American actor Jessica Chastain has become Hollywood hot property since winning a Golden Globe earlier this year for her role as a CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty and receiving Oscar nominations two years in a row. While she missed out last year (she was nominated for her part in 2011’s hit The Help), she was in the running for the Best Actress gong at this year’s awards for Zero Dark Thirty.
While Chastain, 36, is relatively new to the big screen, her rise to starlet status has been steady and hard-earned rather than meteoric.The striking natural red head – now ambassador of Yves Saint Laurent’s new feminine fragrance Manifesto – is fortunate, however, to have been in good acting company.
In 2011 she worked with Al Pacino on Wilde Salome, and with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on The Tree of Life, which won the Golden d’Or Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. “[Al Pacino] was essentially my first acting teacher for film. [He] gave me a remarkable introduction into the film world,” Chastain says.
Despite years of experience under her belt, she considers attending Cannes for the first time as her “birth as an actress”.
“It was something mythical in a way; a rite of passage so to speak. I was so nervous and so excited to be there. As I walked the stairs hand in hand with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, I felt like I was entering a new phase in my life; their presence helped me and calmed me,” she says.
The part she played in that film – Mrs O’Brien – is also the role that has had the greatest effect on her to date. “She was the embodiment of grace. And in order to cultivate grace and love, I had to open my heart and search deep within myself,” Chastain says. “Through that process of self-work and exploration, I opened up, heart-warming my character, and I think it had a huge impact on me.”
Chastain’s journey to becoming an actor started at age nine when she first learned to dance. By age 13 she was a member of a dance troupe and had begun acting on stage. It was the beginning of a “vital passion” for acting that saw her gain a Robin Williams Scholarship at Juilliard Drama School, New York. It was here that she learned discipline, perseverance, a genuine vocation for the stage, and fell in love with Shakespeare.
Her dream role is to play heroine Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “She is a character of strength, one who actually teaches Orlando how he should love her. I love that concept. I love strong characters. I also adore the language and the poetry, as I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare. I’m always re-reading his plays,” she says.
Chastain portrays strength as well as sensuality in YSL’s Manifesto campaign clip, directed by Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn.
Fragrance plays a leading role in her performance for film and stage, she says. “I begin every character I play and every film with their own fragrance because it helps me to find the character and find the heart and soul of the woman I’m portraying.”
But Chastain doesn’t just have an A-list presence on film, she sizzles on the red carpet too; as her recent appearance at the Golden Globes showed. “I don’t think I have a particular style. I like the idea of being able to dress according to my mood and my state of mind,” she says. “Just like fragrance, clothes let you play a momentary role, adopt an attitude and reinvent yourself far from the restrictions of convention and rules. I can go from easy chic in my everyday life to something very sophisticated for an official event.”
From an early age she learned to stand out. Her red hair caused a lot of comments and she quickly decided to distinguish herself with a very short boy’s style haircut and very unusual clothes.
Her favourite make-up look is wearing red lipstick on an unmade-up face or with “a very natural nude complexion”. Before applying red lip colour Chastain exfoliates her lips with a toothbrush, and then moisturises them. “To wear red lipstick, it’s important to have nicely hydrated lips,” she says.
Her lifestyle and diet help keep her complexion clear. She is a fan of green tea and follows a vegan diet. “For me it’s the perfect mix for staying in shape and having beautiful skin,” she says.
She also uses a lot of natural skincare products, follows a healthy diet, drinks lots of water and homemade smoothies, practises yoga, cycles and walks her dog, Chaplin, by the ocean.
Due to her busy schedule, time at home with friends and family is now her biggest luxury which she refers to as a “slice of heaven”.
Working with Nicolas Winding Refn on the YSL Manifesto campaign has been an honour, says Chastain, who is a big admirer of his sense of aesthetics. She has a similar admiration for the vision of women that Yves Saint Laurent put forward: a woman who is free, daring, passionate and modern, who never gives up on anything and who goes even further than simply rocking the boat of convention, because she creates her own conventions, without ever losing her elegance, her femininity, her aura and her beauty.
Chastain feels close to the character she plays in the Manifesto campaign, and likes her character’s creative enthusiasm. “She is audacious and fully experiences her emotions. She follows her intuitions. It’s a great sense of freedom and I guess that freedom and audacity have driven me since I began my career.”
Chastain has worked with her stylist Elizabeth Stewart for two years and thanks Stewart for creating the looks that garner her so much attention on the red carpet. “I never wear something to bring myself attention. For me, when I’m wearing a dress, it’s about the dress and about the story that the designer was creating.” As for her acting choices, they are all hers. “I think the [Zero Dark Thirty] script is one of the best scripts I have ever read, and my part is awesome.” Of all the recent attention, Chastain says, “I hope people don’t get sick of me!”
Becoming the new face of YSL Manifesto is like a beauty dream come true for Chastain: “When someone tells me I’m a sex symbol, I’m like ‘what?’… But I’ll take what I can get,” she says.
“It [was] a very big deal to do [the ad] for Yves Saint Laurent. It makes you very vulnerable because you don’t have a character to hide behind.”