In 2011, the Sacramento native didn’t just simply arrive on the scene. Instead, this Juilliard drama grad, who earned her initial credits on TV (including guest spots on “ER” and “Veronica Mars”) and stage (doing “Salome” opposite Al Pacino) burst forth on multiplex screens like a fiery red-haired supernova while appearing in six films that year. And, in each one, she was a distinctly different character.
She got a bit of a late start when it came to breaking into movies—2008’s little-seen “Jolene,” inspired in part by the Dolly Parton song, is a film best known for being her film debut. But waiting until you are in your 30s before handling fame isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Notice how little of Chastain’s personal life is public knowledge even if she does a fair amount of press. She arrived a full-blown woman onscreen, no awkward ingénue period needed.
The actress, now 38, has more than made up for any lost time. In a very short period, she has managed to receive two Oscar nominations—supporting for 2011’s “The Help” and lead for 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Perhaps, even more impressively, Chastain twice pulled off the feat of appearing in the two highest-grossing movies in the U.S. at the same time. During Labor Day weekend In 2011, the civil-rights drama “The Help” was in its fourth and final week on the top of the box office while “The Debt,” an action thriller, opened in second.
And during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in 2012, “Mama,” a dark horror drama, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the CIA’s search for Osama bin Laden, stood side-by-side on top of the box-office chart. Analysts compared her achievement to when Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the top two slots with “Titanic” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” in 1998.
Little wonder that this actress, who is equally at home in challenging art-house fare as well as mainstream crowd-pleasers, has seen her paycheck go from a reported $100 a day for 2011’s “Take Shelter” to $7 million for this fall’s outer-space drama “The Martian,” which has spent two weeks at No. 1.
Given her ease with slipping into different accents, time periods and personas, there is the air of a young Meryl Streep about her, the way they both can so wholly and impressively embody such a broad range of characters from different backgrounds.
They also each possess a more timeless classical beauty that doesn’t always conform with Hollywood’s rather narrow definition of an attractive female.
Just as Streep has told the anecdote of how producer Dino de Laurentiis rejected her as being too “ugly” to be the lead actress of his 1976 remake of “King Kong,” Chastain also struggled early on in auditions for not fitting a pre-existing starlet mold. As she has said, “Being a redhead and not having very conventionally modern looks, it was confusing for people and they didn’t know where exactly where to put me.”
It took Pacino taking a chance on an unknown for his stage version of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” the Biblical seductress who claimed the head of John the Baptist after performing the dance of the seven veils, to convince others to consider casting this talented newcomer.
A 2011 making-of documentary and a 2013 regular filmed version of the 2006 Los Angeles production recorded the event that led a critic from the Orange County Register to rhapsodize over her “bravura” performance: “Chastain makes it a no-brainer to understand why Herod and most of the male members of his motley court are mad about the girl. She’s beautiful, certainly. But Chastain also gives her manipulative hyper-intelligence and roving sexual curiosity—two qualities that, when combined, make her dangerous, then doomed.”
This week, Chastain is likely to have another genre film hit on her hands thanks to Guillermo del Toro, the director who executive-produced “Mama,” as the Gothic romance-slash-ghost story “Crimson Peak” opens. Until it broke yesterday, there was a strict embargo on early reviews, but a recent rash of post-festival screening tweets complimented Chastain especially (one described her as “mesmerizing” and another declared that the movie featured “some of Jessica Chastain’s finest work”) for her role as Tom Hiddleston’s possessive sibling, who torments his new bride, Mia Wasikowska, when she moves into in their decrepit British mansion.
Silent-era legend Lon Chaney, Sr. was called the man of a thousand faces, but Chastain already has shown off multiple guises in a variety of roles. And that is part of her plan. As she has said, “I want to play everything. A lot of times actors are guided to play characters that they’ve had success with, that the public likes, so you see sometimes they end up playing the same role over and over again. For me, that would be the ultimate boring life.”
One thing Chastain isn’t, judging from these 10 of her choicest film performances, is dull. She might have a dearth of comedic opportunities on her resume (true, “The Help” had its funny moments over that plot-pivotal pie, but voicing a cute Italian-accented jaguar in the 2012 animated sequel “Madagascar 3” doesn’t quite count), but there is an expansive array of dramatic depth in the parts she has done. And she probably has one of the best scorecards for positive critical rankings on Rotten Tomatoes than any actor, male or female, of her caliber.
“The Tree of Life” (2011)
The role: Mrs. O’Brien, a ‘50s homemaker and mother of three boys in suburban Texas, who suffers the loss of a son at age 19.
The persona: Chastain easily adapted to Terrence Malick’s tone-poem approach to storytelling amid scenes of dinosaurs and a cosmos in turmoil, fleshing out an angelic character who symbolizes optimism and hope. Calm, nurturing and in control, this matriarch sees life through a prism of grace and views the world as a place of wonder. Her philosophy (in brief, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”) is in direct opposition to her bitter husband (Brad Pitt), who is hot-tempered and abusive to his sons, the better to prepare them for a world he considers cruel and unforgiving.
“The Help” (2011)
The role: Big-hearted Celia Foote, a working-class outsider among the upper-class society women in the ’60s South, who is married to a generous wealthy man who adores her. Pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages, she hires black maid Minny (Octavia Spencer), an outcast like herself, and treats her like an equal.
The persona: Anyone who saw Chastain for the first time in “The Help” would have probably thought she was raised in Mississippi and was a knockout blonde with a Marilyn Monroe-like figure. Her embodiment of what could have been simply a Dixieland belle stereotype will make you laugh and cry. While the civil rights issues take center stage, the unexpected yet joyous bond between Minny, who suffers abuse at the hands of her husband, and Celia, who gains confidence and housekeeping skills thanks to her maid, is the heart of the film and adds much needed humor to the proceedings.
“The Debt” (2011)
The role: Rachel Singer, a tough Mossad agent on the hunt for a Nazi war criminal in 1965 who grows up to be Helen Mirren.
The persona: Chastain gets physical (she studied Krav Maga, the Israeli military version of self-defense) when she goes undercover as bait to ensnare an East Berlin gynecologist once known as the surgeon of Birkenau, a World War II concentration camp. Her character is conflicted both about how the mission ultimately turns out and her relationship with her male partners, both of whom she is romantically drawn to. She and Mirren worked closely together to match their mannerisms and speaking voice, and most critics were pleased with the result in this tense decades-spanning spy thriller. Her experience here probably served her well later on “Zero Dark Thirty,” when she leads the search for the mastermind behind 9/11.
“Take Shelter” (2011)
The role: Samantha, a strong Ohio woman with a deaf daughter married to a man (Michael Shannon) who suffers from recurring apocalyptic visions that he keeps hidden from her and becomes obsessed about building a storm shelter.
The persona: Samantha is not a quitter, even when her husband’s need to build a shelter causes him to lose his job and compromise their health insurance for their child. She is the epitome of Midwestern fortitude and she rules the roost even as her husband appears to be losing his psychological bearings. As Chastain herself has said of her character, “The most dangerous animal in the wild kingdom is the mother grizzly, or, like, the female tiger. They’re the ones who do all the killing. I think Samantha is more like that. Nobody messes with her family, nobody hurts her child.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)
The role: Maya, a pitbull-ish loner of a CIA agent with few social skills who dedicates herself to the decades-long search for Osama bin Laden and must deal with numerous men along the way who question both her intuitive skills and her authority.
The persona: In her first lead, Chastain is large and in charge but doesn’t assume a macho mantle. Instead, she relies on her natural instincts and refuses to budge on what she knows is true. She has no time for romance and her one stab at having a woman as a friend leaves her heartbroken. But as the search closes in on its target, Maya’s confidence in herself is a thing of beauty. When the head of the CIA, played by James Gandolfini, asks who figured out where this most-wanted of terrorists was hiding, she chirps up from the back of a meeting room filled with men, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place. sir.” Just like Gandolfini’s character, you can’t help but smile.
The role: Annabel, a tattooed rocker chick with chopped-off black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes who is forced into the role of foster mom to her boyfriend’s long-missing orphaned nieces who are haunted by a ghost-witch that tended to them while they hid out in a cabin for five years.
The persona: Being suddenly thrust into a maternal role you aren’t prepared for can be scary enough. But Chastain captures all the ambiguity of Annabel’s plight and then some, especially when the ghost-witch threatens the couple. There is a soulfulness in her performance that makes us cares what happens to her character. Ultimately, her fate is in the hands of these feral creatures with nasty dispositions and we care what happens because she does. As unrecognizable as she is in the role of a goth girl, there is no denying Chastain’s talent even in a spook-driven story.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” (2014)
The role: Chastain’s character is named after the Beatles song, and like the lonely mournful soul described in the lyrics, she doesn’t know where she belongs. A tragic event has upended her marriage and, when we first see her, she is jumping off a bridge. She survives yet remains steeped in sorrow over what she has lost and settles into a fog of melancholia despite her supportive family.
The persona: What was initially split into two films, one labeled “Her,” the other “Him” was released as a combined feature showing both sides of the breakup, with James McAvoy as the husband who just wants to move. Both he and Chastain are excellent as always, but she has more chemistry with Viola Davis as her grad-school instructor than she does with her estranged spouse. Still, worth seeing for Chastain complete-ists – especially the way the camera practically caresses her luminous image.
The role: Once again, Jessica Chastain shares her character, this time with two actresses—look-alike youngster MacKenzie Foy and fabulous oldster Ellen Burstyn—but her version of Murph, who grows into an exceedingly bright if skeptical scientist, is the one that acts as the story’s emotional tether to her astronaut father (Matthew McConaughey) as he goes off a long journey to find an inhabitable planet.
The persona: Chastain, who doesn’t actually have many scenes in the normal sense with her space-traveling parent, is the key to adding a much-needed human component to this sci-fi extravaganza. She is angry about losing her father for the greater good of humanity, but it turns out that their connection is so strong, it can overcome the boundaries of time and space. That we buy it at all—some critics found her Murph’s resentment over her abandonment rather one-note—is a testament to the actress’s abundant ability to make us care.
“A Most Violent Year” (2014)
The role: Anna, the Brooklyn-accented and elaborately coiffed loving wife of Abel, a successful Latino entrepreneur (Oscar Isaac) who tries to run an honest heating-oil business in crime-ridden 1981 New York City. She has a head for numbers and a more contemptuous attitude when it comes to trusting others.
The persona: Like a Lady Macbeth who rules the roost as well as the accounting books with her old-fashioned calculating machine. She and Abel have a healthy sex life, they have great kids and she will do anything she can to make sure nothing happens to her family. She’s a smart cookie who is not to be underestimated. It may not be Chastain’s most convincing moment onscreen, but with her manicured nails, lacquered hair and “Dynasty”-style duds, it is clear she is having a ball with this character and it is infectious.
“The Martian” (2015)
The role: In a companion piece to “Interstellar,” Chastain is tasked with making us care again as Commander Lewis, the no-nonsense leader of an abruptly aborted Mars mission who reluctantly must leave behind Matt Damon’s botanist Watney after he is injured during a storm.
The persona: No surprise that director Ridley Scott, who has given us some of cinema’s most memorable tough women in charge, recruited Chastain as the no-nonsense leader of a mission that eventually turns into a rescue. For a long while, she must deal with the guilt that she had to sacrifice one of her team for the sake of the majority—NASA decides to keep the news he is still alive from the crew—while keeping a cool head on the trek back to Earth. But to counteract that uber-professional demeanor, Scott gives her a gift as Watney complains about her stash of disco-era hits being the only music he can listen to on Mars. Suddenly, every time Chastain is shown, it is futile not to think of her boogying to “Turn the Beat Around.” And that is a bonus treat.