By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 20, 2011 at 1:30PM
If there's one thing there aren't enough of these days in the film world, it's awards. Especially this time of year: how are those who gave the best performances, or contributed the most to their chosen discipline this year, meant to know their worth without some kind of prize to round off their year? We kid, of course, but this year, for the first time, we wanted to take a moment during our year-end coverage to recognize the Man and Woman without whom our 2011 would have contained a lot less pleasure.
To start things off, there was really only one choice for The Playlist's inaugural Woman of the Year 2011, an actress who was virtually unknown twelve months ago, but has appeared in no fewer than seven films that premiered at film festivals or went into wide release over the course of the year, without a real stinker in the bunch. Her roles ranged from an Israeli spy and an ethereal 1950s housewife, to a Texan FBI agent and a platinum-blonde bombshell forming an unlikely friendship with her maid (the latter a part that looks set to take her to the Oscars this year). Yes, it's Jessica Chastain. Who else?
We spoke to Chastain recently at the Marrakech Film Festival, and the actress recalled her red carpet experience at Cannes, at the world premiere of her coming-out party "The Tree of Life." "It's like in all the great novels," she said, "You see a moment where someone crosses a bridge, I guess, where there's an initiation or a ritual. And that was absolutely like this ritual of walking into something. I actually started crying in the car, because it was just so much that, even though I didn't know how big it was going to be, that carpet, I guess I could feel the energy... I don't remember a lot of that moment because it was just... panic. There was no way I could have let go of those guys [Brad Pitt and Sean Penn]. And they saw that – they were so sweet because they really protected me, and they saw that it was completely new territory for me." It's unmistakably the reaction of someone who knows that their life has changed forever and she's only going to become more well known in the years ahead.
Born thirty years ago in Northern California, Chastain attended legendary drama school Julliard, thanks to a scholarship donated by alumni Robin Williams, of all people. In her last year, she was spotted by TV behemoth and WGA president, John Wells ("The West Wing,"), who offered her a holding deal, leading to roles on "E.R." and "Veronica Mars," as well as a starring turn on the planned remake of vampire soap "Dark Shadows" that was never picked up (her role, of Carolyn Stoddart, is being played by Chloe Moretz in Tim Burton's movie version, which lands next summer).
As a result, she was spotted by Al Pacino, who offered her the title role in a production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" that he was staging in Los Angeles. Obsessed with the play, having performed it once before in New York, Pacino would also film the staging as part of a documentary he was making, similar to his 1995 film "Looking for Richard," entitled "Wilde Salome." That film finally emerged at Venice this year, the actress' only film to debut in 2011 that hasn't yet reached wider release, and to this writer's mind, her best performance of the year; an astonishing, fiery turn, behind which everything else on screen fades into the background. It's amazing to think she was only 24 when it was captured, but the charming behind-the-scenes glimpses show a serious-minded star in the making even then.
And she's entirely aware that she's had the kind of breaks that most actresses dream of, even if it's taken a little longer, and is prepared for the brickbats when they come. "So far it's been nothing but positive," she told us. "But I'm not some teenager. I know that's not the way careers usually are. Usually they start out like that but then you have a lot of ups and downs. So something will happen, I'll do a film that will fail miserably, or I'll wear something really awful on the red carpet, or I'll trip down the stairs and there'll be a lot of negative comments. So I am prepared. I do know that as wonderful as this is, I need to love every second, but not attach myself to this, because I hope to have a very long career that will have those ups and downs."
And to be fair, it's not been a steady rise: 'Salome' was followed by smaller-scale TV and stage work, a few years of life as a working actor, fighting through auditions, until Terrence Malick cast in her "The Tree of Life," allegedly on Pacino's recommendation. That film shot in 2008, but Malick spent three years in post-production, the finished product finally debuting at Cannes afterwards. Her next role, as the young version of Helen Mirren's character in "The Debt," lensed early in 2009, but was caught in limbo for a while when parent company Miramax went under, until Focus turned it into a surprise late-summer sleeper hit this August.
It must have been frustrating, but when we spoke to the actress, she told us she could see the funny side. "You know it sort of became like an absurd comedy after a while," Chastain said, "Where I thought, 'My first film was four years ago and it still hasn't come out' and so there was this thing of, okay, I was telling people I was working with Al Pacino, or playing Brad Pitt's wife, and after a while it gets uncomfortable every time you go home for Christmas and they go, 'Hey, when's your movie coming out?' and I'd be like, 'I don't know, you guys.' But not anymore, cause now I'm like 'April 20th!' "
After "The Debt," which bowed at Toronto in September 2010, and in which she's a formidable presence, embodying, and arguably even outshining, Helen Mirren, who plays the older version of the same character, the film world's next exposure to Chastain was in "Take Shelter," Jeff Nichols' powerful drama of mental illness, economic hardships and apocalyptic visions, which premiered in January as part of Sundance. While undoubtedly playing support to Michael Shannon's titanic central performance, she's crucial to the film's success; deeply loving of her husband, and baffled by his strange behavior and sudden obsession with building a storm shelter in the garden. The scene between her and Shannon as she pleads for him to come out of the shelter contains some of the finest acting of the year for a role that is under-written on the page.
Her most anticipated turn was "The Tree of Life" – being cast opposite Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick's long-awaited film was what brought her to the attention of most. It's a difficult part; she's a symbol of grace more than a real person, an ethereal presence haunting her young son Jack well into adulthood. But she is positively luminous; Malick is clearly deeply enamored with his lead, and when given real material to perform, she makes it sing.
Smaller performances in "Coriolanus" and "Texas Killing Fields" followed, the former letting her display a real capacity for Shakespearean verse, and the latter, whilst arguably the least successful of her 2011 releases, let her display more range as an FBI agent tracking a serial killer, proving, along with "The Debt," that she's as convincing and compelling as a driven badass as she is as a housewife. She's made a habit of never really repeating herself so far, something she attributed, when we spoke, to her theatrical training: "Someone asked me why I do all these genres and I thought about it for the first time and I think it's because, you know, I studied at Julliard and started out in theatre, where there's a repertory where one night you're doing Chekhov and the next night you're doing a restoration comedy, the next night you're doing a modern drama, you're always changing. So for me it's not strange to do, like I just finished filming a genre film – Guillermo del Toro produced [the horror film "Mama"] – and then I'm going on to a big science fiction film [The Tom Cruise-starring "Oblivion"].
The performance for which she's been picking up the most awards attention was another giant leap from anything else she did this year. Standing out among the impressive ensemble of actresses in "The Help" is quite a feat. But as Celia Foote, the newcomer in town, shunned by the cabal of women led by the demonic Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), Chastain is bright, charming, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking, and her relationship with Octavia Spencer's' Milly is the highlight of the film. Furthermore, put Celia next to Rachel in "The Debt," Virgilia in "Coriolanus" and Samantha in "Take Shelter," and the extent of Chastain's sheer range becomes apparent. But it's not a performance that she considers representative, or one she's likely to be typecast in. "A lot of people tell me they love Celia Foote, they love that character from 'The Help,' but to play that character that kind of [does a squeaky airhead giggle sound] over and over again might make an audience happy, but I would just die."
It's clear that she's never going to be one to rest on her laurels, some have said her appearance this year birthed a star with the longevity of a Meryl Streep or a Helen Mirren. Indeed, the only person who was surprised was Chastain herself; we couldn't resist telling her she was our Woman of the Year when we spoke in Marrakech, and she responded with an endlessly endearing gasp, and a "No!," before telling us, "Honestly it is a great honor, thank you."
And as for our Man of the Year? Chastain told us that she doesn't know him, but they have crossed paths on the festival circuit over the year. "We were at the Toronto film fest together. And it's a strange thing when people start to see your films because there was one moment when I was walking through the lobby of the hotel and I see him walking toward me and we just kind of look at each other... And walk by! You'd say hello but it's like, [adopts serious tone] 'Yes, hello, I know you're an actor, and I'm an actor...' and it's just awkward." But she'd like to meet him, properly, asking, when we told her of her counterpart, "Does that mean we get to go to a ball together?" Not this year, at least, but if they end up going for dinner, we promise we'll pick up the check... As for his identity, check back in a day or two to find out exactly who he is.
–Additional reporting by Jessica Kiang