Brad on speed dial, Pacino’s “inspiration” and Mirren’s younger self; Jessica Chastain is about to have a serious moment. Stylist meets the girl carrying the weight of those onerous words: Next. Big. Thing.
You may not have heard of Jessica Chastain, the alabaster-skinned, flame-haired actress that Hollywood is currently worshipping: but you soon will. Feted as the next Meryl Streep, in recent years Jessica has worked back-to-back on seven movies. And, thanks to legal issues or post-production delays, they are all – bar Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree Of Life with Brad Pitt, which was released in July – hitting cinema screens in the next couple of months.
Word is, from Ralph Fiennes’ war epic Coriolanus to festival favourite Take Shelter, she gives film-stealing performances in every one. We’ve been here before. Hollywood loves a ‘next big thing’, but more often than not, after marketing the starlet to within an inch of her career, she no longer has ‘it’ and is relegated to lucrative but lousy TV movies. Remember the hype around Sean Young in the Eighties and Thora Birch in the Nineties?
But Jessica feels different. For one, she takes bold risks. Whether she’s mastering the Israeli fighting system Krav Maga to play a Mossad agent in The Debt, or gaining 15lbs to achieve the requisite curves for a blonde bombshell in The Help (as a vegan, she drank pints of microwaved soy ice-cream), she completely immerses herself in a role. It seems she could be the actress of her generation. Yet, perversely, she doesn’t want anyone to know it.
Because, while as a performer she is brave, in person the 30 year old is in a cold sweat. Not that she’s not confident in her abilities – she’d like to emulate Winslet, or Blanchett, and yes, admires Streep – but she does not relish the prospect of paparazzi on her doorstep.
"I’m not a secret anymore. I’m now going to be forced down your throats. It gives me anxiety to be honest"
“I find it scary,” she confides, when we meet in the bar of the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. “The first time I met Brad Pitt, he was a normal guy on his motorcycle, but he immediately spotted a man hiding with a camera. I felt this sense of fear. I was so unaware people were watching.”
Perhaps to remain incognito she suggests Stylist comes up to her suite for this interview, where we’ll be more comfortable. In the slow-ascending lift, what could have been an awkward silence is filled with chatter about her dress (it’s a cream lace Collette Dinnigan), and her Jimmy Choo heels. “I wish I could keep them!” she smiles, charmingly. But this is her borrowed plumage for a day promoting The Debt, in which, as a young spy sent into 1966 East Berlin to kidnap the surgeon of Birkenau and bring him to justice, she will at once break your heart, and make you fear your gynaecologist like never before.
When we settle on her elegant chaise I can’t help but feel this burgeoning movie star has stepped out of another era with her classic looks reminiscent of golden-age Hollywood. In fact, she is California-born and studied at Juilliard, New York’s prestigious performing arts school. Stage credits include a role opposite Al Pacino in Wilde Salomé (which has since been made into a film), in which she stripped naked every night. Her film debut as a nubile orphan on a journey of discovery and sexual awakening in Jolene won her Best Actress at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2008.
When we tell her this could be the first of many statues, she almost puts a finger to her lips, saying conspiratorially, “They talk about a curse with awards. Sometimes people win then bad things happen. I just want to act. And I don’t want anything bad to happen to me”. Like an Oscar, maybe? There. We said it.
"They talk about a curse with awards. I just want to act. And I don’t want anything bad to happen to me"
How does it feel to be called “Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret”?
I’m not a secret anymore. I’m now going to be forced down your throats. It gives me anxiety to be honest, because so many nice things are being said; I’m going to drive myself crazy if I try to keep up with that. I want to tell people, “I will disappoint you at some point.” Everyone is in a bad film. Everyone will give a bad performance. I want to allow myself the freedom to take risks.
As a Mossad agent in The Debt, your fight scenes are pretty convincing.
I trained for months. I had no idea how to throw a punch; I’d never been in a fight in my life. But considering I’m a pacifist, I enjoyed it. Krav Maga is how to kill your opponent in the least time possible. It’s ruthless and made me feel badass. I’d say to my friend, “Come at me!” I’d take her down and pin her and she’d say, “OK, enough. I’m excited for you to finish this movie!”
You’re so committed. Did you always want to be an actress?
As a little girl, playing games, I would absolutely believe I was a princess. If we were pretending there was a monster in the closet, I would be terrified. When I realised there was a job where you could play all day and get paid for it, I said, “That’s my job”. I am OK doing off-Broadway for $400 a week, because it’s about doing what I love.
There isn’t a lot of security in becoming an actress. Do your friends and family support you?
I love my family, but they don’t understand what it is to be an actor, so an important relationship is with my best friend, a fantastic actress: Jessica Weixler. We were roommates at Julliard and now we live 10 blocks from each other. I make an effort because whenever I am having a hard time, I always get a text from her. She is a life saver.
"For me, fashion is incredibly emotional. I go to shows in Paris and try not to cry"
Is there any rivalry between you?
Jess and I have been friends for over 10 years. I would never do anything that would get in the way of her getting a part. No-one is going to pit us against each other.
Which actresses have you been inspired by?
The great French actress Isabelle Huppert has been able to do out-there roles, and is also a mother and wife. Women inspire me who juggle many things, who continue to be creative and also have a personal life. I definitely want a family, because how do you play normal people if you don’t have a normal life?
Your co-star in The Help, Emma Stone, is also on the cusp of stardom.
I feel she is galaxies beyond me. She’s so wonderful and accessible. I see myself as having a different career path. I could be in denial but I don’t think I’ll ever have to deal with the media craziness that Brad and Angelina do, because Brad is such a handsome movie star and Angelina Jolie is one of the most beautiful women in the world; it’s the perfect storm for attention. I don’t see that’s where I’m headed.
You have an unusual look. Has that worked against you in the past?
It has. I am not the typical ‘babe’. When you first come to LA, that’s all they want, they try to put you in a box, “This is what she does, that’s all she can do.” I love to disappear into roles and play different characters. And I think I’m getting great films now because I’m not conventionally beautiful.
"I definitely want a family, because how do you play normal people if you don’t have a normal life?"
It seems modern lead women aren’t as defined by their looks. Take Christina Hendricks and Mila Kunis…
I love that people don’t all look the same. Those two are stunning. And us redheads are taking over!
Your recent red-carpet choices seem to suggest a fascination with fashion.
For me, fashion is incredibly emotional. I go to shows in Paris and try not to cry. Fashion is an expression of, “This is how I am feeling today.” I am at this beautiful time in my life where, for Cannes, I told my stylist Elizabeth Stewart, “I want to wear sunshine,” and Zac Posen made me a dress that looks just like sunshine.
What do you do in your free time?
I live in Venice Beach, so I walk the dogs, I play the ukulele, I cook. I’m not a girl who goes to big parties – I’m shy.
If you are shy, how did you handle stripping in Wilde Salomé?
I do things that terrify me when acting: it fuels the fire. With Salomé, I was so scared. I had to do the dance of the seven veils, culminating with nudity. That’s terrifying, but it forced me to jump off that cliff. If I look fear in the face, and go through it, I’ve done my job.
Looks like you’ll have to not let a fear of fame hinder you now…
I just want to keep pushing myself, and working with amazing directors on great roles. Those are the most important things.
The Debt is in cinemas from 30 September