One night in November, Jessica Chastain sat at Charlie Rose’s table, along with David Straitham and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, with whom she’s appearing in The Heiress in a limited run on Broadway, and talked about the play, her life, and the last two glorious years, which have brought her a fame that she wears like her own skin, like it was always meant to be there, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
Chastain, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award this past winter for her work in The Help (and who will almost certainly be nominated again this winter — this time for Best Actress — for her work in this year’s Oscar buzz-worthy Zero Dark Thirty — told the story of her grandmother taking her to see Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when she was a child. There was a little girl on stage and her grandmother told her “This is their job. This is what they do. It’s professional theatre,” and Chastain says, “As soon as I saw it, it wasn’t ‘that’s what I want to be when I grow up,’ it was ‘that’s what I am.”
That awareness, the “that’s what I am,” must have guided Chastain onward, along the seamless trajectory that brought her to where she is today, a . She was the first in her family to go to college. After attending Sacramento City College — and after a stint doing professional theatre in San Francisco — Chastain went to Julliard, arguably the finest performing arts college in the United States, on a scholarship generously funded by fellow Julliard alum Robin Williams.
Chastain graduated from Julliard in 2003. By 2004 she had started working in television, where she racked up credits in TV movies and TV series like ER, Law & Order and Veronica Mars. She made her first feature film in 2008, followed by two more, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. But it was 2011 that would prove to be The Year of Chastain. She appeared in 6 feature films — including the legendary Terrence Malick‘s The Tree Of Life, The Help (for which she received her first nomination for the Academy Award) and Sundance darling Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter — and an old-fashioned movie star was born. Old-fashioned because Chastain is building her career doing the roles she wants to do, in theater, film and TV, at the very moment when so many young actresses are feeling the pressure to cast themselves as big franchise darlings or, at the very least, to play “the girl”. Chastain hasn’t played “the girl” yet. Instead she plays real women who are worthy of her talents, her intellect, and her artistic point of view. She shows up as her authentic self, and it’s more than enough.
Chastain has said that, as a child, though maybe this changed after seeing Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she was unhappy , though she doesn’t really know why. She had always had an active imagination, and yet she never did well in school. So maybe her unhappiness stemmed from not where she fit. Well she knows now. Chastain has found her place, and it’s a place — a strange moment, as she calls it later in that same Charlie Rose interview — where everything she hoped for and wished for has come true. May you too have such strange moments in your life.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY UNKNOWN via ELLE Magazine
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.