Jessica who? Actress suddenly becomes the ‘it’ girl
LOS ANGELES – Jessica Chastain was in a daze. She had just come from the Cannes Film Festival where no less than Brad Pitt and Sean Penn held each of her hand as they walked and posed before the mob of screaming photographers at the premiere of their Terrence Malick film, “The Tree of Life.”
“I slept late the other day,” said Jessica in an LA hotel meeting room. Suddenly, she’s the “it” actress. “The Tree of Life,” in which Jessica plays Brad’s wife, won Cannes’ top plum, Palme D’Or.
Meanwhile, Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” where she stars opposite Michael Shannon, took the grand prize in the festival’s Critics Week section and also snagged best screenwriting honors.
“All day yesterday, I didn’t leave the house,” said the Juilliard-trained actress whose films will be released this year. In addition to the two Cannes winners, the 30-year-old is likewise in “Coriolanus” with Ralph Fiennes (who also directs), “The Debt” with Helen Mirren, “The Fields” with Sam Worthington and the highly anticipated acting ensemble piece, “The Help.”
We saw Jessica act for the first time when she essayed the title role in an LA staging of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome.” She acted opposite Al Pacino, who directed a film version, with Jessica also in the eponymous role, which premieres in the coming Venice Film Festival.
The Northern California–raised actress, who wore a yellow gown as she stood beside Brad and Sean in the premiere photos that were splashed in publications all over the world, said of her post-Cannes week: “I stayed in my sweats and I was like lying on the ground. It was like I don’t even know what I just did. It’s slowly coming back to me. It was a surge of adrenaline of going day by day. I wasn’t even able to think of the week.”
She thought the premiere of ‘The Tree of Life’ was crazy: “That was the biggest red carpet I’ve ever seen. When we finally got to the top of the stairs and Brad started waving to the right, I was like, ‘What’s he waving at?’ I look and it was this sea of people on both sides.”
Recalling the minutes of blinding camera flashes from a long line of photographers, Jessica said: “It was like being a little kid and being led through what I want to say was a haunted house but it wasn’t haunted. Because it was really fun. I see pictures now and I go, wow, I was really smiling… But at the same time I was thinking, guys, please don’t let go of my hands. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’ll never forget it.”
While there were reports of booing at the Cannes press screening of “Tree…,” the long-gestating project emerged triumphant by the festival’s end. Critics were divided, as usual, in their reaction toward this latest work by a director who takes years to get his films made and released. Variety’s Justin Chang took the pro stand, describing the film as “nothing less than a hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying 138-minute tone poem.”
Asked about the reclusive Terrence, whom he calls Terry, and his much-written-about zero or low visibility in Cannes, Jessica answered: “First, I do want to say that Terry was at the festival and at the screening. He just doesn’t do press but he’s absolutely supportive of the actors and all of us who were there.”
A fan of Terrence’s work, which includes such gems as “The Thin Red Line,” “Days of Heaven” and “The New World,” Jessica described the first time she read his script for “Tree…”: “It was like reading a novel. I think the script should be published because it’s one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read.”
She recalled that she didn’t get the script until after “I had been auditioning for months. I really don’t know what the story was about, so when Terry called and asked, ‘Would you like to play the character?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He goes, ‘Let me send you the script first.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll play the character.’ He said, ‘Please read the script.’ It took me quite a long time to read the script because every sentence is written like poetry. It’s so dense.”
Jessica, the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival best actress for “Jolene,” admitted being surprised that Terrence chose her: “I remember thinking, wow, this mother’s a really great part. How did I get into this situation and am I going to get fired? I was shocked that I was getting offered this part.”
Telling us that she has a “small part” in Terrence’s new untitled film, Jessica went on to recount her “OMG” moment when she found out that Brad would play her husband: “It just never crossed my mind that we would be in a film together playing husband and wife. When I was having a conversation with Terry on the phone while he was casting the character, he said: ‘Jessica, I’ve cast the father and it’s going to be Brad Pitt.’ I had this moment of I didn’t hear it right and then I was trying to be calm on the phone and not be like, ‘Brad Pitt!’ I was just like, ‘Okay, yes, he’s a great actor.’ My friend was in the room and I was kind of shaking. I grabbed a Sharpie and a pad and I wrote, ‘Brad Pitt’ and underlined it. We both threw our hands in the air. It was definitely an ‘Oh my God!’ moment.”
Since Brad plays a stern father figure, Jessica said her role required her to spend more time to bond with the actors who played her young sons. “With Brad, it was different because … my character is trying to reach out to him and have him open his heart,” she said. “So we didn’t really need that much bonding time because the characters are un-tethered from each other. She’s constantly trying to reach out to him.”
Asked for her own assessment of “Tree…,” she opined: “It’s nice when a film makes the world a better place to live in. For me, ‘The Tree of Life’ makes me want to be a better human being and I hope people watch the film and will be inspired to be more compassionate to others. I don’t necessarily look for films that are political or want to say something. I look for something I’ve never done before. My characters in ‘The Debt,’ ‘The Tree of Life’ or even ‘The Help’ couldn’t be more different from each other.”
Jessica’s family – dad’s a fireman in San Francisco, mom’s “a vegan chef/stay at home mom,” two brothers and two sisters – don’t brag about her acting career. So some family friends were surprised to see her with Brad in the “Tree…” trailer. Family pals will see Jessica in more previews, including “The Wettest Country in the World,” where she appears with Shia LaBeouf.
A lover of animals, Jessica volunteers whenever she can at Animal Acres, a refuge for farmed animals outside LA. “I shovel hay and help care for the horses,” she said. “For me, the idea of being a better human being is you get what you put out. If you’re kind to someone, I do believe that little act of kindness creates a huge trickle effect. Of course, I’m not a saint but that’s my thing.”
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