Culture

Jessica Chastain: From Jolene to Beyond

Jessica Chastain/Photo © CinemaFestival/Shutterstock
Jessica Chastain/Photo © CinemaFestival/Shutterstock

Jessica Chastain is a cinematic chameleon. She won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination as the intense CIA analyst tracking Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty," a woman worlds away from the ditzy Southern wife she played in "The Help" a year earlier. “She has a face that is classically elegant and eminently malleable,” wrote The Observer’s Andrew Gumbel. “She fits right into the contemporary world, but can just as easily hark back to an older era of silver-screen elegance or impeccable Edwardian manners. She can be torrid, frosty, garrulous or painfully shy, with equal conviction.”

Chastain was a guest star on TV series such as “ER” and “Veronica Mars” (and a regular on the short-lived “Law & Order: Trial by Jury”) before making her feature film debut in 2008’s "Jolene," playing a teenage orphan. But she really burst onto the scene in 2011, starring in seven films released that year including director Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life."

A petite, natural redhead who was teased as a child for her quirky style (she wore red cowboy boots at twelve and now can play the ukulele), Chastain is eminently quotable off-screen, with a mix of self-deprication and wit that’s impossible not to charm. Of her breakout year, for instance, she said, “I'll be the first unknown that everyone's going to be sick of. People will say, ‘We have no idea what her name is, but she is everywhere!’"

As for her future roles, Chastain has no strategy other than not playing the same type of character twice. “If I don't continue to challenge myself and risk failure, I have no business being an actor,” she has said. “I want to see every part I take like a master class. And you know what? I'm going to fail sometimes. And that's okay. Because when you fail, you learn more.”

We’ll have to wait until next year to see her in another literary adaptation, director Liv Ullmann’s take on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, with Chastain as the willful and tragic heroine. In the meantime,  check out her quicksilver abilities in any of her previous movie adaptations.

"Lawless" (2012)
Chastain plays former burlesque dancer and the business manager of Virginia bootleggers, including Tom Hardy, in this Depression-era tale based on Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World. TIME said she delivered “a performance of poised, seductive gravity.”

"Wilde Salome" (2011)
Chastain first played Salome -- the biblical seductress who requests the head of John the Baptist -- in a sold-out stage production of Oscar Wilde’s play co-starring Al Pacino. Pacino kept her in the part for this documentary-drama exploration of the play that he directed and wrote, with Kevin Anderson as John the Baptist and himself as King Herod. IndieWire said that while she exuded star quality and a serious work ethic in the behind-the-scenes moments, she was “sensationally, jaw-droppingly good” as Salome.

"The Help" (2011)
Chastain earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her supporting role as insecure society wife Celia Foote in this ensemble piece based on Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel of the same name. A working-class gal, Celia hires black maid Minny Jackson (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) on the sly, and the two develop a poignant friendship. Roger Ebert said, “Chastain is unaffected and infectious in her performance.”

"Coriolanus" (2011)
Chastain plays Virgilia, devoted wife to the legendary Roman leader (Ralph Fiennes) in this modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play. The Los Angeles Times called her “pure sunshine,” noting, “The actress invests the language with such a lyrical lightness, it's as if she grew up quoting Shakespeare over breakfast.”

"Jolene" (2008)
Chastain plays the title character from E.L. Doctorow’s story “Jolene: A Life,” in this story of cross-country travel spanning a decade. The Seattle Times said Chastain showed Jolene’s
”innate strength and incremental wisdom. Yet she also makes us understand how the heroine’s wobbly resistance to manipulative characters is overwhelmed time and again.”