If there’s a more ingenuous actress in Hollywood than Jessica Chastain, I have yet to meet her.
Three years ago I spent a good half hour with her backstage in her dressing room after a performance of The Heiress, which had been mauled by the critics. Unjustly I should add.
Grateful that I had come to see the play, she showed no bitterness nor resentment that she had been overlooked for a Tony nomination.
But that’s Chastain for you.
At her recent interview for The Martian, I told her how special she was – never showing any negative emotion when she’s been passed over, twice, by the Academy, the first time for The Help and then again two years ago for Zero Dark Thirty.
Her answer is surprisingly insightful.
“I have always tried to look at the positive side of things. I’m a workaholic, I love my job. I strive to be better, and if I’m second best, maybe I didn’t do as great a job as I could have,” Chastain, 38, said.
“So losing in a way is a positive for me, goading me to work harder. But then again, people talk about the curse of winning. I don’t know if it’s true, but so many young actors have won the Oscar and their career nose dived after that. So I am very, very happy with the way my career is now, I get to work with the best directors, and I work like a fiend, and I love it. So who knows, maybe it would have made me lazy.”
Chastain is so squeaky clean it’s hard to believe she had a less-than-perfect upbringing. She was estranged from her biological father, refused to attend his funeral, and considers her stepfather her father.
The eldest of five siblings, two brothers and two sisters, she was bereft when her younger sister committed suicide. Her mother used to have a restaurant but it became too much for her with two young kids to bring up.
So, last year Jessica bought her a food truck from which she now serves vegan dishes while the kids are at school.
How close are you to your stepfather?
I’m just so lucky to have him in my life and be his daughter. He’s the most incredible man in the world. He’s a fireman in San Francisco; he was on the US Rescue Team that went to Oklahoma for Oklahoma City bombing.
Growing up did you always know you’d be an actress?
I’ve said this before, and it’s true. As a little girl I never dreamed of my wedding dress; I always dreamed of my Oscar dress and my award shows’ gowns.
So now that that dream has come true, who helps you make those choices?
Luckily, I have a lot of friends in the fashion industry who I can call upon. They ask me for images of the past because I love old Hollywood; I love the gowns from the past.
I send them dresses that I have picked out from Google images. I like to participate a lot in (coming up with a dress), but I only do that with fashion designers that I know personally and who are open to it.
I would never call someone up and say I want you to make me a purple dress with rhinestones. But I do like to be part of the creative process.
Is your boyfriend (Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo) also involved?
I don’t normally talk about my boyfriend, but I will say this, when doing a fitting for something, like a big red carpet event, it is nice to have someone who will look and say, “I think it needs a little more, it needs to come in here or there”, so I value his advice.
How about jewellery? Are you a collector?
Well yes, I love jewellery, and I have been very lucky to be the ambassadress of Pierce, which is, of course, why I love Pierce. I got to wear Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels once. I love the history and energy of stones.
Do you have a favourite piece of jewellery?
A vintage piece that my grandmother gave me. It’s my most precious thing. I hardly ever take it out because it’s too precious, and I am afraid of losing it.
They don’t make them anymore.
You carry it in your purse, and one tube comes out and it’s perfume, and then you take the other tube out and it’s lipstick, and then a mirror pops out. It’s the most beautiful piece which ladies used to carry. Nowadays we just have these ugly compacts.
How about art? Are you a collector?
In terms of art I am someone who comes from a very instinctual place. Which is also true of my acting. I don’t want to get stuck too much in my head, because that’s when I start to worry about things and become stressed out.
I am inspired by other artists who don’t calculate how it’s going to be done. That’s why I like (director) Xavier Dolan. When he is making a movie he doesn’t map everything out. He has this feeling or he wants this colour or that kind of inspiration, and that is how I respond to art. (Chastain and Dolan are planning a project together.)
What is your home like? What do you collect?
I love pieces that have energy and history. I just bought an apartment that Leonard Bernstein lived in when he wrote West Side Story.
I bought a jukebox filled with music from the 1950s. It’s weird because part of me feels like I was born in the wrong time. I seem to have a connection to the past; I prefer to listen to music on vinyl.
I like the feeling of something that has a history. So that’s what I surround myself with and what I am filling my house with right now.
You’ve been so busy in the last two years, film after film. How do you choose your roles?
I never think about how they are going to be perceived when they come out. I only think about the character that I am going to play.
But I am very lucky to have worked with so many of my friends. Jess Weixler who played my sister in The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby is my best friend, we went to Julliard together.
For me, acting is so much about community. I have worked three times with classmates, Oscar Isaac as well as Jess. A friend of mine, Zed, who was in Oscar’s class, played a role in a film I did called Jolene. I love to bring people together and work from a place of creativity. (She was the one who suggested Issac for A Very Violent Year.)
How did you become involved with The Martian?
I got a call from (director) Ridley Scott, who said I’d be playing an astronaut who is the commander of the mission, and I thought, after being earthbound in Interstellar, well, that’s kind of perfect. So I was very interested in it.
I spent two days at NASA. I got to see Curiosity, Rover’s Twin, and what they were doing there. I learned so much about what they do.
And after that, I went to Houston, and met with real astronauts. My favourite thing about being an actor is discovering things that I would never get to do. I loved going to school and I loved going to museums and plays and reading books.
Before I did Interstellar, I never thought about space and never thought I’d want to go to space, but now I find it very inspiring that we as human beings are exploring further.
Philip Berk, eight-time President of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, hobnobs with celebrities to report exclusively from Los Angeles.