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Jessica Chastain attends the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations on March 20, 2017 in New York City.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

The last time I saw Jessica Chastain, she was in a deep squat at the edge of a Toronto stage. She had just finished a Q&A about her political film, Miss Sloane, and was talking to a group of young women who gazed up at her in eager adoration. The impressive thing isn't only how long she talked to them (a while) – it's also that she did so while holding a full squat in a fitted, floor-length crimson sheath and six-inch heels. That's not easy. But Chastain doesn't need no stinkin' easy. She needs to work.

"It's important for me to talk to girls and young women," Chastain, 40, says now in a phone interview. "To let them know that I believe in them." When she was 10, a woman she didn't know did something similar for her: Chastain was watching a parade in Disneyland with her family (young mother, stepfather, tenuous economic situation). She felt invisible, out of step with the world. A dancer in the parade approached her.

"She said, 'I love your hair, are you enjoying yourself?'" Chastain recalls. "She acknowledged me. In our society, we don't see women. We are made to feel invisible. So it's really important for me to acknowledge young women. Who knows? It could inspire something incredible. They could step forward in their lives, knowing that they are heard and seen."

Women who step forward in their lives are Chastain's specialty. "I'm always looking for characters who go against the stereotype that society tries to put them in," she says. "That doesn't mean they have to be aggressive or leaders or combative. Women can be many things. But I like when a woman pushes against a societal constraint."

In The Tree of Life, her Earth Mother character pushed back against her domineering husband (Brad Pitt). In The Help, her 1962 Mississippi housewife rejected sanctioned racism (and earned Chastain her first Oscar nomination). In Zero Dark Thirty, her CIA agent subverted company rules (and earned a second Oscar nod). In Miss Sloane, her D.C. lobbyist character refused to let men scapegoat her. And in her new drama The Zookeeper's Wife, set in Warsaw in 1939, her title character, Antonina, pushes back against the Nazis' Final Solution by harbouring Jews and helping them escape to safety. It's based on the non-fiction book by Diane Ackerman and opens on Friday.

"We still have a long way to go in how we view women in movies," Chastain says. "You don't have to be soft, delicate, non-combative, submissive, these old-fashioned tropes of perfect femininity. You can be powerful and strong and feminine. Each woman can define what being a woman means for herself. That's what I'm looking to express in my film work."

Chastain hit the zeitgeist as a grown woman, fully formed, the way Athena sprang from Zeus's head. "I've always been strong," she says. "I think that's why it took me so long to find my way in the industry." Despite her degree from Juilliard, where she earned accolades, auditions were sparse during Chastain's first four years in Los Angeles. (She now lives in New York.) The TV roles she tried for were either femme fatales, quirky best friends or victims. "I floundered, because those parts aren't fully formed characters," she says. "They're either plot points or puppets for the male character.

People kept telling her, "You have to present yourself a certain way, you have to be sexier, maybe dye your hair blonde. You have to go to parties, network. Date someone in the industry."

Chastain did none of that. "I always had a sense of myself," she says. "I believed that my work would rise to the top. That's what I wanted to be known for. Not my sex appeal." She laughs. "I wanted to be known for my ability and my skill."

To prepare for The Zookeeper's Wife, Chastain flew to Warsaw to ask Antonina's daughter Teresa to share secrets that weren't in Ackerman's book. She also arrived on set early to bond with the zoo animals. She shared grapes with monkeys, cuddled lion cubs and hid apples around her body so the elephant, Lily, would entwine her in her trunk.

"I learned to never impose my will on an animal," Chastain says. "I always waited until the animal invited me into its space. It's almost a spiritual thing. I think animals can teach human beings a lot. They don't lie. They're completely authentic. I prefer working with animals to people." She laughs. "But honestly, we'd be a healthier society if we realized we cannot possess another living thing."

Antonina doesn't make speeches in the film; her bravery is in her actions – hiding families in her cellar by day, feeding them in her parlour by night, after the Nazi guards leave. "She wasn't concerned with being recognized as a hero," Chastain says. "No one knew the story until they found her journals." In 1968, Antonina and her husband, Jan, were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations, and she died in 1971.

The Zookeeper's Wife was one of four films Chastain made in 2016. The other three, due out later this year or in 2018, are Molly's Game, about a skier who ran a high-stakes international poker game, directed by Aaron Sorkin; Woman Walks Ahead, about 1890s painter Catherine Weldon, who travelled from Brooklyn to Dakota to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull, directed by Susanna White (it's "really important" to Chastain to work with a female filmmaker every year); and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, opposite Kit Harrington, directed by Xavier Dolan (whom she calls "a dear friend"). She's now in preproduction on Taylor Hackford's George and Tammy, where she'll play Tammy Wynette to Josh Brolin's George Jones.

"I take a lot of jobs," Chastain admits. "If my heroes invite me to their sets, I want to be there. Also, I want to help change the industry" by creating more films with women protagonists. But she does want to slow down a bit this year, to concentrate on her personal life, "make sure I'm really living."

She won't discuss that personal life. But she proudly asserts that she expects to work until the day she dies. "There are just certain things you know, and I know that," Chastain says. "I've always felt that. I was raised by single women. I'm the first one in my family to not have a child when I was a teenager. My grandmother and mother sacrificed a lot. I'm where I am because of them. In a way, they gave up who they were for me. So I don't ever want to trivialize who I am."