Jessica Chastain on fighting the good fight in Hollywood

BY James Mottram

19th Mar 2024 Celebrities

7 min read

Jessica Chastain on fighting the good fight in Hollywood
The Oscar award-winning actor Jessica Chastain opens up about championing women’s stories, her rebellious youth and portraying dementia in film
Jessica Chastain, the Oscar-winning star who has been lighting up screens for more than a decade now, is having a moment of self-reflection.
After breaking into the industry with 2011’s poetic tale The Tree of Life, opposite Brad Pitt, the flame-haired, pale-skinned star has been on a wild ride through Hollywood ever since.
“I feel so grateful to be alive,” she confides. “Every day I wake up, I’m so excited about what the day is going to bring me…and I have an adventurous heart and spirit.”
“Adventurous” perfectly describes Chastain. Other words that capture her: committed. Passionate. Elegant. Astute. Talented.
The 46-year-old from Sacramento has proven time and again just how adept she is at working with the brightest directors Hollywood has to offer, from Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) to Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game, Miss Sloane), Ridley Scott (The Martian) and Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak). 
“I’ve always been filmmaker-driven,” she notes, settling down in her seat for a cosy chat. “When my career first started, I realised that a lot of the filmmakers that I was really responding to didn’t really make movies about women. And that was a hard pill for me to swallow.
"So I then shifted and started working in a different way. Now I’m happy that I can hopefully inspire people to be interested in stories about women.”
Chastain has certainly managed that, whether its her real-life medic who unearths a serial killer in The Good Nurse or the fictional wantaway wife in the searing HBO remake of TV drama Scenes From A Marriage.
She can do restrained and nuanced but she can also do outlandish, like the true-life titular televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the role that won her an Oscar at the third time of asking (albeit a victory overshadowed by Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at the awards that year).  
jessica chastain and brad pitt in film the three of life

Hollywood strikes and #MeToo

Today, when we meet in Zurich’s five-star Baur au Lac hotel on a sunny autumn afternoon, Chastain looks every bit the industry ambassador.
She’s dressed in a beige trouser suit and black T-shirt that bears the “SAG-AFTRA” legend—a reference to the actors’ unions that were striking over pay and other issues over the summer of 2023. The now-resolved strike was heading for crunch talks when we met.
“I’m hopeful,” says Chastain, rightly, as it turned out. “I’m a hopeful person.”
She’s also a helpful person, you might say, as one of those celebrities that quietly performs unsung charity work.
Like the time she donated plant-based burgers (she’s a veggie) to the staff at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York’s Upper East Side during the COVID-19 pandemic. Or the $2,000 she gave to a woman for her fertility treatment, despite this same Instagram user criticising Chastain for her feminist views. 
"I'm a hopeful person"
An LGBTQ+ supporter and a prominent member of Time’s Up, the board formed in the wake of the #MeToo abuse scandals, she also called out the lack of female representation in the 2017 official selection when she was on the Cannes Film Festival jury.
Whatever the cause, Chastain is not one to take things quietly. “I’m definitely strong. I feel like whatever comes my way, I’ll be OK,” she says. “I know who I am. I feel comfortable in my shoes. I feel comfortable in my skin. All these things I feel very comfortable about. I don’t feel like I have to push anyone away to protect myself.”
What has led her to become such a prominent activist? She pauses, taking time to consider her answer.
“I don’t know if I ever had thought, This is what I’m going to be or what I’m going to do,” she replies. “But I’m sure things happened in childhood that formed me as a human being, that made me feel like I wanted to use whatever platform I had, even if it wasn’t as an actor, to speak up for those who were being mistreated and misused.”

Addiction and dementia in film

jessica chastain in memory
It’s a theme that runs through her new film Memory—a tough-as-nails drama that co-stars Peter Sarsgaard as Saul, a man afflicted with early onset dementia.
Written and directed by Michel Franco, the Mexican-born director behind films like Chronic and New Order, it’s a brave and honest depiction of this terrible affliction.
“Why I love working with Michel so much is there’s no cliché, the cliché of the dementia film,” says Chastain. “[He tried] really hard to show it as real as possible.”
While Sarsgaard was awarded Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his performance, Chastain’s turn—as Sylvia, a carer brought into Saul’s orbit—is every bit as impressive.
A recovering alcoholic, Sylvia also holds a deep-seated trauma from the past, making it another raw character to add to Chastain’s arsenal. So how did she connect the dots?
“What did I relate to with her? I think that’s a secret. I think most of the time when I play characters, I don’t like to share where the character and I meet.” 
Adding to the realism of the piece, however, Chastain filmed a scene in an actual AA meeting.
“The idea of her being sober, and what was her life like before she was sober? All of that I had to make as real as possible, and then try to never think about it again on set,” she notes.
"I think these characters will affect me my whole life"
Assimilating such personal, painful information into her very soul seems to be how Chastain works best. “I’m not trying to force anything to happen,” she says. “It’s just real.” 
Building from the outside in, she even shopped for her character’s clothes at Target, the discount department store that can be found all over America.
“I go to Target all the time,” she reveals. “The reality is, I think I’d probably walk into that store once a week and buy fun things for my kids [she has a young son and a daughter with Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, her husband since 2017].” 
While it might be a stretch to imagine the glamorous Chastain browsing the racks of clothes at Target, it’s all part of her approach to demystify and de-glam.
“It’s trying to get rid of the idea that a movie star is going to want really fancy clothes,” she offers. “All of this is for the character. I don’t want the script to change for me. I want to change for the script.”
Such is the depth of her work on Memory, the character began to bleed into her.
“The memories I have now sometimes are mixed with Sylvia’s memories. I could talk about her and talk about something she was struggling with. And I’ll get emotional now, a year after I’ve played her, even if it’s something I didn’t personally struggle with.
"But because I let her grow in me, I feel this kinship, and it’s affected me. I think these characters will affect me my whole life.” 

Shakespeare saves Chastain from a troubled youth

jessica chastain and michel franco on red carpet
Struggle is something Chastain knows. Born in northern California, she was raised by her grandmother and mother—both had their first child aged 17—and later her firefighter stepfather. It was a time defined by occasional poverty and misrule at school. 
Dubbing herself “obnoxious”, she was not a good student, clamouring for attention, rebelling when she didn’t get it. Worse was to come in 2003, with Chastain in her mid-twenties, when her younger sister Juliet took her own life following years of drug addiction.
Acting was Chastain’s saving grace. As a teen, she’d cut class to read Shakespeare.
“It’s so nerdy,” she chuckles. “I hated going to school. I hated being in classes. I felt like I really wasn’t learning anything. So I would sit in my car and read As You Like It.”
After being wowed by what she discovered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she began performing in productions of the Bard’s plays across the Bay area on America’s West Coast. 
After a co-star in a production of Romeo and Juliet encouraged her, Chastain applied (and got in) to the prestigious New York acting school Julliard. Like magic, it was as if she’d found her people.
"I felt like I really wasn’t learning anything. So I would sit in my car and read As You Like It"
“It wasn’t until I got into Julliard that I realised, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not stupid!’. I used to think I wasn’t smart because I had trouble in high school, but all of a sudden, I went to Julliard and I’m learning Socrates and Plato and Aristotle! All these things that were fascinating to me.”
At drama school, she shone—and before long, she was working with the legendary Al Pacino on his production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome in Los Angeles, one that was eventually filmed for the screen.
From here, Chastain began to work in film, in John Madden’s Mossad drama The Debt opposite Helen Mirren and The Tree of Life, directed by the elusive Terrence Malick. Delays to the releases of these films and others meant that Chastain didn’t make her breakthrough until 2011, when she was 34.
“At the beginning it felt frustrating. But I actually realised it was a big gift. I was given a huge, huge gift. It got to be all about the work for me, and not about anything else.
"I would go from job to job, and my only concern was the character I was playing and the story that I was trying to tell. So I didn’t have to deal with any of the trappings of what happens when movies come out, and how people might treat you differently. So it was a wonderful experience.”
Thirteen years on, Chastain is still putting films before fame. She’s recently wrapped the thriller Mother’s Instinct, with Anne Hathaway—a remake of 2018’s French film. And she’s already shot a secret project, Dreams, with her Memory director Michel Franco last summer in San Francisco.
“I feel like I learn so much when I’m around Michel,” she says. “He inspires me to be creative. He treats me with so much respect and care and kindness…it makes me feel like I could do anything.” And she really can.
Banner credit: MisterHP7, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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