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Jessica Chastain: Transformer

Always up for a challenge, the actress Jessica Chastain gets into character.

On the last Friday of summer, at 10:30 in the morning, Jessica Chastain was waiting on the steps outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. She was wearing a diaphanous cream-colored dress that nearly matched her pale skin and very high sandals. Her shoulder-length red hair was pulled back—and, except for her electric blue toe- nail polish, she looked like she could have just stepped out of a 19th-century painting. We were meeting to see the glorious John Singer Sargent show, an intimate collection of large portraits that the artist made of his friends. Had she lived in the late 1800s, it would be easy to imagine Chastain, with her anachronistic beauty, being a favorite of the painter’s. Like the actresses, dancers, and artists he loved and admired, Chastain is sophisticated, dramatic, and a bit mysterious. She has not, as many actresses do, sought to define herself by playing a particular sort of woman. Since bursting onto the scene only four years ago, Chastain has portrayed, among other remarkable characters, a sex bomb from the wrong side of the tracks in The Help, for which she received an Oscar nomination; an obsessive CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty—for which she got another nomination; and a quietly scheming wife in last year’s A Most Violent Year. This month, she takes on the roles of a heroic spaceship commander in Ridley Scott’s The Martian and the diabolical Lady Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak, a gothic romance with horror overtones directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Seeing Chastain on the steep steps of the Met made me think of her break-through moment, when she appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2011 for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. She had made the film a few years earlier and could not have anticipated the impact of that debut. “It was a long wait,” Chastain told me, as I reminded her of the red-carpeted steps that lead up to the Palais du Cinéma theater. In Cannes, she looked beautiful but terrified: She was wearing a canary yellow chiffon strapless gown, and her costars, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, appeared to be holding her up. “They were!” Chastain said, as we made our way into the museum. “I would have fainted without them. When I see a picture from that premiere, I seem happy. But that was, actually, a kind of acting. In my head, I was thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing here, and I don’t belong.” Chastain paused, as if taking stock of how drastically her world has evolved. “Cannes was when my career was born. I made it through the fire to the Palais, and it changed my life.”

In 2011, Chastain starred in seven films, and that glut of characters worked in her favor, showing her range as an actress and making her practically ubiquitous. “It did confuse people,” Chastain said. “I would hear, ‘Who is the real Jessica?’ a lot. I think of versatility as a good thing, but it does make it difficult for audiences to know you.” Inside the museum, we took a wrong turn, ending up in a sculpture gallery filled with muscular male nudes. “They rarely say that about men,” Chastain continued, staring at a Rodin. “They never worry about ‘knowing’ them. One of my goals is to play a villain in a Bond film. People ask me if I want to be a Bond girl, and I say, ‘No, I want to be the villain.’ I’m waiting for that call!”

Chastain lives in Manhattan and had just returned from England, where she was filming the prequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron. “I look like a Smurf next to Charlize,” Chastain, who is not particularly tall, said with a laugh. We managed to find the entrance to the Sargent exhibition.“I play a warrior in the film. So different from the women we are about to see. Or is it? They were probably warriors, too.”

In the first room of the show, Chastain immediately gravitated to a long, narrow portrait of a dashingly handsome bearded man in a red robe, titled Dr. Pozzi at Home. Samuel-Jean Pozzi was one of the fathers of modern gynecology, and in Sargent’s painting he looks both wise and seductive. In fact, Pozzi had romanced many famous women, including the stage star Sarah Bernhardt; he also led the League of the Rose, a sort of salon where people would confess and then act out sexual experiences. “Oh, my, look at the eyes—he’s Gian Luca!” Chastain exclaimed, referring to Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, her boyfriend of nearly four years. Passi de Preposulo is an executive at Moncler; the two met through fashion circles. “He’s a gentleman,” Chastain said, choosing her words carefully, as she rarely discusses her personal life. “And that’s very important to me. He’s from an old-school Italian family. No one in his family has ever been divorced!” Chastain, meanwhile, was raised in a bohemian household in Northern California by a single mother, who is a vegan chef. “My grandmother was my inspiration,” Chastain had told me earlier. “She was the person who took me to the theater and encouraged me to act, and she’s the one who always believed in me.” They are still very close. In fact, she was Chastain’s date for the Oscars in 2012.

Chastain stared for another moment at Dr. Pozzi before moving on to the next room, where we encountered the luminous Mrs. Frederick Barnard, the wife of one of Sargent’s contemporaries. “She looks like Amy Adams,” Chastain commented. “She’s so lovely.” We wandered a bit, coming upon the actress Ellen Terry, in an elaborate costume as Lady Macbeth; the Spanish flamenco dancer Carmencita, in a yellow silk gown embroidered with lace and silver threads, striking a proud, authoritative pose; and the mezzo- soprano Mrs. George Batten, her eyes closed, midnote. “That’s the face of ecstasy,” Chastain said. “It’s interesting how sexy these paintings are with- out any nudity.”

In 1999, Chastain left the West Coast for New York, where she attended the Juilliard School. She told me that one of her assignments there was to visit the Met, choose a painting of a person, and portray the character she imagined that person to be. “All of these would have been so compelling,” Chastain said. “And I think I may have already played some of these women!” Her gaze turned to Madame Pierre Gautreau, the famous Madame X, painted in 1883, who looked down her imperious nose at the far end of the first room. Chastain observed that, with her low-cut black dress and brazen posture, Madame X reminded her of Lucille, her character in Crimson Peak. “They have a similar hauteur,” Chastain added, transfixed. “Her clothes are sexier than Lucille’s— but Lucille loves constrictive clothing, and you can feel the power of that in this portrait—the sexiness of the tightness of her dress.”

Chastain studied Gautreau’s skin. “She’s wearing a lot of makeup on her body,” she said. “You can see the veins in her hands under all the white powder.” A small card affixed to the wall showed an earlier version of the work: Whereas Sargent ultimately depicted her with the jeweled straps of her gown firmly on her alabaster shoulders, in this one, the right strap was falling down, as if she were anticipating the arrival of a lover. “It says that Madame X was despised when it was first shown in Paris,” Chastain said, sounding shocked. “And that even when Sargent repainted the strap, it was considered a scandal and a disaster and that Sargent left France—where he had been living—as his career was in jeopardy.”She stared at the painting again.“I do prefer the strap falling down,” she said finally. “It creates so many possibilities! It’s thrilling to imagine being her, to live that life. Wouldn’t everyone want to see that movie?”

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