Jessica Chastain has not had a normal year. Not so much breaking through as invading and colonizing multiplexes and arthouse theaters alike (we’ll have more on this in a special end-of-year piece coming soon), when we spoke to her during the Marrakech International Film Festival, she was nonetheless able to identify one defining experience amidst it all: the Cannes red carpet.
“I definitely mark it as a special moment,” she told us. “It's like in all the great novels you see a moment where someone crosses a bridge, where there's an initiation or a ritual. And that was absolutely like this ritual of walking into something. I actually started crying in the car, even though I didn't know how big it was going to be, that carpet. I guess I could feel the energy… Honestly, I don't remember a lot because it was just panic… There was no way I could have let go of [Brad Pitt and Sean Penn]. And they were so sweet because they really protected me, and they saw that it was completely new territory for me, you know, with Brad Pitt on the red carpet and Sean Penn in a Terrence Malick film. It was just…I felt like Michael Jackson. And really the whole time as they were smiling, they were like ‘OK, now smile. Now we're going to turn around…’ “
Her nervousness is a trait she mentions as not really having left her yet. “I’m a very shy person” she said, “I'm getting better now at talking about acting and everything, but when I get uncomfortable I can't control my body, I will start stuttering a little bit or my legs will start shaking… when I meet someone [I admire] I wonder why they are talking to me. I've embarrassed myself in front of Meryl Streep, Zack Galifianakis — I'm just an awkward person sometimes.”
But the awkwardness is a symptom of a characteristic that she finds very useful in her work. “I'm very, very sensitive and I will cry very easily. But I also laugh very easily.” When it’s suggested that this is a good thing for a director she agrees, then blurts out “yes, but not good for a boyfriend.”
Despite the staggering momentum her career has picked up over 2011, the actress seems determined to stay level-headed. “So far it's been nothing but positive. It's been the most beautiful, nice things. But I'm not some teenager. I know that's not the way careers usually are. Usually they start out like that but then you have a lot of ups and downs. So something will happen, I'll do a film that will fail miserably, or I'll wear something really awful on the red carpet, or I'll trip down the stairs and there'll be a lot of negative comments. So I am prepared. I do know that as wonderful as this is, I need to love every second, but not attach myself to this, because I hope to have a very long career that will have those ups and downs.”
When asked if there are people whose careers she emulates in this regard, she answers immediately. “Isabelle Huppert…The success she achieves, it doesn't seem to make her too comfortable. She's always challenging herself. You see her performances, and they're very brave and very risky and she's always trying new things with new directors in new countries she's never worked in before, and that's exactly the career I want."
If 2011 is anything to go by, she may just get her wish.