NEW YORK – “I want to do everything!”
Jessica Chastain is getting animated. Even though she’s managed to pack more films into an 18-month period than would seem physically possible and will, on this day, finish an afternoon of press interviews with an evening performance of “The Heiress” on Broadway, she’s not lacking energy.
“I want to do crazy villains in comic book movies with accents and scars!” she continues, shining with childlike enthusiasm. “I want to do it all. I think I have to calm down and be like: You don’t have to do it all, right now. Hopefully, you’ll be around for a few years.”
Sticking around is at this point assured for Chastain who last year emerged as an actress of seemingly limitless range, with throwback beauty and the subtlety of a chameleon. Because of various distribution delays, her talent was laid out all at once – her “reel,” she calls it – in widely varied performances in “The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter,” “The Help,” “Coriolanus,” “The Debt” and “Texas Killing Fields.”
She hasn’t let up. Along with the bootlegging crime film “Lawless,” a voice role in “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” and her currently running Broadway debut, Chastain is now starring in one of the most anticipated movies of the year: Kathryn Bigelow’s docudrama of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“I never think about what’s next,” she says. “I always just think: What haven’t I done yet?”
“Zero Dark Thirty” easily qualified. In it, she plays a dogged, obsessed CIA officer tracking bin Laden in a decade-long search that leads from torturing detainees to intrepid detective work and finally to relentless advocacy for the Pakistan raid that would kill bin Laden. The film was released in larger markets in December and opens in local theaters Jan. 11.
The performance has already earned Chastain best actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild, and she’s widely expected to land her second Oscar nomination in two years (following one for “The Help,” an honor she glowingly recalls as “crazy town”).
Screenwriter Mark Boal based Chastain’s character, Maya, on a real CIA officer whose identity remains classified. While Boal acknowledges Maya was dramatized for the sake of a film built around one character, Chastain believes the film is “100 percent accurate” in depicting the operative’s large role in tracking down bin Laden.
Playing such a tough character, Chastain says, was her most difficult role yet because she had to build an emotional arc onto someone who speaks largely in jargon and refuses to detour her laser-like focus.
“Any subtext that I have, any part of the character’s journey, I have to show through my technical dialogue and my transformation in the 10 years – what happens to my face, my hair, how I interact with people,” says Chastain. “It has to be a more subtle approach. It has to be the kind of acting where you don’t see the strings. With Celia (the ditzy Southern belle of `The Help’), you see the voice, you see all that stuff.”
Seeing herself in one scene where Maya confronts and threatens her supervisor (Kyle Chandler) shocked Chastain who hadn’t thought herself capable of evoking, she says, Incredible Hulk-like rage. As a contrast, Chastain, who describes herself as “a very emotional person,” lightens the mood of a day discussing the grim “Zero Dark Thirty,” by wearing a pink flowery dress and keeping a candle going.
Though Chastain’s sensitivity and access to her emotions is part of what makes her a great actress, it made aspects of “Zero Dark Thirty” difficult – particularly the week spent in a Jordanian prison filming the brutal interrogation scenes. Those scenes, with a fellow operative played by Jason Clarke and a detainee played by Reda Kateb, have already sparked a renewed dialogue about the role torture played in tracking bin Laden.
“There was a 10 minute break while I cried. I had to go hide behind a building. I just lost it and started crying,” she says. “I know I’m playing this woman who’s supposed to be – it’s her job – to be unemotional, but I still feel things. And I wasn’t going to be able to do the scene again without letting out, without having a good cry.”
Because of her busy schedule, Chastain nearly didn’t do “Zero Dark Thirty”; she was slated to be filming something else at the time. Producer Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures financed the film and who knew Chastain from producing “Lawless,” played the go-between.
“I got a text from her that said: `If I ever ask you for anything in my life, it’s to call me right now for five minutes,”’ recalls Chastain.
Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker,” was set on casting Chastain.
“We moved heaven and earth for this woman,” says Bigelow. “This is a fairly complex piece and required somebody with great verbal agility. But as importantly, the precision of her carefully calibrated and nuanced performance, I’ve seen in her other work but never to the extent I’ve seen in this.”
It’s a kind of magic act that Chastain does that can even surprise her directors. Jeff Nichols, who directed her in “Take Shelter,” had heard good things about her and found her charming, but because it was before most of her films saw the light of day, her talent was evident only once work started.
“I hadn’t seen anything of hers that was this lightning rod thing,” said Nichols. “I just cast her. I didn’t really know what I had until I got there.”
The daughter of a firefighter and vegan chef, Chastain grew up in Northern California knowing from an early age she wanted to be an actor. She trained at Juilliard School of Drama but didn’t catch a real break until Al Pacino cast her in a Los Angeles theater production of “Salome.”
“I’ve been fighting so long,” says the 35-year-old Chastain. “I’m not 17 years old. I trained in this. I did a lot of theater. I was playing dead bodies on TV shows. This is the first time I’m getting offered really incredible roles.”
Now, her only problem is saying no. With just a few hours to go until she’s due on stage, Chastain shrugs at over-committing herself:
“A year and a half ago, I didn’t know my life was going to be like this.”