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
‘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 saksfifthavenue.com;
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 (claridges.co.uk). Tom Craig at CLM UK