by Tom Shone | photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Jessica Chastain reveals a more personal side in two upcoming films—as Tom Shonediscovers the passion and determination that have made her Hollywood’s most versatile star.
When Al Pacino was directing Jessica Chastain in the film version of his 2006 theatrical production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, he told the actress two things. One: The camera sees deeper into your soul than your scene partner. And two: Don’t lie—the camera will always pick it up. Chastain had the normal nerves that any theater actor has on making her first film. On top of that was the challenge of the role itself, the flame-haired stepdaughter of King Herod who demands John the Baptist’s head on a plate—destructive sexuality incarnate. “I did not feel like a beautiful woman that people would kill each other for,” Chastain says near her Manhattan apartment, climbing into an SUV bound for the Bronx Zoo. “Jessica—who I am in my personal life—I’m very shy, I feel very awkward, I don’t feel like a femme fatale at all.”
On this bright fall day, her own energy couldn’t be less predatory. Wearing a figure-hugging woolen brown-and-black top beneath a black Burberry coat and black Lanvin boots, she is smaller than she appears on-screen, with a contained power, like a dancer’s, and a very clear sense of boundaries—an accidental elbow brush brings a quick apology. Like a lot of screen beauties, Chastain is almost excessively luscious up close—pale Botticelli features wrapped around a bone structure that has a touch of the masculine, right down to the cleft in her chin. The Victorians would have loved her. Her conversation is engaged but polite in the manner of a bright schoolgirl having dinner with her friends’ parents. “She is never guarded, but she is very protective of not having to be an open book,” says Guillermo del Toro, who produced last year’s high-toned horror hit Mama, in which she starred. “The crew loves her, the cast loves her, but that doesn’t mean that she has to cook a dinner for 25 people every Friday.” Even Pacino, who worked with her for the better part of a year on Salomé, admits, “I don’t know anything about her. I know I loved working with her, I enjoyed her company, we’d go out with her from time to time, but I never really sat down and had a heart-to-heart with her. I don’t know where she goes.”
Her Facebook page, unusually well curated and full of “xxjes”s to her fans, charts her movements, from Paris Fashion Week to Jay Leno, but speak to friends and the picture that emerges is of a life that has remained more or less unchanged since Chastain’s days as a student at Juilliard, which she attended after winning a Robin Williams–funded scholarship. An early riser, she likes shopping for food at the local farmer’s market, doesn’t drink much, and is far more likely to be found at home playing Scrabble with friends, or else catching the latest Michael Haneke movie at the Angelika, than stumbling out of a nightclub at 3:00 a.m. “She’s always been unbelievably focused,” says actress Jess Weixler, her best friend from Juilliard, where Chastain cut a studious path, only twice visiting Malachy’s, the local bar. “It used to drive the guys crazy. ‘Why won’t Jessica stay up late?’ There were a few times when I was like: I can’t believe she’s waking up on a Saturday to go to an extra class.”