bing ac­tress in tele­vi­sion shows, small films and reg ional theatre, chas­tain broke through in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion. she had si x mov ie re­lea se s over 1 2 mont hs, in­clud­ing Take Shel­ter (directed by Jeff ni­chols), t he Ralph Fi­ennes adapt at ion of Co­ri­olanu s, ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Tree of Life, which won the

Palme d’or at Cannes, and her big­gest com­mer­cial hit of the year, The Help, in which Chas­tain star red as a wannabe so­cialite who be­comes friends with her black maid in seg­re­gated 1960s Mis­sis­sippi. It won her a best sup­port­ing ac­tress nom­i­na­tion at the Os­cars.

Chas­tain ap­peared to come out of nowhere – a fully formed ac­tress ca­pable of play­ing any­thing from Shake­speare to box-of­fice cat­nip. In fact, she had grad­u­ated from the pres­ti­gious Juil­liard School in New York in 2003, and was only just get­ting started: a role as an agent on the trail of Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark

Thirty in 2012 earned her a best-ac­tress nod. Chas­tain then turned her hand to al­most ev­ery cine­matic genre you can think of: science fic­tion ( In­ter­stel­lar), high gothic( Crim­son Peak ), gang­ster( A Most Vi­o­lent Year) and big-bud­get fran­chise( The Hunts­man: Win­ter’ s War ). Her ver­sa­til­ity has won her wide ac claim. The film critic Roger Ebert once com­pared her to Meryl Streep: ‘Who else has such a range and abil­ity to con­vince?’ he wrote.

It’s all a long way from the Ore­gon Shake­speare Fes­ti­val, and her per­for­mance in Miss Sloane is a tour de force. Chas­tain is barely off-screen for 132 min­utes. The di­a­logue is so rapid-fire it should come with a semi-au­to­matic weapons li­cence.

Un­usu­ally for a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, we a re given al­most no back story to ex­plain Sloane’ s ag­gres­sive and fre­quently un­like­able de­meanour. When Sloane de­cides to cam­paign for a bill in­tro­duc­ing greater con­trols for gun own­ers, she takes on the pow­er­ful gun lobby and chal­lenges one of the found­ing prin­ci­ples of the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion.

Sloane ploughs on re­gard­less, re­fus­ing to ex­plain her mo­tives. She is por­trayed as a per­son who loves to win – at any cost. It’s like Rag­ing

Bull but with lob­by­ing in­stead of box­ing, and a wo­man throw­ing the punches in­stead of a man.

It’s dif­fi­cult to over­state how re­fresh­ing this is to watch. Hol­ly­wood has got bet­ter of late at in­tro­duc­ing com­pli­cated, mul­ti­di­men­sional fe­male parts, but there is still a ten­dency in some quar­ters to por­tray women as the Ly­cra-clad ad­junct to a male comic-book ac­tion fig­ure. ‘When I was start­ing out and au­di­tion­ing I would read things [in scripts] like, “Re­becca, blonde, the girl next door,’’’ says Chas­tain. She ges­tures at her own auburn hair. ‘You’d never see a red­head! Women were in two cat­e­gories: the brunette or the blonde.’

Miss Sloane was a wel­come an­ti­dote. ‘I saw it as a study of ad­dic­tion,’ Chas­tain ex­plains. ‘I find that most peo­ple suf­fer­ing from ad­dic­tion are try­ing to fill this empti­ness that they have in­side. Peo­ple do it with drugs, they do it with food, they do it with sex. I think El­iz­a­beth Sloane does it with win­ning – the high that she gets from the win, you know? It’s like the hunt, the kill, that high she gets. In our in­dus­try, we are not [typ­i­cally] pre­sented with fe­male char­ac­ters that are al­lowed to show am­bi­tion.’

She thinks women in gen­eral suf­fer from the curse of per­fec­tion­ism, and cites some re­search re­cently con­ducted in the States, which found

that g irls sit­ting maths ex­ams at school would refuse to an­swer a question if they feared they might get it wrong. The boys had no such qualms and of­ten scored higher for at­tempt­ing to solve the prob­lem, even if the an­swer was in­cor­rect. ‘We talk our­selves out [of it],’ Chas­tain says.

In the early days of her ca­reer, she of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ism. There is one par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dent that sticks in her mind: ‘I won’t say who, but I’ve been on a movie where some­one ver y im­por­tant… I had been walk­ing down the hall and they kind of spanked me on the butt. And I did turn around and say, “Did you just spank me?” I was re­ally upset about it. But in t heir mind it was com­pletely nor­mal. It was fine be­hav­iour.

‘I think stuff like that hap­pens all the time. P rob­a­bly now it would never hap­pen to me be­cause I’m re­ally… I’m not a shrinking vi­o­let. If I see be­hav­iour against me, or against any­one, that is un­just, then I will absolutely say some­thing.’

She meet s my eye. I bel ieve her. There’s strength in that smile.

It comes as no sur­prise to learn that Chas­tain has al­ways been sur­rounded by strong women. Her mother, Jerri, a ve­gan chef, was a teenager when she had her. Her bi­olog ical fa­ther was a rock mu­si­cian who fell out of her life when she was a child. Chas­tain, her younger sis­ter, Juliet, a nd her half-brot her, Will (she has t wo ot her half-sib­lings through her fa­ther) were raised in

‘Some­one very im­por­tant kind of spanked me on the butt. I turned and said, “Did you just spank me?”’

Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia, by Jerri and her sub­se­quent hus­band, Michael Hastey, a fire­man. It was not an easy ride: Juliet com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2003 af­ter strug­gles with de­pres­sion and drug abuse, some­thing Chas­tain un­der­stand­ably chooses not to dis­cuss.

But pos­si­bly the most for­ma­tive in­flu­ence in Chas­tain’s young life was her g rand­mother on her mother’s side, Mar­i­lyn.

‘She al­ways seemed so glamorous to me,’ says Chas­tain. ‘I loved the way she smelt. She had this per­fume that she had made for her. I would go into her dresser and smell her clothes.’

Mar­i­lyn was also a red­head and had grown up in Kansas be­fore get­ting mar­ried to her high­school boyf r iend at 18. She never en­joyed t he op­por­tu­ni­ties her grand­daugh­ter had, sim­ply by dint of when and where she was born. In other cir­cum­stances, says Chas­tain, ‘She would have been an amaz­ing ac­tress, prob­a­bly.’

When Chas­tain was hav­ing a tough time fit­ting in at school (she was teased for her freck­les, had a brief spell as a goth and used to play tru­ant to read Shake­speare), it was her g rand­mother who brought her out of her­self.

‘She was al­ways the one who was try­ing to find in­spi­ra­tion in me, what would make me happy. I re­mem­ber one year, for Christ­mas, she bought me a blue leo­tard and blue tutu and bal­let lessons. And then she took me to a play, my first. It was a lo­cal pro­duc­tion of Joseph and the Amaz­ing

The Help, 2011

A wannabe so­cialite in seg­re­gated 1960s Mis­sis­sippi, Chas­tain’s character, Celia, be­friends her maid, played by Oc­tavia Spencer (above). She won her first Os­car nom­i­na­tion for the per­for­mance

The Tree of Life, 2011

Ter­rence Mal­ick’s med­i­ta­tion on child­hood mem­o­ries, set in 1950s Texas, sees Chas­tain part­nered with Brad Pitt

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012

In Kathryn Bigelow’s story of the hunt for bin Laden, Chas­tain was Os­car nom­i­nated for her por­trayal of a ruth­less US in­tel­li­gence agent

Miss Sloane, 2017

In her new movie, Chas­tain plays Wash­ing­ton dc’s most for­mi­da­ble and de­ter­mined lob­by­ist

Jes­sica Chas­tain pho­tographed at Clar­idge’s in Lon­don, wear­ing: jumper, £550, Mother of Pearl, from saks­fifthav­;

Above Dress, £1,395, Rok­sanda (020 7613 6499). Hair Leigh Keates at Pre­mier Hair and Makeup. Make-up Mary Green­well at Pre­mier Hair and Makeup. Stylist’s as­sis­tant Rosie Boy­dell

Shot on lo­ca­tion at Clar­idge’s, Lon­don (clar­ Tom Craig at CLM UK

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