How seriously does Jessica Chastain take preparing for a role? “By the time filming started,” says Kathryn Bigelow, director of the war-on-terror thriller Zero Dark Thirty (2012), “Jessica was quite conversant in counterterrorism, and she once told me that the hard part for her was that you had to reach an understanding of Osama bin Laden’s intelligence in order to comprehend and ultimately outmaneuver him.” Since then, Chastain says, she’s stayed in touch with “Maya,” the real-life deep-cover CIA figure her character was based on.
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And before playing the title role in Molly’s Game, adapted from Molly Bloom’s memoir about hosting high-stakes underground poker games that drew everyone from A-list celebrities to Russian mobsters, Chastain not only hung out with Bloom, she says, but also “went to a New York game and watched the gentleman who brought me lose, like, $500,000 in four hours. I thought, Okay, I’ve seen enough, and I’ve got to get out of here—they were all looking at me like I was bad mojo.”
Bad mojo is almost certainly not a descriptor that would be used by anyone else who’s ever intersected with Chastain. Legendary screenwriter and first-time director Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the script, credits Chastain and costar Idris Elba, who plays her character’s lawyer, with almost superhuman mastery of his trademark volleys of dialogue. “She has six scenes with Idris, and those are 8, 9, 10 pages long—magnitudes longer than most movie scenes,” Sorkin marvels, “and we didn’t have the rehearsal time that you’d want. I was terrified—but it got done.” Elba says that Chastain immediately put him at ease with her work ethic—and her charm. “We had to rely on instant trust to get those scenes knocked out,” he says. “We had to find the chemistry immediately. She was in every scene but still made time to be human and creative, going over it again, ironing out the beats, the stuff that brings these characters to life.”
Chastain’s dedication to acting may come naturally, but no one could argue that her success came easily. After growing up in small-town northern California, a tumultuous period during which she dropped out of high school, she was accepted to Juilliard after a castmate in a community theater production of Romeo and Juliet urged her to audition. After Juilliard came years of intermittent theater and TV work in New York and L.A. Finally, in 2011, she memorably arrived as a big-screen star with the release of seven features, including The Debt, a taut thriller with Helen Mirren; Take Shelter, an indie gem with Michael Shannon; Terrence Malick’s masterly The Tree of Life, with Brad Pitt; and the breakout ensemble hit The Help, which earned her an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of tragic housewife Celia Foote. Since then, Chastain has maintained an unremitting pace, having appeared in more than two dozen movies thus far.
As she pauses in momentary repose, Chastain’s delicate features and diminutive build somewhat belie her plainly ferocious will to achieve. With her often haunted-looking eyes, pale complexion, and gorgeous red mane—which in ambient light can make her appear almost as if lit from within—she can project everything from icy hauteur (The Martian, Miss Sloane) to loving warmth (The Tree of Life, The Zookeeper’s Wife) or an unstable equilibrium and high intelligence in between (Zero Dark Thirty—for which she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress—and A Most Violent Year). But her ambitions aren’t limited to having the camera love her. British director John Madden, who worked with her on The Debt and Miss Sloane and hopes to again, says, “Increasingly, she likes to do work that speaks to her passion, which is to expand the range of what women are allowed to do in stories and the way they’re allowed to function in movies.” That ambition extends to Chastain’s production company, Freckle Films, about which she says, “For me, it’s for finding and creating opportunities for women and minority groups that might not have an outlet, whether it be as a writer or an actor or a director. It’s important to me to create these stepping stones.”
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Next, Chastain, 40, says she’d like to explore her talent for straight-up comedy—so far only partially demonstrated with her role in The Help, which was also laced by tragedy. Meanwhile, she’s starring in Woman Who Walks Ahead, based on the life of Catherine Weldon, a New York artist who traveled to the Dakota Territory and befriended Chief Sitting Bull. And she’ll show her musical chops in 2018 as Tammy Wynette in the biopic George and Tammy, with Josh Brolin as tormented country star George Jones.
Chastain’s own life these days seems the opposite of tormented, as she acknowledges with a broad grin her marriage last June to her boyfriend of five years, Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, a dashing Italian aristocrat who’s an executive with the fashion brand Moncler. When it’s suggested that a particular line from The Tree of Life would seem to be close to her mantra, “Unless you love—,” she interrupts, without missing a beat, “your life will flash by,” and nods her head in affirmation.
This article originally appears in the November 2017 issue of ELLE.