Jessica Chastain on Breakthroughs, Big Years and the Awards-Season Crash Course

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Sean Penn reportedly came out recently as displeased with The Tree of Life, saying the finished film lacked the emotion of Malick's original script. Did you sense anything similar, and what's your impression of his comments?

I was very surprised by the comment. The first thing I thought is, "Where did the comment come from?", and I saw that it was a [publication] from another country. [The French newspaper Le Figaro.] My first thought was that it was taken out of context, and then it was that it was mistranslated. There's something that happened in the translation, and then it was picked up and put in a lot of other things. Because I know that Sean has worked with Terry more than once, and he was wonderful when we were working on Tree of Life, and he was so great at Cannes. I was very surprised by that comment.

And myself, learning that whole press thing that I'm doing, I realize things can be shifted a little bit. I said something about gaining weight for The Help -- about gaining 15 pounds and stuffing myself into a girdle in the heat of Mississippi. I made a joke that that was torture -- wearing the girdle in the heat. That comment got twisted into me saying that gaining weight was torture for me, which I never said. So I'm starting to realize, especially with the Internet and many, many media outlets, one comment can get shifted. It's like a game of telephone. I haven't talked to him about that comment yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was taken out of context.

I love how you've described the dress you wore on the Cannes red carpet as "sunshine." Is that a way you inform your characters' wardrobes as well? Say, natural properties that inform the physical?

That's a really interesting question. I never thought about it that way, but I think you're right: Clothes, to me, are very emotional and very personal, and I'm incredibly involved in costume and wardrobe and hair and make-up when I approach a role. I bring in pictures. I create little vision boards of what inspires me for the character -- colors, emotional ideas. I knew that red carpet was the beginning of a journey that I'm taking, and I love that it was for The Tree of Life. It's a film that I was so happy to be a part of and so connected to that inside, I felt this happiness that I could only explain as sunshine. And so I said that I wanted to wear something that mimicked or mirrored what I felt emotionally on the inside. That absolutely goes into choosing costumes as well.

Awards season is forthcoming, and at least a few of your films are going to be discussed in that context. Are you prepared to have that conversation with people -- to make those rounds, to be present in that kind of scenario?

It's funny. I've been asked that question before, but because I'm so new to all of this, I don't really even know what those conversations are, or what those rounds are o what that is. I love talking about the films, and I love talking about the performances around them. I love talking about Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, and so I hope he gets attention. I love talking about Octavia Spencer in The Help. I love talking about Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, and of course Brad Pitt in Tree of Life. That, to me, is very exciting. If there's awards attention, I'm so proud of them and these film that nothing could make me happier.

But I don't know exactly what it is. I know we're in an interview, but part of me is asking you, "What is it?"

Well, we should consider your roles in these films, too; you'll be part of the conversation. And by "conversation," I mean the discussion about, "Will so-and-so get nominated? What do they have to do to get nominated? How they match up against this actor or actress or film?"

But -- and I'm so sorry -- do the actors campaign? Or is that something that's just done by publicists around the film? What does "campaigning" mean?

It's complicated, but it basically goes one of three ways. I don't know if you followed Mo'nique a couple years ago, but she basically refused to lobby for awards nominations, and when she won the Oscar, she kind of dismissed the whole "pick me" dog-and-pony show as useless and unnecessary. Then there's Melissa Leo, who spent her own money on an ad campaign that said, "Conisder"--

[Gasps] Wow!

Yeah! "Consider" her for both a nomination and her eventual win. She was very much involved in that. The majority, though, is usually is handled by publicists and studios for whom awards attention means big business. Sony Classics, for example, will probably mount a campaign for you and Michael and Jeff's screenplay for Take Shelter. Fox Searchlight will go all out for Tree of Life for Best Picture, etcetera. That's basically it.

Well, I love these films, and I love talking about them, and I want people to see them. So I'll absolutely do interviews for that. I'm never going to take out an ad. I know, famous last words -- never say never -- but I really can't imagine ever in my life doing something like that. To me, it's not a short sprint. I want to be a career actor. The most important thing to me is that people like the films. If they like the films and they like the performances, it means that I get work with other great actors and make other great films. So it's not about an award. Of course it's nice that there's awards buzz around the films because it means they get more attention. But I'm not the person who's going to... I mean, I'm not outgoing. I'm very shy. I was never the girl in high school who was wanting to be in office or something -- who would campaign for myself to become student-body president. [Laughs] I'm just not that person. But if I'm proud of the film -- which I am, of all these films -- then I want to support them and do whatever I can to support them.

[Photos: Getty Images (page 1, page 3); Dale Robinette/DreamWorks II, Laurie Sparham/Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Co. (page 2, L-R)]

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