actress Jessica Chastain attended the Sundance Film Festival more
than a year ago, making the rounds for the film Take Shelter,
she spoke on a panel for The Creative Coalition. The focus was
squarely on her co-star Michael Shannon, who had been graced with an
Oscar nom – and hardly on the 30-year-old newcomer.
have times changed. In the span of about a year, Chastain's profile
has risen to the top thanks to the deluge of films featuring this
new It Girl and drawing critical acclaim.
Though appearances in such films as Tree of Life, Take
Shelter, Corialanus and The Debt, to mention
four, she has captured both public and critical attention. But it
was The Help that garnered three crucial nominations
including one for Chastain in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Prompted by this dazzling spotlight, I culled the following Q&A from
sundry roundtables and press conferences focusing on her role in
You and Octavia Spencer were both unknowns when you started with
this movie. How have things changed?
came to the Tree of Life premiere in LA. Yeah, there has
been a change, but when we made the film, we were like, "Pay
attention to us! We're in the film!"
So how did you get involved with
read the script, and loved, loved, loved it. I absolutely connected
with [my character] Celia [Foote]. I was bullied a lot when I was a
little kid, so she was heartbreaking to me. The idea of playing
Celia was really beautiful. I really loved her zest and love for
life. I went in to auditions and my first meeting with
[director/writer] Tate Taylor, and I read with Octavia Spencer, the
glorious woman here [who plays Minny Jackson] – the African-American
maid who really rats out the white women that she and the other
housekeepers work for]. Our very first scene that we read... the
scene just ended, and it's that moment just before you break
character, and we're looking at each other, smiling, and she says,
"I love you" and I said, "I love you!" From that moment on, it was
like, "I have to do this part." I fought for it. I screen-tested, I
followed the actors. That's my favorite thing with doing movies,
it's working with [the] people. I knew after meeting [Octavia] that
I had to work with her. The film has come out since, but we were
both the unknowns. We were the ones that really fought for the
roles. Maybe that's why we love each other so much.
What was like to be bullied as a kid?
was always a little awkward, a redhead, and very freckly. Kids like
to make fun of people who are different. I had short red hair and
wore workout boots, so I got teased really badly for having red hair
and being different. There was a lot of teasing and making fun of,
but [I didn't have a] community or [was] finding friends until I
found theater. If you watch that show Glee, they all find
each other and connect. That's what it was like for me!
What do you think about the issue of racism today?
remember the election [in 2008]... Look at the debates with Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama, and the comments being thrown out at both
sides. There were sexist comments about Hillary and racist comments
about Obama, so it's really shocking to me to think we haven't
progressed further than we are now. But I feel, too, that every day
is a step in the right direction.
Do you feel this movie has helped?
was great for me, because Celia is such a gorgeous person and has so
much to give the world. She grew up in Sugar Ditch, Tennessee. I did
the research into what it was like growing up there in that time
period. It was predominantly black. She was a woman who was color
blind and [referring to Minny] she didn't understand why can't we be
friends, why can't I have lunch with you, why can't I hug you. For
her, [racism] doesn't even come into play. She thinks it's the most
ridiculous thing. So there was a joy in that for me to play. I
didn't have to play someone who's aware of racism and lives in that
world, because Celia refuses to live in that world because it's no
part of her.
It seems like a very female-centric film. Was there a different
atmosphere on the set?
was a lot of camaraderie. I've made seven films in the past four
years, [and] I've had all these co-stars over the years like Brad
Pitt, Sean Penn, Tom Hardy, Sam Worthington, Ralph Fiennes... All
alpha men. But I really do believe that the greatest love story in
any film I've made is the love story between Celia and Minnie.
Working on this set with women, you don't realize how barren that
landscape is until you go and work on that film and go, "Hey, all
these actors... Wait a minute, I'm not the only girl here!" It was
such a great experience that I hope I will be afforded more. We were
really supportive of each other, and I believe the movie turned out
the way it did because we all had each other's back, and we were all
each other's cheerleader.
How did you prepare for your role?
Well, I ate a lot of food. That was fun. I would microwave some
vegan ice cream and chug that down when I wasn't gaining. I remember
when I first came to rehearsal, they were like, "you haven't gained
enough weight" and I'm like, "I'm trying!" So day after day it was
eating and eating and eating. [Then] I see the film, so thank god I
did. I mean, hello! Celia is a woman! That was great. I actually
went to Sugar Ditch, Tennessee. It's very different, of course, than
when Celia was there. I got very lucky at a party. It was the very
beginning of rehearsals, and I saw this woman and I thought, "She
looks just like Celia would be." I sat down and started talking, and
she said, "Well, how' ya doin'?" I said, "What are you doing here?"
And she said, "Well, Kay is my daughter [Kathryn Stockett is the
author of the book], and I'm here to support her." And I said, "I'm
playing Celia" and she said, "Oh, good, that's a good part." I
thought, I have to get her voice, because that's [Celia's] voice. So
I called [her] and said how can we do this? You got to help me! So
we took her out to lunch and she had no idea that I think she's
Celia. I was recording her voice and saying, "Can you say this
line?" Then when we were filming the benefit scene, I'm standing
there in all my glory in that sparkly pink dress and hanging out
with all the extras. She comes up with all her friends and points to
me and goes, "I just want you all to know that I inspired this lady
right here." So by that point she realized she was half the
inspiration for Celia. I also watched a lot of Marilyn Monroe films
and read her biography, because in the novel she's more than once
connected to Marilyn.
Are you choosing scripts differently now?
choose things that are completely different [from each other]. So
the reason I also really connected to Celia is that it's very
different from Tree of Life. I like things where I can do a
physical transformation, and I love accents and voices, and I'm
never going to play the same character twice. Unless they decide to
make The Help 2. Each time I got to a set, everyone acted
like, "Are you excited? Is it your first time?" So I guess the good
thing is, that won't happen anymore. I guess the only difference
that I notice now is that I am getting scripts that are very
exciting to read and that is a wonderful thing that's been afforded
Are you looking for plays to do on or off Broadway?
problem with Broadway is that it's such a long-time commitment, as
it should, and actually I've never done a play for that long because
even with Othello we had breaks. On Broadway, you don't
They offer someone a six-month run.
that's still a long time with eight shows a week.
You can make four more movies in that time.
Yeah, and also, I'm the kind of person [who] when I'm doing a play,
and even when I'm working, I don't do anything else. When I'm
working, I just work. When I was doing Othello in New York,
I couldn't do anything too stressful. I would save my energy for the
evening. You become a prisoner to your role. For me, it's the time
commitment. I look at it that way, like, "Am I okay not leaving my
house and just going to the theater for six months?"
done a lot of guest stars. I was on Law & Order and tons of
Would you do a series?
begging for it. Every time I see Boardwalk Empire, I'm
like, "I want to play a recurring role." For me it's the thing of
I'm more interested in a recurring role than [being] a series
regular right now, because if I had a family I would say, "Let‛s do
a series regular." I love stretching myself and challenging myself,
and so the idea of playing the same character for six years is a bit