Wonderland shot Jessica Chastains before she was nabbing Oscar noms and racking up style plaudits, just as her star was on the rise.

Jessica Chastain for Wonderland (Image: Danielle Levitt)

This interview was published in Issue 27 of Wonderland, Sept/Oct 2011.

You know what it’s like with movie stars: no new films for months, then eight come along together. At least that’s how it is for Jessica Chastain, who’s following the London bus theory with her releases; first keep them waiting, then flood the streets.

The 30-year-old redhead, whose captivating looks have been described as “ethereal” just about as often as “pre-Raphaelite”, has a film career you wouldn’t believe if it were a movie itself. This Julliard grad has been busy transitioning from the theatre to movies, landing unbelievable roles in a host of diverse, interesting and award-winning projects… with barely anyone having seen them.

At the time of our interview, only Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – in which Brad Pitt played her husband and Sean Penn her son – has seen the light of day, but among those waiting in the wings are Wilde Salome, in which her director and co-star is Al Pacino; The Wettest County in the World, opposite Shia LaBouf and Tom Hardy; Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus, also starring Vanessa Redgrave; The Texas Killing Fields, where she’ll be seen alongside Avatar’s Sam Worthington; The Debt with Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson; plus the closest thing to a potential blockbuster in The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, all of which will hit cinemas over the next year. Which raises one question: what’s with the hold-up?

“I think what led to it is I tend to respond to material that is perhaps more difficult to put together,” she says from her home in Venice, California. ”Either it’s because it’s from classical literature like Wilde Salome and Coriolanus, or from an auteur like Terence Malick, so the subject matter tends to be off. It’s not like mainstream movies.”

Most unusual in a sea of fame-hungry performers, Jessica shuns the spotlight, believing the more famous you are, the more difficult it is to be an actor, anonymity the key to creating a believable character.

“Fame isn’t why I became an actor,” she says, believably. “I became an actor because I thrive on the connections I make with people on set. There’s something that happens when I’m acting in a scene with someone else that’s so intimate. It’s indescribable – it’s like this invisible current, and I really feed off it. Everything for me about acting is about connecting to humanity.”

Again this is unusual, in that most actors seemingly prefer to disconnect from humanity, elevating themselves above it all so they no longer have to mingle with the little people.

“Not for me,” Jessica insists. “I have seen when someone has become a successful film actor how society lifts them up and separates them from the group. I’m scared of that happening: if someone takes me out of the group how can I play a regular woman? And how can I meet someone when I’m walking my dog or how do I have a regular conversation at the coffee shop? I don’t want that to go away.”

Jessica Chastain for Wonderland (Image: Danielle Levitt)

So by the end of the next year, there’ll be enough Jessica Chastain movies on the market for a box set.

Ha! We could do a retrospective of my career! That’s amazing.

If there’s only one we have to see, what is it? That’s not an unfair question, is it?

Oh that’s totally unfair. Do you realise how many people would call me up upset if I answered that question?

So what’s it been like for you working in this vacuum?

Slightly strange. When I showed up for parts I really felt I had to prove myself. There’s a kind of idea of me out there, of this girl that’s been working on so much, but we don’t know if she really exists. So hopefully that will go away when people start to see my work.

The first one you actually shot was Wilde Salome with Al Pacino: what was your first meeting with him like?

I went to a door, they asked me to wait for a second, and at that moment I immediately felt like I was going to be sick. But he’s a cheerleader: he loves actors and he just wants to see you do your best work.

Of course he’s not your only huge co-star: you got to play Brad’s wife.

That is something in a million years I would never have imagined. The name “Brad Pitt” carries so much weight, but the great thing is, when he came to set and I met him he really is like a regular guy. He doesn’t have a huge entourage, he didn’t show up with this huge team – he just turned up on his motorcycle. He made me feel like I had every right to be there, like we were on the same team.

And in the same movie you’ve got Sean Penn… playing your son!

I know! It’s bizarre – my hubby Brad and my son Sean. But I guess if you’re going from Al Pacino, why not?

When your husband has been Brad Pitt, your son Sean Penn and your muse Al Pacino, how’s regular life been working out for you?

The funny thing is I think I’ve been really lucky because all these people I’ve worked with have been regular guys who just happen to have a lot of fame.

So being in the arms of Brad Pitt just wears off after a while?

It does actually. Also, he was so good in his role, as this closed off, stifled man, that I was just so impressed with what he was doing and I forgot he was the guy from Legends of the Fall.

Jessica Chastain for Wonderland (Image: Danielle Levitt)

How was your Malick experience? He famously runs an unconventional and experimental set.

It was exhilarating – I would do any film for Terry. I felt like we never made the movie – we were just discovering every day, and that for me is the goal as an actor. I don’t ever want to feel like we nailed it: I always want to feel like we’re discovering.

You’ve deliberately chosen a lot of non-commercial work – why?

I’ve always been the student, learning about being an actor, and becoming a better actor, so for me it’s about working with the masters of it. It’s not been about ‘this is the film where I’ll get famous’. I’ve never thought like that.

Though you are about to be seen in The Help, based on a huge, commercially successful book that could end up being a breakthrough role for you in the wider sense.

The funny thing about The Help is I look so different in that movie: I gained some weight and I have peroxide hair and a very different voice. I’ve even done press for it where the interviewers don’t realise I played Celia.

How about the spy thriller The Debt?

Well in that I have an Israeli accent and brown hair and I speak German! The fact that I have so many movies coming out this year it’s inevitable my life will change and that I can’t control it. I have to be open to that, but I do have control over trying to live as normally as I can.

Are you already getting noticed?

The wonderful thing right now is so far, so good. I’m getting really interesting scripts and my normal life hasn’t changed at all. I tell you, maybe one person has recognised me when I was walking my dog.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Usually I play the ukulele, I cook a lot, I see tons of movies and go to the theatre, play Scrabble and…

Hold it right there. Ukulele?

Yeah! I used to play guitar and I realised when I started working and travelling so much that I wasn’t able to play guitar any more because I felt stupid carrying around a guitar case. With the Ukulele I could just stick it in my suitcase and play it in my hotel room.

And what’s your go-to cooking dish?

I love making risotto, and I love long-term cooking, the type that takes all day where you really smell it in the house, like roasting pears. It’s more than just eating the food.

Has your social circle changed since you’ve been hanging with Al and Brad? Does Sean pop around for roasted pears?

Not yet – it’s mainly old friends. I have very good friends I was at Julliard with, and some live locally – so it’s mainly people I’ve known for 10 years. It’s very rare for me to become really close with people I just meet. I like to hang out with normal people.

How’s your Scrabble game?

I’m so obsessed that during The Wettest Country… Tom Hardy and I would play two games at once on our iPads. Of course I always beat him, though he would deny that. I have used all seven tiles – it’s easy to do if you have an “ing”. You can extend any words like that.

So when you’re not doing wild things like playing Scrabble, do you ever go out and party it up like young actresses in LA are supposed to?

I’m not that girl – I’m the girl that goes to the theatre by herself or with friends.

Shame, because in Venice you’ve got Lindsay as a neighbour.

Ha! No… that’s not happening. I think it’s also because I was always the freckly, redheaded theatre nerd… I’ve never been the cool kid. I got teased mercilessly in elementary school and once I found my group of theatre friends I realised I do fit in somewhere.

That sounds like an episode of Glee!

Doesn’t it?!

Words: Tony Horkins
Images: Danielle Levitt
Fashion: Kris Zero