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Jessica Chastain on fame and film-making: 'I'll always stick it to the man'

Jessica Chastain on fame and film-making: 'I'll always stick it to the man'

For a woman who has basically completed Hollywood, Jessica Chastain does not have the highest opinion of the place. She does not love the hangouts. ‘Whenever I go to LA they always put me in these Hollywood places like Chateau Marmont or Sunset Tower, all the places that actors go,’ she says. In fact, what she wants to do is get to the ocean: ‘As far away from the industry as I can.’

She does not love the parties, either. After she won the Academy Award for her performance as the tele-evangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye last year, she spent three hours at an after-party slumped on a sofa with her Oscar while her friends danced around her. And she really doesn’t like the fact that everyone in LA spends so long in their cars, separate and alone, which is why she lives in New York, with its theatres, museums and public transport. ‘I have entire conversations with people on a subway in New York. All different walks of life, it’s amazing.’

She especially doesn’t like the ‘anti-imagination’ of the studio bosses and platform owners, who she has spent much of the past year picketing as part of the Screen Actors Guild strike. ‘Oh, Hollywood is working very hard against the imagination,’ she says. I try to put in a good word for Los Angeles. But she fixes me with a Zero Dark Thirty stare. ‘You think people are direct? In Los Angeles?!’

It’s a little disconcerting. From the outside at least, Hollywood has been pretty good to Chastain, 46. Since her breakout year of 2011 — Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, The Help, Coriolanus, Wilde Salomé — she has found regular work in a succession of heavyweight projects: Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year, Miss Sloane, Scenes from a Marriage. She has worked with the greats. She has won every award going. She has even done her time in the X-Men films and is now in a position where she can choose her projects. Case in point: the low-budget indie movie Memory, directed by the Mexican auteur Michel Franco, in which Chastain, as usual, delivers a masterclass in under-the-surface acting — a whole inner life contained in a flinch.

“The second that a studio or some kind of… system tries to tell me what I am or what I should be doing, I’ll do the opposite”

But there’s also the fact that Chastain’s own life story has such a classic Hollywood structure, if you go in for the whole ‘determined individual triumphs over adversity against overwhelming odds’ thing. She grew up dirt poor in Sacramento, northern California, born to a teenage mother and largely raised by her grandmother. ‘I’m the first woman in my family to not get pregnant when I was 17 years old,’ she stresses. Her childhood was marked by continual evictions, poverty (her mother even resorted to stealing food) and the struggles of Chastain’s younger sister, Juliet, who suffered from depression and addiction and died by suicide when she was 24. Chastain herself dropped out of high school and no one in her family noticed. And yet, she managed to scrape a scholarship to Juilliard, the most prestigious acting school in the United States, and, well, if this were a movie, that 2022 Oscar win might just be the climactic scene. The thing that altered the course of her life? It was discovering Shakespeare at the age of 15. No, no, I can hear the screenwriters protesting. That’s a bit too much!

Jessica Chastain shot by Paola Kudacki for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)
Jessica Chastain shot by Paola Kudacki for ES Magazine (ES Magazine)

And yet life rarely fits these outward narratives. There is always a lot more going on underneath.

Chastain proves warm, sharp and opinionated — but also more carefully guarded than most actors. Her marriage to the Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, and her two children are absolutely off limits. That dim view of Hollywood, meanwhile, seems to stem from her early experiences of being typecast. In The Tree of Life and Take Shelter — wonderful movies though they are — she played idealised ‘wife roles’. ‘Afterwards I was getting all of these scripts where there were characters whose job was to support the male character who was actually doing something interesting,’ she says. ‘It was so clear that Hollywood was insistent on typecasting me. They could not be more strong about it.’ Instead, she chose to play an ‘anti-mother’ in Guillermo del Toro’s horror Mama and the CIA Operative Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, a woman who has no time for any man other than Osama Bin Laden, whom she is trying to kill. ‘The second that a studio or some kind of… system tries to tell me what I am or what I should be doing, I’ll do the opposite.’

Her stance, too, is informed by the 100 or more days that she has spent on strike this year. Battle lines have been drawn in Hollywood about who gets to make money from the vast glut of content in the streaming age, creatives vs industry. After initial reluctance (she hates public speaking) she has proved a forceful advocate for union rights on social media, on marches and behind the scenes.

“I can feel things that people are feeling, which meant in drama classes I could fall into whatever I was playing and the teachers were affected by it and impressed by it”

There is, she stresses, a huge chasm between the people who actually make the things they like to watch — and the people who make money off it. ‘You know, 87 per cent of my union doesn’t have health insurance because they make less than $26,000 a year,’ she says. And of course, she has a keen awareness of what it is like to have no money.

‘We struggled a lot, so this probably was planted in me at some point,’ she says. ‘Don’t just play nice all the time. There’s certain things you need to fight for. You need to make sure that your voice is heard. You need to make sure if you have a platform that you use it to amplify the voices of others that aren’t being listened to or are being ignored. I’m sure that was fed into me as a child who was ignored by society.’

An agreement has yet to be reached — but she betrays some optimism for what will happen in the aftermath. She has a theory: the last two really significant Hollywood strikes, in the 1960s and 1980s, were followed by a flourishing of independent film-making in the 1970s and 1990s. ‘Whenever there’s a strike, it’s usually the workers trying to get power away from the all-knowing studio system and there usually is some kind of seismic shift afterwards. So I’m hoping, if we’re following the trend, the decade to come is going to be a really exciting time in cinema.’

I mean, let’s hope so? And her latest movie, Memory, is a reminder that there is plenty of life in American cinema beyond the content farms and mega-franchises. Chastain plays Sylvia, a single mother and recovering alcoholic living in a rough part of Brooklyn. She is security-obsessed, highly protective of her teenage daughter, suspicious of everyone. It slowly emerges that she was sexually assaulted as a child and has carried the memory of these traumas long into adulthood. Then, at a school reunion, she meets Saul (Peter Sarsgaard). As it turns out, he has something like the opposite problem: early onset dementia. Whereas she can’t forget, he is incapable of remembering.

The two performances are wonderful and seem likely to earn more awards attention. There is a lot going on underneath the surface. ‘Al Pacino taught me something about the camera that was really interesting on my very first film with him and I think that’s something that has been vastly important to me in approaching my characters. It’s like there’s two dialogues happening at once. There’s what the character’s saying and what they’re presenting in public — and it’s also what’s happening inside and in many cases, it’s the opposite going on. It’s that tension of the opposites that I think is the most exciting thing on camera.’

Jessica Chastain shot by Paola Kudacki for ES Magazine
Jessica Chastain shot by Paola Kudacki for ES Magazine

It is also determinedly gritty film-making, Franco revealing an unvarnished America that is rarely captured on film. To which end, Chastain bought all of Sylvia’s clothes from vintage stores, styled her own hair and put in shifts at the daycare centre where Sylvia works — helping the real-life residents get dressed, giving them their medicines, taking her breaks with her co-workers. She also discovered, on the first day of filming, that Franco had decided to shoot the first scene at an actual AA meeting in the basement of a church with actual AA members. ‘I have no idea how he persuaded them,’ she laughs. ‘Literally this is the first film I did after The Oscars, so I went from all this pomp and circumstance to being, “I don’t want to look like the actress pretending to be something in this room”. So you know, he really forces you to be authentic.’

She was so taken with Franco’s approach that she has already shot another movie with him — and plans to make as many more as he will have her in. ‘I mean, I hope to work with him every year. He keeps talking to me about ideas he has. I’m like, “Great let’s do it!”’ She speaks with similar enthusiasm about the British theatre director Jamie Lloyd: she was in his production of A Doll’s House on Broadway recently and hints that this will end up in London before long. ‘I like working with film-makers and directors who are okay to throw away all the rules and try something exciting and new. That’s what I’m hoping to do for a while.’

This independence of imagination is clearly the thing she values most. As we talk, the theme resurfaces again and again. ‘No matter what we’re doing — it could be art, it could be politics, it could be music — it is a very rare thing for people to feel comfortable to move against the current of thought,’ she says. ‘I mean I don’t want to get into politics — but, it’s like, you open social media and everyone’s talking about Israel and Gaza, right? It’s everywhere. And I’m like, okay, well what’s happening in the Congo? What about the 1.5 million Muslims who are in camps in China? What about the 500,000 Syrians who were killed, you know what I mean? It’s anti-thought, anti-expansiveness. It’s like everyone gets on this one train of thought and they don’t have room to understand that many things can happen at once and we should care about all of the things.’

I wonder how much this perspective comes from her upbringing, as a child who was ignored, as she has put it? And yes, it is hard to separate herself from her childhood struggles. ‘If someone’s trying to tell me what I should do or what I should be — and that someone has more power than me, like a studio — I’ll push against it. I’ll stick it to the man… I mean, I never went to the doctor. I literally just started going to a doctor now.

I never even thought it was important because I grew up as a child without going to a doctor because we had no medical insurance.’

It seems improbable that she made it out; she has family members who didn’t. At the same time, however, she was absolutely certain ‘from a very young age’ that acting was almost like a superpower for her.

‘I just knew it immediately. I’m an incredibly sensitive person. I can feel things that other people are feeling, which meant in drama classes or whatever, I could kind of fall into whatever I was playing and the teachers were affected by it and impressed by it. I saw that very early on as like: “Ahah! This is something that people are giving me attention for — and maybe this is my way out.’

And it really was Shakespeare who provided her escape, the specific moment arriving when she saw a production of Richard III on a school field trip. ‘Shakespeare became very sexy to me when I was in high school. I was so moved by the language and what could be expressed if you just focus on the words and not on this idea that this is something written so long ago. I just became obsessed with it.’

So obsessed that she failed to get the US equivalent of GCSE as she was bunking off to read the Complete Works. ‘It’s a bit insane.’ When she decided, later, to try out for Juilliard, she chose a speech from Romeo & Juliet as her audition piece — and thus became the first member of her family to complete any form of higher education.

“I literally just started going to a doctor now. I never even thought it was important because I grew up as a child without going to a doctor as we had no medical insurance”

She retains many good friends from Juilliard, including Oscar Isaac, her co-star in the extremely emotionally gruelling Scenes from a Marriage. (‘That whole thing, man. That was rough…) But she was aware, all the while that she was studying, of the ever-present risk of being kicked out. ‘I was taking out so many loans and my grandmother was helping me out a lot. I was like: “If I get cut from this programme, what am I going to do?” It wasn’t something that could even be a possibility for me.’ So, while her fellow students went out drinking, she would usually be found in the New York performing arts library, watching old videos of Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Michael Caine. ‘All of these other people who come from different backgrounds can go home, they can get kicked out, go home, they’ll be fine. It was survival for me in a different way.’

In a sense, she says, that feeling of insecurity has never left her — not even after three dozen movies, Golden Globes, Academy Awards, not even being married to an Italian aristocrat. ‘I think it’s always there,’ she says. ‘I’m so worried about money all the time... I mean the biggest purchase I ever made besides a house: I bought myself a Mini Cooper during the pandemic, but like a used one. It’s the only car I’ve ever bought. I don’t spend money. I’ll spend money on other people but it’s very difficult for me to spend money on myself.’

What does she do for fun, then? She insists that she is ‘the most boring person in the industry’, which having interviewed a few actors, I’d say is wholly untrue. She likes cooking, walking and sitting in silence. ‘Some people get energy from crowds. Maybe it’s because I’m sensitive but I feel like when I’m with people, my energy goes out. I think that’s the difference between introvert and extrovert. I need to be quiet for a while.’

I’d say Jessica Chastain should do whatever the hell she needs to do.


Photographer: Paola Kudacki

Stylist: Julia Muller

Set Designer: Caz Slattery at CLM

Hair: Renato Campora at The Wall Group

Make-up: Genevieve Herr at Sally Harlor using Lancome

Manicure: Megumi Yamamoto at Susan Price using KOSÉ

Photographer’s Assistants: Sebastiano Arpaia and Ashton Herman

Tech: Creigh Lyndon

Stylist’s Assistant: Izabella Passero