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Jessica Chastain in Los Angeles, May 24, 2011. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
Jessica Chastain in Los Angeles, May 24, 2011. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Johanna Schneller

Jessica Chastain's a new face. But not for long Add to ...

Here's how ready Jessica Chastain is for stardom: Even though a recent motocross accident had her hobbling through a round of interviews in Toronto this week on crutches and with a knee brace, she still did it in black patent Louboutin platform stilettos that were six inches tall. Maybe seven. It was a great physical metaphor for how confident she is about risking her neck for her art.

But who is Jessica Chastain? Good question, if only for the next week or so. Because soon, she's going to be inescapable. A northern California native, she was the first person in her family to attend college - the Juilliard School - which she did on a scholarship provided by fellow northern Californian Robin Williams (though they have yet to meet). After graduation, she worked steadily in theatre and TV, and now, at 30, is generating the kind of "Where did she come from?" excitement of a young Cate Blanchett.

Chastain shot 11 films in the past four years, and through the caprices of scheduling, seven of them are coming out this year. She plays Brad Pitt's wife in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's long-gestating passion project, which opened in select Canadian cities on Friday. The Fields, a thriller, is due in July. August brings The Help, based on the best-selling novel about 1950s-era black maids and their white bosses in the American South; and The Debt, where Chastain plays a young Helen Mirren. Wilde Salome, directed by and co-starring Al Pacino (Chastain is the title character), will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September. Then there's Take Shelter (opposite Michael Shannon) in October, and Shakespeare's Coriolanus, directed by and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, in November.

It's a staggering list, but Chastain seems to have navigated it as smoothly as she is her crutches. In person, she exhibits a confident stillness. Her voice is calm and dreamy, and she takes her time composing her answers, turning her head toward the window contemplatively to do so. In profile, with her red hair, fair skin and full lips, she has the grace and composure of a John Singer Sargent subject.

"I do fight, though, I fight for these roles," she said. "These aren't things that are just offered to me."

For The Debt and The Help, Chastain met with the directors, auditioned, screen-tested. For The Tree of Life, she auditioned "for months." At a recent lunch with Juilliard's current graduating class, "the power of auditions was the one thing that I really tried to get them to understand," she said. "You shouldn't walk into the room with the energy of, 'Oh, I hope you like me.' Apologizing for yourself before you even do anything. You should walk into the room and take control of it. It's your time, your opportunity to act. Approach it like you would a scene class. Allow each audition to be a lesson. So even if you spend years not getting a job, you're still growing as an actor."

She consistently chooses character over paycheque or opportunity for fame, and she's never been afraid to turn roles down. "I started saying no from the very beginning," she said. "For me, it's not about making it in film or TV. So I never felt a desperate need to get a job. I know why I'm in the business and I feel confident enough that I can say no, and it doesn't mean I'm never going to work again. I don't have that fear."

She does try to absorb every moment of experience that she can. Wilde Salome was the first film she made, and Pacino "taught me everything about the camera," she said. "He taught me to love it, to not be self-conscious about it. He said, 'Your camera is closer to you than your scene partner. It's a part of you, it sees into your soul. So if you try to ignore it or hide yourself from it, you're doing a disservice.' And just as your arm is a part of you, so you don't acknowledge your arm every second, once you allow the camera into your soul, then you can forget about it."

But working with Malick, she said, "is unlike working on any other film set. It's about letting go of any expectation or plan." Her character, Mrs. O'Brien, is a sun-dappled Ur-Mother, and to prepare, Chastain learned to meditate, looked at paintings of the Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, watched old Lauren Bacall films and spent two weeks bonding with the boys who play her sons, taking them bowling and on picnics - "everything I could do to fill myself with grace," she said.

But when the cameras rolled, Chastain continued, "Terry isn't a director who leads with an iron fist and forces moments to happen. We had to be open to an unexpected moment falling upon us." In one scene, it happened literally, when a butterfly landed on her at just the right moment. In another, during a domestic argument, Chastain spontaneously rubbed a pepper over Pitt's face. "I know, it sounds crazy," she said, laughing, "but we had absolute trust in each other. He's a great teammate. I didn't know he was going to grab me, either. But we were always prepared for the unexpected."

Chastain is trying to live her life the same way. "On one side of the coin, I feel absolute bliss and excitement that after all this time, people will finally know what I know," she said. "People are finally starting to experience what I experienced making this film, and all of my films coming out. On the other side, I have this tiny kernel of anxiety: What does that mean for my life? But I'm trying to take it day by day, being open to the wonderful experience this is. Each day is better than the last."

That's what the motocross accident was about. She'd just returned from the Cannes Film Festival, "where I was wearing frou-frou gowns and drinking champagne," The Tree of Life won the Palme d'or, Take Shelter earned the Critics Week prize, a bidding war ensued for another of her films, The Wettest County in the World (the Weinstein Company won, and will release it in 2012), "and it was just insanely amazing," Chastain said. Offered a motocross lesson, she thought, "That sounds fantastic, and so different from what I've been doing." She smiled ruefully. "I was really, really good at it - until I crashed." That's okay. In every other way, she's soaring.

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