Revisiting Jessica Chastain’s breakout year

TIFF 2021's just-announced Tribute Award honouree was a natural choice for NOW's festival cover 10 years ago


We can agonize over choosing NOW’s TIFF cover. Some years, we’ve gone back and forth over potential candidates until the very last second; some years all of our careful planning collapses and we’re forced to scramble for a story. And after the panic of the 2010 process, which shredded everyone’s nerves until we wound up with our delightful Emma Stone cover, we wanted 2011 to go as smoothly as possible.

And I knew we’d be fine, because we had Jessica Chastain.

Chastain, who’d broken out in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life the previous year, was coming to TIFF with two highly anticipated projects: Jeff Nichols’s apocalyptic psychological study Take Shelter, in which she co-starred opposite Michael Shannon, and Ralph Fiennes’s adrenalized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in which she had a smaller but still potent role as the antihero’s wife, Virgilia. She was also starring in the August sleeper hit The Help (alongside Stone, as it turned out), in a comic-relief role that would land Chastain her first Oscar nomination.

I’d seen Take Shelter, and was impressed with the way Chastain matched Shannon’s full-bore panic with increasingly fraying compassion; her performance makes sense of his. And I knew she’d be able to talk about how she does what she does, no matter how subtle or ephemeral, because I’d interviewed her when The Tree Of Life opened and knew she was a major talent.

Technically I’d interviewed her twice for that movie, since our scheduled sit-down was preceded by an on-stage conversation after the preview screening, and that’s a story in itself. 

I’d been asked on my way into the screening if I’d be able to step in and do the Q&A with Chastain if needed. The scheduled host hadn’t shown up yet, and the publicists wanted to make sure they had a back-up plan. They’d let me know before the movie started, so I could prepare, but when the lights went down and no one appeared, I figured they wouldn’t need me.

So I watched The Tree Of Life, and was dazzled and awed and shattered by Malick’s exquisite meditation on life, the universe and everything, and stunned by Chastain’s ethereal performance as a version of the filmmaker’s mother. And then, as the credits rolled and I tried to pull myself together from this unexpectedly moving experience, the lights came up – and I was called to the stage to do that Q&A.

If you were there that night, you know it was a little messy. (Okay, I was a mess.) But Chastain, despite having to make her way to the stage on crutches with a torn ACL (“motocrossing,” she explained), was a total pro, discussing the process of making the film while deftly avoiding any discussion of her famously private director’s personal life or philosophy, no matter how many times the audience asked. 

Instead, she talked about spending two weeks in a kitchen with Brad Pitt, shooting the film’s most powerful scene. She talked about working with Al Pacino on a Salome project that had yet to be released. She talked about wanting to play Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which she’d do three years later opposite Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton in a film directed by Liv Ullmann. (She’d been working in movies and television for a decade since graduating from Juilliard – you can find her in a first-season episode of Veronica Mars – but The Tree Of Life marked her arrival.)

So when it came time to pitch the 2011 TIFF cover, there was never any doubt in my mind: Jessica Chastain was going to be a major star after that festival. Hell, it was already happening. 

Original photo by Fabrizio Maltese/Corbis Online

Two years later she was back with Ned Benson’s The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, a story of a couple coming apart after a tragedy which was one of the best American films of the last decade – in its original two-part, three-hour version, anyway, before Harvey Weinstein demanded it be recut into a two-hour shadow of itself. At least she and co-star James McAvoy gave the performances of their careers in that film; trust me, if you’ve only seen them together in the hollow studio projects X-Men: Dark Phoenix and It Chapter Two, you have no idea what they can do.

I don’t begrudge Chastain the studio stuff; she tries to make it interesting, and if appearing in movies like Interstellar, The Martian and The Huntsman: Winter’s War help her get smaller projects like Woman Walks Ahead and The Zookeeper’s Wife off the ground, more power to her. And it never hurts to have Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott in one’s corner. (We shall not speak of Xavier Dolan, who cut Chastain out of The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan entirely.)

Chastain’s coming back to TIFF this year with Michael Showalter’s seriocomic The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, in which she plays evangelist and cultural icon Tammy Faye Bakker (opposite Andrew Garfield as Tammy’s husband Jim), and as this year’s TIFF Tribute Award honouree… which I’m hoping also means the festival will have her new HBO adaptation of Scenes From A Marriage, which reunites her with Oscar Isaac – her co-star in the underappreciated A Most Violent Year – for a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s devastating domestic study. 

A TIFF with two Chastain projects is a very good TIFF, you see. We proved that 10 years ago.

Below is my TIFF cover story, Jessica Chastain: The Help Star Continues her Breakout Year With Two Big Fest Films, republished from NOW’s September 8, 2011 issue.


Original photo by Fabrizio Maltese/Corbis Online

The Next Big Thing: The star of current box office hits The Help and The Debt, “It Girl” Jessica Chastain wows in two big films

By Norman Wilner

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 binder 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 embarrassed. 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’s Salome, a meta-textual examination of Oscar Wilde’s play, she’ll be reunited on screen with her Debt co-star, Wam 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.”

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

@normwilner

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