Her films, including the Cannes-winning The Tree of Life, have made her the arthouse It-girl. Now Jessica Chastain is doing her bit for the sensitive redhead actress sorority. Helen Barlow reports.
Jessica Chastain has been acting in films for more than four years, yet only now are audiences starting to see her on screen. She's been in 11 films, but her breakthrough role has come as Brad Pitt's wife - and Sean Penn's mother - in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.
"You know, in the beginning it felt frustrating to have made so many films and not have them come out," Chastain says in Cannes, where The Tree of Life had its world premiere and another film of hers, Take Shelter, took out the Critics' Week prize.
"But I realised it was like a big gift because I didn't have to deal with any of the trappings that happen when movies release and how people might treat you differently. It got to be all about the work and not about anything else. So I would go from job to job and my only concern was the character I was playing and the story I was trying to tell."
A stunning redhead who exudes intelligence on screen, Chastain grew up in San Francisco and discovered acting when her grandmother took her to a play at the age of 8.
"There was a girl of my age who opened this huge book and started narrating and my grandmother told me this is what people do for a living. I thought, 'okay, I have never even heard of people doing this. This is a job!' Ever since then I have always known I was going to be an actor."
Her school years were spent in dance classes and acting in Shakespeare and Ibsen plays and eventually she was accepted into New York's prestigious Juilliard School. "I'm the first one in my family to graduate [from] college. For me, there's no job, nothing that I could do that will be harder than what I did at that school. Now every project has to be a master class in acting for me. I don't think it ends when you leave school. For the rest of my life as an actor I will continue to learn."
Chastain comes from a close-knit family as far from the world of celebrity as you can get. Her dad is a fireman, her mum runs a vegan restaurant, and a brother is in the US army in Iraq.
Interestingly, she came to Cannes with her best friend and former Juillard classmate, Jess Weixler, the star of the cult 2007 film Teeth, about a woman with teeth in her vagina.
"I went to Berlin with her to support her for that film and this is my first kind of big thing, so she had to come with me."
The adventurous nature of her friend's film might suggest Chastain's own fearlessness. Her very first film had been Al Pacino's third directorial effort, Wild Salome, which he based on his theatrical version of Oscar Wilde's once scandalous play, Salome, which they had workshopped together for a year, and in which Chastain performed extensive nude scenes.
"That was so tough because it was through The Actors Studio and they wanted the dance to be very improvisational, so it was different every night."
She says the film version will premiere in Venice, as might The Fields, her second film with Sam Worthington after their co-starring turn in the Mossad spy thriller The Debt in which the older version of her character is played by Helen Mirren.
As in Wild Salome, it's a daring starring role, and nothing like the long-suffering wives Chastain portrayed alongside Pitt in The Tree of Life and Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. Still, she jumped at the chance to work with the enigmatic director Malick, who, like most people, was clearly impressed by her talent. He taught her a lot, she says.
"Terry taught me not only about acting but what it means to be a good human being and that's the relationship he has with everyone on set," she explains. "When I watch this film for me it's like watching a home video, because the way we shot it we took over this small town. I had such a close relationship with the three boys who play my children that even during lunch we would hang out together.
"The chasing around the house with the lizards - that's all kind of real. Terry doesn't force anything; you just try to create the real experience."
She says Shannon was the "huge draw" to appear in Take Shelter, the story of a man who is convinced an apocalypse is coming, so he takes out loans he cannot afford to build a shelter in the family backyard.
"I got to work with one of the most exciting actors working right now and we had to work so closely and I had to stay on my toes all the time with him because I never knew what he was going to do.
"I grew up with a lot of women in my family so male energy is very powerful and when someone comes at you with that power, I like the idea of trying to match it. It is very exciting. Of course there are women who have that. Isabelle Huppert has that."
Chastain admits the French actress is her greatest idol, though Tilda Swinton runs a close second and she loves Julianne Moore, too. They are all redheads of course. Is it a time for redheads in cinema?
"Scientifically they say redheads need more anaesthesia at the dentist because we're more sensitive to pain. Does that mean we're also more sensitive? Whenever I watch Isabelle Huppert or Tilda Swinton, I think they're very sensitive, so maybe it's always been the time for redheads. You see few redheads. We feel like the minority so we kind of stick together."
Who: Jessica Chastain
What: The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, which both feature in the New Zealand International Film Festival on various dates.