Jessica Chastain's slow road to the top of Hollywood

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Josephine Tovey

Jessica Chastain: "Very rarely does a script say, when describing the physical appearance of a character, 'red hair'".

Jessica Chastain: "Very rarely does a script say, when describing the physical appearance of a character, 'red hair'". Photo: David Slijper/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media

Three days before I meet Jessica Chastain in New York, she had an encounter with someone far more exciting. She was backstage in Madison Square Garden, waiting for a U2 concert to start.

Chastain watched as Bono entered the room and was quickly swarmed by people. She had actually met him before, when he appeared in a project she was working on years earlier. But she hung back.

"I was too shy," she tells me with a big, self-deprecating smile. "I didn't want to go up to him, he was ... I don't know ... I just think no one's interested in talking to me."

It didn't matter though, because the Irish rock star sought her out. Later that night, while singing Beautiful Day to a crowd of thousands, he slipped her name into the lyrics, crooning, "See the world in green and blue, Jessica Chastain right in front of you."

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"I was, like ..." she lets out a squeal and giggle. "It was such a cool moment."

Just a few years ago, Chastain was a relatively unknown but prodigiously determined actor, steadily working to break into Hollywood. Today, she is a twice-Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning star. This steep ascent explains why she might feel like too much of a nobody to confidently walk up to a big celebrity like Bono, but is definitely enough of a somebody that he was itching to talk to her.

While audiences may think of Chastain as an overnight success - someone they hadn't heard of one day and were seeing on every major awards' red carpet the next - her rise was anything but.

Unlike many peers, who established their foothold in the industry as teens or 20-somethings, Chastain, now 38, spent many years out of the spotlight honing her craft, taking small television parts, and working in the theatre.

It wasn't until she was in her mid-30s that she won serious acclaim for a string of film roles, including the bubbly Mississippi housewife Celia Foote in 2011's The Help, and the steely CIA agent on the trail of Osama Bin Laden in 2012's Zero Dark Thirty (both roles were Oscar-nominated).

This slower road to the top means that not only is Chastain still getting used to some of the stranger sides of fame, but she entered the public domain as a consummate performer with a clear sense of the roles she wants to play.

I meet her in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton overlooking Central Park on a hot New York afternoon. In person, she is shorter than you might expect and engagingly sincere. It's an awful cliché to be struck by an actor's beauty, but I can't help it - with her brilliant copper hair and striking bone structure, Chastain looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting come to life.

Ironically, for a long time Chastain felt her looks hobbled her attempts to win big parts. "For the longest time it was either, 'You're, like, the love interest, who's the really pretty blonde girl,' or the really 'character-y' friend," she says.

"Very rarely does a script say, when describing the physical appearance of a character, 'red hair'. I was never what the writer envisioned on the page. So it just took a while to find my place."

She's at the end of her second day of back-to-back interviews for her new film, The Martian (out October 1) and before we meet, I overhear her minders fretting about her losing her voice. But she greets me with a clear voice and warm smile, approaching each question with thoughtful sincerity, seemingly oblivious to the huge clock next to her that is counting down my time slot.

As she sits curled up on a couch, her bare feet tucked under her skirt, we discuss her latest film, in which she plays Captain Melissa Lewis, the commander of the first NASA mission to Mars.

Was working with director Ridley Scott a big drawcard? Yes, she says, but adds, rather nerdishly, that she also wanted to do another space movie.

"I became interested in space travel and space exploration after doing Interstellar, and just hanging around [director] Christopher Nolan, because he's so passionate about it," she says. "When this came my way, I just knew it was an opportunity: 'If I'm playing an astronaut, I can go to NASA, I can meet an astronaut.' "

Before this interview, I was only allowed to view the first 30 suspenseful minutes of the film, where Lewis and her team are forced to leave a member of their crew (played by Matt Damon), behind on the red planet, believing him to have died in an accident. But when they realise he is alive and alone, they are faced with the risks of a complex, interplanetary rescue mission.

Chastain worked with real-life astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson to research not only technical issues, but the emotional core of a person working in high-pressure, isolated environments.

"I noticed [Tracy] was wearing a wedding ring, and my character is married in the film, and I said, 'Do you guys wear jewellery in space?' And she said, 'Yeah, because you never want to feel disconnected from the ones you love even though you're very far away.' So that was important to me and I then did that in the film."

This forensic approach has been key to Chastain's trademark versatility. While many have remarked on her chameleon-like appearances on screen: the sharp, mob-wife blonde bob and long talons she wore in A Most Violent Year, or the emotionless gaze she adopted for Zero Dark Thirty, she always begins with the inner life of her characters.

"What's brought them to the point where they are - where they've come from, their history, their education?" she says she asks herself. "Some people start from the outside in, but I start from the inside out."

While Chastain has a genteel air about her, her roots are working-class. Born and raised in northern California, her mother is a cook, her stepfather is a firefighter, and she was raised in a big, blended family. The 2012 death of the man believed to be her estranged biological father, rock musician Michael Monasterio, caused a tabloid sensation, but Chastain has declined to discuss this aspect of her family history publicly.

The lure of a serious acting career appealed to her from about age seven when, for a "special treat", her grandmother took her to a play. "She said, 'This is a professional theatre, these are professional actors, this is their job,' " Chastain recalls. "There was a little girl on stage ... and it was in that moment I thought, 'Ah, this is my job.' "

By the time she finished high school, her resolve had intensified. She attended the prestigious New York performance school Juilliard, thanks to a scholarship paid for by actor Robin Williams.

She has long expressed her gratitude to Williams, and was particularly saddened by his passing from suicide last year. Her younger sister Juliet took her own life in 2003 after a long struggle with depression, and the need to shine a light on mental illness is one of several causes she now champions.

"With Robin Williams and with Phil [Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom she starred in a stage production of Othello] - the sad thing was some [people's] comments," she says, her expression grave. "People just don't understand depression and mental illness and they tend to blame the person."

After graduation, Chastain worked in theatre and in small guest roles on television. Her first big break came in 2006 when Al Pacino cast her in his theatre production of Salomé.

Fame has brought its pleasures (like introducing her grandmother to heart-throb actor Matthew McConaughey at a film event), but it's meant surrendering privacy. Chastain is guarded about her three-year relationship with fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, despite the efforts of the paparazzi.

"We did have a moment where we were shopping in SoHo and all of a sudden we looked up ... there were, like, 25 paparazzi getting us," she says. "We ran into a Nescafé store - like, 'What do we do, what do we do?' "

Success has also brought scrutiny of her professional choices, particularly her turn in Zero Dark Thirty. The film's depiction of the torture of a captive who provided information critical to the discovery of Osama Bin Laden was highly controversial, and a topic that was revived earlier this year with the release of a US Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. The report provided strong evidence that the film had got some things wrong, refuting the claim that torture had been instrumental in Bin Laden's discovery.

Have her feelings about the film changed in light of that report?

"I absolutely love Zero Dark Thirty," she says. "I approached it as a study of what happens to a person when they dedicate their life to revenge and murder. It wasn't a story where Osama is killed and they're, like, high-fiving and 'God bless the USA'. It really is a devastating ending."

Chastain remains steadfastly loyal to director Kathryn Bigelow and to what she feels is the integrity of the film. "I'm very proud of the film, I'm very proud of working with Kathryn and I wouldn't change a thing about it," she says, determinedly but without irritation.

A minder has appeared and the clock is showing our time is up. On my way out of the hotel, the lift stops on a floor below where, by sheer coincidence, Meryl Streep is doing her own set of conveyor-belt interviews for a new film. Chastain may not know that Streep is nearby but, I think to myself, it seems entirely apt company for her to keep. •

Three facts about Jessica Chastain 

  • She is the very doting owner of a three-legged dog named Chaplin.
  • She bought her mum, a vegan cook, a food truck to help run her business.
  • She would love to be a guest star on Game of Thrones, playing a warrior who "battles Queen Cersei".