Jessica Chastain on Jolene, Tree of Life and Breaking Through with Terrence Malick

jessica_chastain_TOL_500.jpgJust as the film whose title bears her character's name is something of a mixed bag, you could view its closing credit "Introducing Jessica Chastain as Jolene" a number of different ways. It could be a thinly veiled announcement that a star is born, which would be a little misleading considering the raves Chastain's earned since at least 2006, when she shared the stage with Al Pacino in Salome. It could signal her introduction to the screen, though the actress has been doing TV since landing a holding deal with John Wells right out of Juilliard in 2004. And even if we take it all very literally as a big-screen bow, Chastain has since put eight movies between her and Jolene -- including Terrence Malick's new one -- and it's virtually coincidence that this came first.

But it probably worked out for the best. Jolene would be the role of a lifetime for many young actresses, one nubile orphan's 10-year journey of self-discovery, love, sexuality, independence and motherhood. (Indeed, Chastain's dynamic, fearless performance earned her the 2008 Seattle Film Festival's Best Actress prize.) But it was just a warm-up for the 29-year-old's marathon to come: as a Texas wife and mother in Malick's secrecy-shrouded The Tree of Life; a Mossad agent in John Madden's thriller The Debt; a homicide detective in The Fields; a class-climbing Southern belle in The Help; and more roles in projects from Ralph Fiennes' updating of Coriolanus to an untitled indie by acclaimed Shotgun Stories director Jeff Nichols.

Chastain came up for air long enough for Movieline to ask about her stirring (and revealing) work in Jolene, the pros and cons of release-date limbo, and holding her own against Malick and co-star Pitt in one of the young decade's most anticipated films.

So: Busy much?

[Laughs] Yeah! In the past four years I've made nine movies. And four of them were made this year. This year has been incredibly busy for me. But it's great. I can't believe this is my life; I feel so lucky. I've wanted to be an actor since I was a little girl, and now it's happening. So I'm very busy, but I'm very happy.

It's weird because for as much as you've worked since 2007, at least half your output has been delayed for one reason or another. Has that been frustrating?

In the beginning it was extremely frustrating, because with my first film -- Wilde Salome, with Al Pacino (based on their 2006 Los Angeles stage production of Oscar Wilde's Salome) -- my mom was telling everybody, "Oh, Jessica's in a movie with Al Pacino..." And then I did Jolene, and then I did Tree of Life with Brad Pitt, and my family's excited and telling everyone, but for some reason my movies take longer to come out. Anyway, my poor mother! All of her friends are like, "Sure, your daughter's an actress." But now I realize it was a gift, because I've definitely hoped to go into an audition room with a director who doesn't have a preconceived idea of who I am from a performance. And I've been able to play very different women. I haven't been typecast, because none of my work has come out. So that's been an exciting part of this for me.

That's interesting, because Jolene takes a very direct approach to sexuality. As someone starting out, did you struggle with that at all -- the idea that this might just be what's expected of actresses when they're getting started with their careers?

Well, I did Salome before that, and for that I did a lot of research. I read a book called Sisters of Salome, and it talks a lot about nudity -- women and nudity. I had never done nudity; I didn't do nudity at Juilliard, and I had really mixed thoughts about it. And I came to the conclusion for Salome that it's my job as an actor -- even if I don't want to do it -- it's my job to be open and give my heart, my voice, my body, my soul, and everything else I can to the character. Trying to hide myself, in a way, is a sense of vanity. I know it sounds strange. But to me, throwing myself in is what my job is. That's what I have to do.

So in Salome I had the experience of doing eight shows a week in front of 1,400 people, and at the end of this dance I had to get naked. That, for me, was a big lesson in being brave. After that, doing Jolene was so much easier. I don't know if I'd have been able to be that free in Jolene if I hadn't done Salome; doing nudity in theater is much harder than doing nudity on camera. On camera maybe there's 10 people in the room; in theater there are those 1,400 people in the room with you. It was easier to do it that way.

In Jolene you play a character over 10 years. How do you even begin approaching a role like that -- how she evolves, how she advances? And what do you bring from your own life?

For me, Jolene is a story about a girl who is looking for love through all these relationships. I remember my first love and how you so easily get lost in the other person's world -- especially if you don't have a strong sense of who you are. Jolene being an orphan, I thought it was interesting: As she's going through all these characters and these different worlds, these relationships are kind of feeding on her. I drew on the experience of first love, but I'm also a crazy researcher. I went out to Sumter, South Carolina, and recorded the accents and did all that before I even got to the set. That was really helpful as well.

The violence near the end of the film is really quite shocking and, I imagine, as hard to film as anything romantic. How did you feel out that sequence with Michael Vartan?

First off, I really trusted Michael. He'd done Alias for years, and he's really an excellent onstage combat fighter. I knew no matter what, he wasn't going to hurt me. So knowing that your scene partner will protect you allowed me to be free in the scene. But it was tough. Like the part with the paint? [Pauses] I just tried to start the scene with her painting and tried to be surprised each time we shot it. There wasn't really anything I could do. I mean, we mapped out what it was, and we went over it, but I couldn't have any expectation of what was happening in the scene. I just had to be in it and know I was safe and protected.

"Each time we shot it?" How many times can you shoot a scene like that?

I know! I think we shot that scene only twice.

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