Starring in this month’s long-anticipated The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jessica Chastain adds another intense real-life portrayal to her résumé that’s certain to touch the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere.
Having seen the trailers, it’s fair to say there was no more ideal choice for the role of Antonina Zabinski than the Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain—for best supporting actress in The Help and for best actress in Zero Dark Thirty—who seems to discard herself for each role and completely embody the character she’s portraying onscreen. This time she does it again to play the lead in The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is based on a true story about a Polish couple who used their bombed-out zoo as a hiding place for Jews fleeing the ghettoes of Warsaw during World War II.
In real life, she’s been described by reporters who have spent time interviewing her in person as “charming”, “immaculately groomed”, exhibiting “a poise that feels almost old Hollywood” and “friendly but not gushing.” This actress has mastered the art of Hollywood while pretty much flying under the radar—don’t look for her in the tabloids or in any of the headlines on TMZ. She’s low-key, settled into her role as A-lister, even though it took a few years to get used to it; the first time she was nominated for an Oscar, for The Help, she took her grandmother to the awards ceremony as her date, and she has admitted to being flustered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 (“I had Brad Pitt holding one hand and Sean Penn holding the other….It was my first time in Cannes and like a baptism of fire—nerve-wracking but also fun and exciting, and I’ll never forget it”).
Chastain is also an outspoken if not official member of the movement to place women in Hollywood on equal ground with their male colleagues. It clearly irks her to hear rumors of rivalry between fellow actresses, especially if she’s one of them. “I remember reading this article that talked about the ‘fight’ between me and Jennifer Lawrence, how we were rivals because we were up for the same Oscar [for Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook, respectively],” she told The Guardian. “They never say that when men are nominated in a category. So I went on my Facebook and said it wasn’t true, because I thought, I’m not standing for this anymore; because that being out there tells women that other women are not supportive. It’s this long fairytale that women don’t get along. But we’re changing that.”
Jessica Chastain grew up alongside her sister, Juliet, in Sacramento, California, the daughter of a vegan chef mother and a firefighter father. She has always been close to her maternal grandmother, the very same one who was her date to her first Oscars ceremony. “That was one of the best days of my life,” she’s said. “Just watching her watch everything. She was just goo-goo.” Chastain says she has her grandmother to thank for the fact she acts at all. As a child, she had a “very active imagination, and then my grandma took me to a play. She made it clear that this was a professional theatre company, that this was their job—she wanted me to know that it was a treat. So then I saw a little girl on stage and I was like, OK, so this is totally my job, too. This is what I’m going to do. I’m ready. My poor mom. I was always like: Mom, can you take me to LA so I can be in commercials? I don’t think my parents thought that was even a real possibility.”
She was taking ballet at age 9, and by the time she was 10 Chastain became “artistic director” of a neighborhood theater company, with the cul de sac in front of her family home serving as the stage. In her teens, she landed a role in a professional theatre company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, garnering respectable if not rave reviews. Still, on she went to Juilliard in New York to study drama, after being urged to apply by faithful friends, which she has said was the “wake-up call” for her family. She borrowed her mother’s car to drive to the audition, and her extended family scraped together the money to pay for the fees. “I was the first person in my family to go to college,” she told The Daily Mail on Sunday in one of her first interviews. “I was terrified by this idea that my whole family was paying for it and I could get cut from the program, because they had a probation system. So, the first year, I was a wreck of anxiety. You have to relax, because to speak you have to have a free jaw. But my jaw would just clench, because I’d be so anxious. And then the more anxious you get about not relaxing—it just spirals.”
Her financial problems were resolved when she won a scholarship funded by Robin Williams. She wrote thank you notes to him, but never saw him until years later, when she was sitting in an LA restaurant, telling a film director about the scholarship. Williams sat down at the table beside them. Chastain says she was “freaking out.” Her lunch companion urged her to introduce herself, but she waited, because Williams was eating, but he left the restaurant before she could muster the courage to approach him. She never had the opportunity again before Williams died in 2014.
As a perfectionist who models herself on actresses such as Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert and who admits to finding it ‘hard to let go’ at the end of a project, Chastain says she is grateful for her slow ascent. ‘Sometimes I look back over early stuff and think, oh God, my acting was so terrible! How fantastic that when I was making all my mistakes people weren’t really noticing.’
Today, although she remains critical of her performances, that early self-consciousness has gone. But perhaps in the prurience of our digital age actresses feel all too aware that anything they do in the name of art can and will be taken out of context, I suggest. ‘People can do anything,’ she retorts wearily. ‘I could do a photo shoot and people could reappropriate those photos on the Internet. I can’t worry about the results of my work. I just want to play a character as honestly as possible and if that means she’s naked, she’s naked.’