Acting is about the art of reinvention and transforming oneself into a character. To become someone else—to lose oneself in the guise of another—is, in many ways, the most thrilling part of what an actor does. The alchemy involved in that process is mysterious—a melding of mind-set, physical presentation, and the magical relationship between the actor and the person he or she is portraying. Since all cinematic characters are initially created by writers and directors, actors are the ultimate muses. They give life to other people’s words and vision.
In the past two years, Jessica Chastain has seemed to go from nowhere to everywhere, reincarnating in movie after movie. She was a devoted mother in The Tree of Life; a loud, libidinous Southern belle in The Help; an Israeli Mossad agent in The Debt; and, more recently, a CIA analyst determined to track down Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, which is in theaters on December 19, and a black-haired punk-rock chick in the frightening fantasy Mama (due out January 18). “I never want to get bored,” Chastain told me over coffee in early November. It was cold, and her delicate frame was nearly swallowed by a large leopard-print scarf. She was wearing no makeup, and her wavy red hair was loose. It was just four days after Chastain’s debut on Broadway in The Heiress, in which she plays a socially awkward virgin. “I wear a prosthetic nose,” Chastain said, sounding delighted. “I learned how to put it on myself.” She patted her nose. “I like the ritual. I love wigs, I love costumes, I love anything that will get me into the character.”
Four years ago, when Chastain heard that the reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick was going to finally make his long-awaited semiautobiographical film, The Tree of Life, she immediately envisioned herself as the loving maternal center of that movie. “I can’t say why, exactly,” Chastain said. “Back then, I hadn’t been getting any auditions for films, so I was doing guest spots on TV shows, and, for some reason, on those shows I got raped a lot. I was always cast as the victim. When I heard about The Tree of Life, I felt like I belonged in that world.”
There was no script—at her audition, Chastain was asked to put a baby to sleep and to look at someone admiringly. “They showed me a poster of Ethan Hawke’s face and said, ‘Look at that with love and respect.’ ” But, as is her custom, Chastain had already plunged into the depths of the role. By the time she was given the part, Chastain had gone to Kansas, where she stayed on a farm; studied Lauren Bacall in her early films to capture her slow way of talking and moving; and examined the graceful expressions of various classical Madonna paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She even attended classes at a meditation retreat in Arizona called, oddly, Tree of Life. “I wanted to slow down the mad monkey of the mind in order to cultivate a kind of inner calm that would translate to the film. I knew I had to give myself over to the movie and to Terry [Malick]. That kind of immersion is so wonderful—it’s why I love working with artists.”