Entertainment & Arts

Is Jessica Chastain Hollywood's best kept secret?

Actress Jessica Chastain, who stars in the movie "The Tree of Life", poses for a portrait in Los Angeles REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Since shooting The Tree of Life three years ago, actress Jessica Chastain has added some eight films to her CV. So why are we only just getting to know her?

Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May to a mixture of boos and standing ovations.

The film - which went on to win the Palme d'Or - embraces life, the universe, Brad Pitt and dinosaurs.

But it also thrust into the spotlight Jessica Chastain, an actress who is set to become ubiquitous over the next few months.

With a pre-Raphaelite beauty that harks back to a golden age of Hollywood, Chastain has already worked with Al Pacino, Ralph Fiennes and Helen Mirren - as well as Pitt and Sean Penn in The Tree of Life.

Image caption The Tree of Life focuses on a family in the 1950s

Even down a crackly phone line from LA, the 30-year-old actress sounds stunned by the attention she has been receiving.

"Cannes will be an unparalleled experience in my life," she says. "It was beyond blessed."

Chastain had gone to Cannes with two films, The Tree of Life and Take Shelter - both carried home major prizes.

"There was a bidding war over another film I was in - so for a first-time Cannes experience it was shocking. I'm aware I will never have another like it."

Indeed, Terrence Malick's aversion to interviews - and his refusal to attend his film's press conference - made Pitt and Chastain even more the focus of attention.

'Beyond science'

The Tree of Life, Malick's fifth film in 40 years, tells its story through the lens of a family in a small Texas town. But its non-linear narrative works on both an intimate and panoramic scale.

Pitt plays Mr O'Brien, the loving yet disciplinarian father of three boys, with Chastain as their serene mother.

Sean Penn plays grown-up son, Jack, reflecting on the moments that shaped his life - while Malick takes his audience on a trip to the birth of the universe and back.

Predictably, reviews have been mixed.

"This is visionary cinema on an unashamedly huge scale: cinema that's thinking big," Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian.

While The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu found it "achingly slow, almost buckling under the weight of its swoony poetry".

Image caption Chastain studied paintings of the Madonna to prepare for her role

Chastain admits she never knew while making the film "how artistic" it would turn out.

It was only when she was called back for voice-overs during the lengthy edit that she was shown the cosmos scenes set to the operatic soundtrack.

"I'd go 'wow - this is beyond science!' I'd never really seen anything like that before," she says.

Malick suggested Chastain prepare for her role by studying paintings of the Madonna at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"They had their eyes downcast and their fingers always looked like they were reaching for something," the actress recalls. "A lot of the physicality from the paintings I tried to embody in Mrs O'Brien."

Chastain was also told to emulate the way Lauren Bacall spoke in her early films.

"It was a slow, straightforward honest speech that is from another time. In the modern day we talk so fast because it's like we're forever going to get interrupted," Chastain explains.

"And there was cultivating grace in myself - I went to a spiritual retreat and meditated for a week, and I meditated every day before I came on set."

'Excitement and nerves'

Born and raised in northern California, Chastain trained at Juilliard School in New York City. While there she starred in Romeo and Juliet and later acted opposite Michelle Williams in The Cherry Orchard.

Because of the lengthy edit for The Tree of Life, Chastain has been busy making films which are all queued up for release in 2011 and 2012.

Her forthcoming work includes The Debt, with Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington, in which the actress plays an Israeli Mossad agent sent on a mission to apprehend a Nazi surgeon.

Image caption Chastain has starred in more than a dozen films due for release in 2011 and 2012

She will also be seen alongside Worthington again and Kick-Ass's Chloe Moretz in murder thriller The Fields, and opposite Ralph Fiennes in his directorial debut Corialanus, also starring Vanessa Redgrave.

She recently completed filming an adaptation of the best-selling Kathryn Stockett novel The Help, alongside Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard.

While her latest project is John Hillcoat's prohibition drama The Wettest County in the World, opposite Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy.

On stage she has played Desdemona in Othello opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Salome with Al Pacino, parts of which were filmed for his forthcoming Wilde Salome movie.

So how does Chastain feel about imminent fame?

"I feel excitement and nerves," she admits. "I always felt before I had to prove myself. I would show up on a set and people would have heard about me but they wouldn't have seen my work.

"It was like they were watching me out of the corner of their eye saying: 'Who is this girl?'

"But there's also anxiety. I've been so blessed that I've been able to go from set to set and concentrate on the work.

"Now I'm trying to navigate a way where people can learn about me but it doesn't get in the way of being an actor."

The Tree of Life is out now

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