Jessica Chastain: Film Person of the Year (Narrative)

Movies Features Jessica Chastain
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It’s been quite a while since anyone has had a coming out party like that of Paste’s 2011 Person of the Year for Narrative Film, Jessica Chastain. The northern Californian’s feature film debut in Jolene was praised in some corners back in 2008, and her quality work in theater, television and small film roles was noticed in others. But 2011 was something else altogether, as she had significant roles in seven feature films; worked with Terrence Malick, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Butler, Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols; played the female lead in Paste’s two favorite movies this year (The Tree of Life and Take Shelter); and seems very likely to be rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for a third (The Help). That’s how you take it to the next level.

If there’s a type to which Chastain has been cast in her roles, it’s one embodying goodness and nobility, and upon meeting her you realize why. It’s often the case that we assign actors the best traits of their characters. Not even the legends can live up to their onscreen personae—when someone once told Cary Grant he’d like to be Cary Grant for a day, he wryly replied “So would I, my boy, so would I.”

The characters Chastain played this year—particularly in The Tree of Life—would be hard to live up to, but in person, she exudes that same otherworldly sense of grace and pure love that helped her embody a child’s deified memories of his mother in Malick’s masterpiece. What she says with a straight face would come across ironically or sardonically from anyone else. Her collaborators Tate Taylor (who wrote and directed The Help), Jeff Nichols (who wrote and directed Take Shelter) and Dede Gardner (who produced Tree of Life) would agree.

The Help

Tate Taylor made a pretty big newcomer’s splash in 2011 as well. The actor wrote and directed The Help, the hugely popular account of black maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss. He’s been best friends with the author of the smash hit novel since they were five years old, growing up in Jackson, and he was one of the first to see her initial manuscript. Possessed of a longstanding intimate familiarity with the characters, Taylor knew he had his Celia the first day he met Jessica Chastain.

“We did [the casting for The Help] the old fashioned way,” he recalls. “I saw hundreds of people, trying to find the best person for each of the parts. I had written the part of Minnie for Octavia [Spencer] and I had written the part of Charlotte for Allison [Janney] because they were very good friends of mine, and I knew how talented they were and how great they’d be. But for the rest, I just saw people. Specifically with Jessica, the day she came in and read was a day I had read probably 30 people. Jessica was not Jessica yet. Nobody knew who she was. She came in the office, sat down, and read the part of Celia, and she had us all crying. And she got up and left the room and I said ‘Who was that? That’s Celia.’”

Among his merry band that day was a crucial piece of the pie, Octavia Spencer, who was already cast as Celia’s maid and friend Minnie. “I had Octavia with me,” remembers Taylor. “I had her come to the auditions and read as Minnie. That day when Jessica read and had me crying, I looked over at Octavia, whose eyes were filled with tears, and she said, ‘Oh my God. She is amazing.’ I mean, they hugged at the audition and told each other how amazing they were. And I just smiled and said, ‘This is good.’”

That chemistry, both with Spencer and with Taylor, proved crucial, as Taylor needed Chastain to help him create the character of Celia. His experience as an actor led him to embrace an extremely collaborative style with his own actors. “To me, it’s about words and about the performers,” he explains. “She and I talked a lot. We talked about her character, and she showed such delight when I’d say, ‘What do you think about Celia doing this? Would she like that?’ And she’d say, ‘Are you really asking me my opinion? Wow!’ We had that great, great rapport. I think it should be about play, and having fun and discovering. She really embraced that environment.”

In the wrong hands it could have descended into farce very quickly, but Chastain never loses sight of the human being inside Celia. “It’s potentially a very trappy role,” agrees Taylor. “So many people [in auditions] played the ditzy, Jessica Rabbit bombshell, and that’s never what she was. This is a woman that has great insecurities and deep pain, and that universal feeling that we all have from time to time of trying to fit in. ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I fit in with these people?’ She understood that, and brought that vulnerability and that pain to it. The way she plays Celia, I don’t think Celia even thinks of herself as sexy or beautiful. She’s just trying to wear clothes that she sees in the magazines and what’s fashionable, and she just happens to have this great body.”

The key to the character, as with many others, is the pain, as Taylor explains: “She plays the pain. We as an audience have all felt that way. That’s what a great actress does—she not only properly portrays the character but she lets us into that character’s soul and gives us relatability. She says, ‘This is how she feels; have you ever felt that way?’ That’s what a great actress does. It’s that unspoken ability to draw an audience in and make us feel what she’s feeling and make us relate to her as humans, without even knowing we’re doing it.”

The Tree of Life

Chastain’s casting in Terrence Malick’s epic The Tree of Life was equally seamless. If the role of Celia in The Help is trappy, the role of Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life is a downright minefield. Seen through the eyes of a son’s memory, the character is extremely idealized, becoming nearly completely a symbol of grace and love. A tall order for any actor. But again, Chastain was a perfect fit.

“Well, our casting director was Francine Maisler, who I happen to think is one of the very very best,” says producer Dede Gardner. “I think one of the intangible skills of a great casting director is to listen to the director talk about the essence of a character, the essence of what they’re looking for. It’s hard because they usually don’t know these people very well, or sometimes not at all. But I think in her dialogue with Terry, when she was listening to his intentions for Mrs. O’Brien, Jessica was immediately someone that she thought could embody what Terry was looking for. And she was right.”

The Tree of Life takes place in the 1950s, but Mrs. O’Brien is, in addition to the particulars of her character, a sort of symbol of the entire concept of nurturing motherhood. In her natural grace and serenity, in her relative inexperience (bringing little baggage to the screen), and even in her look, Chastain was an ideal choice. “I think there are some people that, more easily than others, slide into different eras,” Gardner agrees. “I certainly think she’s one of those, and that’s evidenced by a lot of the work she’s done that’s come out in the last year. But even more than an ability to slide into a specific era, I think, is a sense of timelessness. She feels timeless to me when I look at her. And in many ways, she feels timeless when you spend time with her. She’s grounded, in a really beautiful way. I think that’s really remarkable, to not be defined by your moment, or when you’re breaking, or things that you learned in school. She’s sort of ferocious in her serenity, if that makes sense.”

Although Chastain’s Mrs. O’Brien is a woman of great serenity—so much so that a butterfly unexpectedly landed on Chastain’s hand in a memorable shot from the film—she also exudes an urgency when she’s delivering messages to her boys, especially on the importance of love. Gardner doesn’t see a conflict between the two: “My feeling about that is that she is a character who has given herself over to the idea of loving—loving the people and things around her, loving her children, loving her life. I think that you gain serenity from that, from the confidence of being so assured in that ability to love, and I also think she loves very urgently, that she recognizes the urgency of loving. So I think they’re actually of the same fabric.”

The marriage Mrs. O’Brien finds herself in is problematic, to say the least. Mr. O’Brien, though he loves his boys, is prone to bouts of anger and is stern and demanding. But Mrs. O’Brien sees him differently. “I certainly don’t want to speak for Terry,” says Gardner, “and I think everyone has different opinions, but I think there was some specificity of that era that dictated how that marriage was conducted, but again I think it also happened hundreds of years ago and I think it also happens now. I think she understands Mr. O’Brien, and understands where his behavior comes from. And with understanding, even if you may not agree or may not want to emulate or may want to provide a counter to it, but if you can source it in some fundamental way, that sort of overrides the superficial nature of just calling someone cruel. I think she’s got sympathy, and that permits her to be more gracious.”

In fact, it’s through the tenderness with which she sees Mr. O’Brien that we the audience (and by extension, perhaps the remembering son himself?) are able to find empathy ourselves for the demons at the heart of Mr. O’Brien’s behavior. “Once you care about the characters,” agrees Gardner, “you care about how they feel about the other characters. It’s part and parcel of the same thing. You care about whether they care for other characters, and about their ability to forgive or not to forgive other characters, and other things. Also, this film is in part, I believe, a meditation on grief. That’s a common denominator with everyone. In some ways, if you can hold onto the bigger idea, it obfuscates characterizations that are just one or two adjectives long.”

Take Shelter

But it’s not the (probably) Academy-Award-nominated performance that’s our favorite of the year, nor the role as the centerpiece of the best movie of the year (and indeed, perhaps of the young century as well). For our money, Jessica Chastain’s best performance of the year is as the rugged, long-suffering, doggedly loyal Samantha in Jeff Nichols’ magnificent Take Shelter.

Unlike the immediate “click” of Chastain’s casting in The Help and The Tree of Life, the process by which Nichols decided on her for Take Shelter was more tenuous. It began with Nichols’ realization that, for very different reasons from the first two films, he had a very difficult role to cast. “After I wrote this script,” Nichols remembers, “I knew early on that I would have Mike Shannon in the lead. And so I had to try to find someone who could go toe to toe with Mike, because Samantha really establishes herself pretty early on as the strength behind this marriage. And I kind of resigned myself to not being able to find anyone who could handle Mike Shannon, but I thought I would just find someone as good as I could get, and we’d go from there.

But a connection to The Tree of Life proved crucial. “Sarah Green, one of the executive producers on our film, and who produced Tree of Life, recommended Jessica,” he says. “As it happens, I actually have the same management company she does, and they had called about her that same week. It was one of these strange things where you hear this name twice in one week that you’ve never heard before. But I hadn’t seen anything she was in, so Sarah was nice enough to set up a meeting for me with Malick. He was very nice, and very helpful actually. He said, ‘Jessica is one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever worked with.’ And I think I smiled or kind of laughed, because he said, ‘I’m not just giving a compliment to a friend. I know how important this decision is for you. You need real information, not just pleasantries. She is one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with. She’s honest and natural in everything she does.’ That was pretty much all I needed. I did fly out to meet her in L.A., just in case. But luckily she was amazing and nice and sweet on top of being a great actress, and luckily for me she said yes. I didn’t know at the time just how lucky I was. I still hadn’t seen her do anything. I just kind of went with this feeling.”

That feeling was soon confirmed on set: “I remember being on set the first day and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ And it kept getting better every day. But it’s not that it actually got better, it’s that my understanding of it increased. It was like, ‘Holy crap, I’m working with two of the best actors in the business on this small film that no one knows about.’ Then going through editing is a whole other part of the joy of working with a great actor, because you then discover just how much they were giving you. You see the subtleties. So having been through that whole process, I know I can look back and say that on that film, I worked with two of the greatest actors in the world. There’s no hyperbole there for me; it’s just true.”

One of Nichols’ favorite characteristics of Chastain was, as with her work with Taylor and Malick, her dedication to working to co-create the character. “The bigger discussions we had on Take Shelter,” Nichols remembers, “and it’s so funny coming from Jessica, is that she would say ‘I just don’t want Samantha to come off like a bitch.’ I guess it could be perceived that she nags a lot, because she’s on him from the beginning. She’s running a household, is how I interpreted it. But unfortunately, every little bit you got from her early on was her taking care of business. And she said, ‘I don’t want people to think she’s mean.’ She just emotes so much gentleness and care that I could never read her as mean or bitchy. I don’t know what she’d have to do for it to read that way to me. But we had a lot of discussions about that.”

Those discussions were not only welcome to Nichols; they were essential: “You know, exactly what you want is to get into these kinds of discussions with actors and have them challenge your material, and challenge you,” he says. “If nothing else, to make sure you’re right, because sometimes you’re wrong. And we had a lot of those discussions, but none of them were contentious. None of them were at all heated, but they were all very legitimate discussions about what she’d be doing in the scene.”

In at least one important case, Chastain provided a perspective that changed the actual structure of the film: “There was one scene in particular that was poorly written. There was some connective tissue that she modified. It’s the difference between a writer/director thinking about the story as a whole, and her thinking about her character’s place in it specifically. It’s the scene after she slaps Curtis in the face. There’s a scene later and she’s at the sink, looking out the window, and she sees him playing with Hannah. And she said, ‘We can’t do that. When did I come home? How did I come home? Where was he? Have we talked?’ It’s just a trap I got caught in as a writer; I was thinking about Curtis, not about her. And we fixed it on set. We designed the scene differently. She walks in the door and she’s late; she was supposed to meet someone to get the money for her handmade drapes, I think. And you’d never know it in the film, because it’s natural. It’s one of those beats that no one would remember, which is the point. In a very important section of the film, her character tracks appropriately, and you don’t question it. Whereas if we’d done it my way maybe people would have felt something incorrect. She’s just constantly monitoring her character, and that’s what you want as a director. Someone checking you.”

As one of Chastain’s biggest cheerleaders, Nichols couldn’t be happier about the big year she’s had: “I think actresses get an energy around them a lot for whatever reason, and sometimes it turns into something and sometimes it doesn’t. But with Jessica she manifests it; it’s real. It’s not just hype. You know? There’s true blue talent behind it. There’s work behind it. The way she approaches her characters, the way she thinks about them. All that’s real. It’s not just the magnetism of a movie star. Because she doesn’t have that at the time, so for us it had to be real. But now she has it, for sure. I saw her at Cannes and I hadn’t seen her in awhile. She walked into the room, and it was like—BAM. A movie star walked in. You know, she looked great, and she just carried herself like a movie star. She belonged right where she was, on the red carpet next to Brad Pitt. It was like, ‘Wow, you totally belong in this stratosphere of famous people, and yet I never once questioned you in this kitchen in Ohio in cutoff jeans shorts.’ There was no hiccup there at all. That means something.”

A Moment with Jessica Chastain

When I talk to Chastain about our favorite of her many roles this year, she enthusiastically returns the love Nichols sent her way. Take Shelter is, in many ways, a film about masculinity, about a husband and father deeply in love with his family and doggedly determined to be their protector, in the best sense of the word. The Julliard grad agrees and adds: “Yes, and the film shows what a beautiful person Jeff is. Because that’s how he is. That’s how he is with his family, that’s how he is with his friends. He’s just a very special person.”

Her bond with Nichols started early on. “I mean Jeff Nichols… how great is he?” she gushes. “I saw Shotgun Stories and I said, ‘I will be in any movie this man wants to make.’ And then Day Two when we were filming this movie, I turned to him, only half-jokingly, and said, ‘Please let me be your Julianne Moore.’ Because you know how Paul Thomas Anderson uses her in everything, and I was like ‘Please let me be that!’ I mean, not that I’m comparing myself to Julianne Moore in any way. Just the relationship.”

As with The Help and The Tree of Life, Chastain in Take Shelter works with her writer/director and costars to take what easily could have been a stock character—which she refers to disparagingly as The Wife—and turns it into something special: “It was very important for me to not just be The Wife. I hope in my career to never be that. I’m so excited by dynamic characters. If I’m going to be The Wife, let’s give her a thing. And so, working with Jeff and Mike, they never pushed me into that corner where it was just serving the story or Mike’s character or whatever. It was always, ‘Here’s the family, and if this woman doesn’t know what’s going on with him and he’s not communicating, that is unacceptable.’ That’s how we approached it. And Tova [Stewart] was such a great addition to the cast, because she softens it up so beautifully. And also, Jeff’s wife in real life is this strong, amazing woman, and I think that’s why Sam is. I think Jeff had to write that, because that’s what his wife is.”

I mention to her that she does play the outrage at Curtis’ bizarre behavior and decisions, but it’s obvious that what fuels the outrage is her fierce devotion to her marriage, and I point out that it’s a very countercultural stream in the film. “You know what, you’re right,” she agrees, “because in many scripts that you read there’s the wife, and something bad happens with the lead [male] character, and usually she either leaves or she’s super-supportive and smiling at him in every scene. I think kind of the amazing part about Sam is that she’s really strong, and she’s going to take care of her family no matter what. So no one better get in her way. It starts in that very first scene where we’re having breakfast. I love that very first scene, because we don’t even look at each other. I’ve seen a lot of movies where the first scene is ‘Let’s show the audience how much they love each other at breakfast.’ But in real life, when you’re tired, he’s got his job, she’s working at flea markets trying to sell things and raise money so that they can go on vacation, and then raising money for their daughter’s surgery, they’re really tired. And they work really hard to keep their family together. In the very first scene of the movie you see that. So of course it’s going to bleed into the other scenes, when it starts to unravel, it’s like, ‘No, I’m going to fix this. Let’s find a way to fix this.’ And it’s great that the woman gets to do that. And that’s Jeff. Jeff wrote that.”

That outrage lasts pretty much the whole film, which presented a special challenge to Chastain. If it’s true that the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, she has to have had at least a hundred different worried, puzzled, what-the-hell-is-going-on expressions for this film, each building on the last. I ask if she actually had to rehearse in front of a mirror to differentiate them all. “God no,” she laughs. “If I ever rehearsed in front of a mirror I don’t know if I’d ever have the courage to get in front of a camera again. Honestly, we shot out of sequence, which for my character was so tough. This is one of the toughest films I’ve ever had to do because of that. I had to look at the script, and basically every scene is ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And I basically had to say, what stage is it? Just how weird has he been at this point? Like, has it been 10 minutes, or more like a week? I had to measure all the weirdness that he’s had, out of order and out of context. And sweet Jeff and Mike were so patient with me. Every day we’d sit down and I’m making those eggs or I’m doing whatever, and I’d always say, ‘Okay, what just happened?’ Because that’s how I could get to how confused or unnerved or pissed off or hurt I could be right then. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without their support because it was out of order and it felt impossible. That was definitely a big hill that I had to climb.”

But in the end, a lot of what makes the film so strongly speak to me personally is that, as I tell Chastain, we all have these moments where we wonder if our ideas and plans and choices are crazy. We all have the nagging anxiety that everything we love will be suddenly taken from us. And especially for married men, the one thing we want more than anything in the world, especially those of us who married strong-willed and brilliant women, is for our wives to believe in us. There’s a moment at the end of the film, a moment of silence, that brings that need into such sharp relief that I choke up a little speaking to her about it.

“Yes,” she affirms, gently putting a hand on my shoulder in support. “that moment of ‘I’m with you. I’m right with you.’ You know what? You are making my day right now because the first time that I ever sat down with Jeff, he said that that was the most important moment of the entire movie. And he was so scared that day we were there. Because there’s no dialogue, and you can’t really cut to anything. There’s nothing to fall back on. The whole movie leads up to a look. And you don’t know if you’re going to get it. So the fact that you said that right now, hmm. I can’t even tell you how much nerves we all had that day. We did shoot that day near the end; it was the second-to-last day of shooting. And by then I truly loved Mike. I loved Tova. I loved Jeff. And we were family. And I think that moment was just me looking at them and saying I love you. And it’s interesting because we were about to be separated in real life. And I think that was the moment there between all of us.”

By this point her eyes are teary too, and as she smiles at me—there it is. That ethereal, otherworldly goodness and grace and comfort. That pure love. Mrs. O’Brien is right there in front of me, and Samantha too. I’ve been transported into the middle of two films that mean more to me than I can say, and ennobled by the tender, nurturing force at the center of each, sharing a sacred moment that’s almost too beautiful to bear.

In 2011, Chastain had more great performances than many actresses will have in a career. For 2012, she’s already re-teamed with Malick, opposite Ben Affleck, for the director’s uncharacteristically quick follow-up. And she’s also working with newcomer Andres Muschietti for an indie horror flick, The Road’s John Hillcoat for a Depression-era crime drama and Tron’s Joseph Kosinski for a sci-fi thriller with Tom Cruise. Still, it’ll probably be a while before we’ll be spoiled by so many breathtaking performances from any actress of this talent in a single year.