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Actress Jessica Chastain poses during a media event for her forthcoming film, 'A Most Violent Year', in central London January 20, 2015.TOBY MELVILLE/Reuters

Jessica Chastain is up for an Independent Spirit Award next month for her new drama, A Most Violent Year, and if she wins, she really should thank her coat. Her character, Anna Morales, is a Lady Macbeth of the boroughs, a mob princess married to a civilian who doesn't want to get his hands dirty, and she marches him around while wearing a white, sweeping, Giorgio Armani maxi coat. The film is set in New York in the winter of 1981 – one of the city's most dangerous moments, and also one of its ugliest – a snarl of frozen slush, grit and graffiti. But that coat, belted and fitted and flared, is immaculate. It communicates everything you need to know about Anna – who she is, and who she thinks she ought to be.

"In 1981, Mr. Armani was on the cover of Time magazine. He was a fashion rock star," Chastain, 37, said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York. "Anna is in search of power, and one way she can intimidate is through what she wears."

Chastain and her writer/director, J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), wanted Anna to be a yearner, a grasper, but also easily underestimated. They wanted men – including her husband Abel (Oscar Isaac), a heating-oil entrepreneur who gets drawn into a lethal turf war – to see her as a feminine, helpless creature, all sleek blond coif and silk blouses. But her fingernails, long and sharp, tell a different story. "Those nails!" Chastain trills.

"It was frustrating for me, trying to live with them. You can't open cabinets or dial a phone. But I saw them as talons. Just when you underestimate this woman, that's when she bites you. She's a predator."

Chastain's work in the film, which opens today in select cities, is much lauded. But that's nothing new for her – everything she does is lauded. After graduating from Juilliard – Isaac was a classmate, as was Jess Weixler, who plays Robyn on The Good Wife – Chastain unleashed an amazing 18 films in six years, with stops in every genre: art house (The Tree of Life), horror (Mama), sci-fi (Interstellar), mass market (The Help), political thriller (Zero Dark Thirty). The latter two earned her Oscar nominations. In person, she has a high, airy voice and a girlish giggle, but on screen there's an unmistakable Streepiness about her, a Blanchettery, a Julianne Mooreish gravitas.

Working with Terrence Malick (she calls him Terry) on The Tree of Life taught Chastain the power of stillness, which she uses to great effect. "I have a little bit of a frenetic energy, I like to talk fast, I have this modern way about me," she says. So she read about meditation and learned to do it; she studied paintings of the Madonna at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; she watched Lauren Bacall films. And she discovered "a straightforward slowness that is incredibly graceful," she says. "There's a confidence in stillness."

Comparisons with Streep, however, send Chastain into a flutter of denial. "There could be no higher compliment, but it only sets me up to fail!" she mock-wails. "I don't agree with that assessment, and there's no way I can possibly ever live up to it, so I'm a failure." She laughs. "The best compliment anyone ever gave me came from a friend who saw A Most Violent Year, but didn't realize it was me playing Anna until the end. That to me is amazing. Someone who knows me and still didn't realize."

Her appreciation of that makes sense, given how privately she lives her life. Chastain's Wikipedia bio has slashes of darkness in it – it says she's estranged from her biological father, and lost a sister to suicide. But outside of work, "I disappear really well," Chastain says. "I keep the drama on the screen." She loves cooking with friends, going to museums and the theatre, and "seeing every film I can get my hands on. I would love to be able to go to the film festivals in Cannes and Venice and Toronto if I didn't have a film in them, just to watch the movies. As an actor you can't do that – 'Why is Chastain hanging out at all these festivals?'" She giggles again. "But it's my favourite place to be. I love to be around artists and see their work."

For her, that tends to lead to more work. Chastain met Chandor after seeing his film All is Lost in Cannes in 2013. Last year, at the same festival, she tweeted her love for Xavier Dolan's Mommy; he got in touch with her, they became friends, "and now we're going to work together," she says. She has two more juicy-sounding films due out later this year: the supernatural thriller Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo del Toro; and The Martian, a sci-fi epic from Ridley Scott, co-starring Matt Damon.

"I love movies that make us look at where we are and give a hint of where we're heading in the future," Chastain says. "A Most Violent Year, for example, takes place in the moment before Wall Street, the moment before Gordon Gekko says, 'Greed is good.' You see traces of where New York is going, and how that led to the recent financial crisis."

The film also takes place at a peak of second-wave feminism, as legions of women in shoulder pads rammed up against the glass ceiling. "Anna's carrying a resentment she's not even aware of," Chastain says. "She's her father's daughter, a chip off the old block. He should have given her his company; instead, he gave it to her husband. So one minute she's celebrating her man and lifting him up, and in her next breath, she's emasculating him, because she's the one keeping their company afloat. And she's not aware that she's doing it! Playing her, I thought a lot about Dick Cheney and George Bush. How Anna is the one behind the scenes, doing the things that the face of the operation doesn't want to acknowledge or even know about."

Unlike Anna, Chastain doesn't want to run the world. She just wants to stay in the mix. "I never feel comfortable," she admits. "Which is probably why I work so much. It's not that I'm searching for success, the result of how a film does. What I crave is the experience of working with an ensemble, creating that feeling of camaraderie. I want [to] take in as much as I can."