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Chameleon Jessica Chastain Talks Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Coriolanus

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 23, 2011 at 10:55AM

When Jessica Chastain left her theater training at Juilliard and started landing movie roles, she got a gift. None of the movies came out right away. It took a while before anyone saw her work in Al Pacino's Wilde Salome (which finally debuts in Venice), or Terrence Malick's mystical The Tree of Life (which Fox Searchlight premiered in Cannes before a summer opening), or John Madden's Mossad thriller The Debt, which post-Disney Miramax finally sold to distributor Focus Features (August 31).
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Thompson on Hollywood

When Jessica Chastain left her theater training at Juilliard and started landing movie roles, she got a gift. None of the movies came out right away. It took a while before anyone saw her work in Al Pacino's Wilde Salome (which finally debuts in Venice), or Terrence Malick's mystical The Tree of Life (which Fox Searchlight premiered in Cannes before a summer opening), or John Madden's Mossad thriller The Debt, which post-Disney Miramax finally sold to distributor Focus Features (August 31).

The delayed openings meant that Chastain remained a hot actress --and a blank slate. Nobody projected her last movie onto what they thought she could do. So she was able to be a chameleon, playing a dramatic actress, a sweetly luminous idealized 50s mother, and a tough-as-nails assassin. She also earned raves as brassy southern blonde Celia in summer lit hit The Help, and starred opposite Michael Shannon as his wife in the ominously atmospheric drama Take Shelter, which played Sundance and Cannes, and will show on the fest circuit before Sony Pictures Classics opens it September 30. Ralph Fiennes also cast her as his wife in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, where she stood her ground against both him and the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave as her mother-in-law. Weinstein Co. picked up the film after it earned raves in Berlin; it will play Toronto before its December release. And Chastain also landed a spot in another fall fest film, Texas Killing Fields, as well as TWC's upcoming period gangster ensemble Wettest County. We talk about all these films below.

Chastain plays the younger Helen Mirren in The Debt, which involved the two figuring out how to play each other. They quickly agreed that there's a big difference between who you are as a younger and older woman. Her young Mossad agent takes on a pivotal mission to track down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 with fellow agents Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. "I always try to think, how can I relate to this character?" she says.

All her directors were very different. But one stands out above the rest. "Terrence Malick is one of the greatest filmmaker of all time," she says simply. "There's no ego, no separation. There's no other filmmaker who works like that."

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This article is related to: Interviews , Video, Headliners, Genres, Festivals, Directors, Awards, Oscars, Toronto, Drama


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.