Floodgates open for 'Tree of Life' star Chastain

May 23, 2011 - 4:45 AM
France Cannes Jessica Chastain Portraits

In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 17, 2011, actress Jessica Chastain poses for portraits during promotion for the film The Tree of Life at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

CANNES, France (AP) — Jessica Chastain may be the busiest actress in Hollywood people haven't heard of yet. With as many as half a dozen films rolling into theaters in the coming months, she's about to become famous fast.

A veteran stage actress, Chastain's big-screen career has been largely in a holding pattern, with only two of the 11 films she's made in the past four years released so far.

That changes Friday as the Cannes Film Festival winner — Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," in which she co-stars with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn — opens theatrically after a long delay while the director continued to tinker with the film.

Some of her other films, among them the Holocaust-revenge thriller "The Debt" with Helen Mirren, were delayed because of distribution troubles, so they now are coming to theaters around the same time as dramas she shot more recently, including this summer's best-seller adaptation "The Help."

Three other Chastain films — "Coriolanus" with Ralph Fiennes, "Take Shelter" with Michael Shannon and "The Fields," reuniting her with "The Debt" co-star Sam Worthington — also are tentatively scheduled to come out by the end of the year.

"I'm just nervous that I'm going to be the newcomer that everyone's sick of, and they don't even know my name. People are like, 'Why is this girl in every single movie I'm seeing this fall?'" Chastain said in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, where "The Tree of Life" premiered last week, taking the coveted Palme d'Or top prize. "Take Shelter" also screened at Cannes.

Chastain, who is about 30 but will not disclose her exact age, grew up in northern California and dreamed of becoming an actress from about the age of 5, despite her family's expectations that she would grow out of it.

Her father is a fireman, her mother a "stay-at-home mom slash vegan chef," Chastain said, and while they never discouraged her about the prospects of acting, they did not encourage her, either.

Yet Chastain said she continually pestered her mother to take her to Los Angeles so she could audition for commercials. They finally came around after she got into the drama department at Juilliard and earned a scholarship that paid for most of her training.

Chastain started in live theater and landed roles on such television shows as "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" and "Veronica Mars," along with a starring role opposite Al Pacino in a Los Angeles stage version of Oscar Wilde's "Salome." Pacino directed and co-starred with her in a film version, "Wilde Salome," another of Chastain's big-screen projects awaiting release.

"The Tree of Life" was meant to premiere at Cannes last year, but it was not finished in time. The reclusive Malick, who avoids interviews and public appearances, had not seen Chastain in anything previously, choosing her after a long audition process to play a saintly mother raising three sons with her domineering husband (Pitt).

When she first met Malick, Chastain thought that because of his reputation as a recluse, "perhaps he'll be all in black, wearing a black turtleneck, smoking a cigarette, listening to, like, beatnik poetry," she said.

"And it couldn't be more different. I met him at a restaurant and he was wearing a very brightly colored shirt. He had a huge smile on his face, was so warm at the lunch. His wife stopped by to welcome me. He couldn't be more different from that perception. He's only reclusive when it comes to the press."

"The Tree of Life" was shot three years ago, before Chastain had much film experience. Malick hired out an entire block of houses and redressed them to fit the 1950s, the era when most of the film takes place.

The director then experimented with Pitt, Chastain and the three boys making their acting debuts in "The Tree of Life," improvising scenes and moments to create an impressionistic portrait of the family's life.

Chastain took to it like a pro, Pitt said.

"We're going to see great things from her. She's a great find," Pitt said. "She just walked into this thing, and she was throwing punches with me on par and dealing with the unwieldiness of going off-script and working with non-actors. Man, I really relied on her. It takes great talent to keep that focus, and there's real charm and beauty, and she's really bright, this woman. So I think she's capable of a lot of things that we've yet to see."

In "The Help," Chastain co-stars with Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard in an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel about an aspiring writer who chronicles the lives of black maids in the Deep South as the civil-rights movement is beginning in the 1960s.

"The Debt" casts Chastain as a Mossad agent assigned to help bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. The film spans decades, with Helen Mirren playing Chastain's character as an older woman.

Now that her films are finally making it to theaters, Chastain only has to worry about overexposure. Before, she worried about whether her work would ever see the light of day.

"It was a joke for a while, because every time I'd hear something like, 'Oh, the release date is set for sure. It's set. This is happening. We're going to Cannes, here's your itinerary.' Every time something just seemed so definite, the bottom would fall out from under it," Chastain said.

"I just asked myself, I wonder why it's happening like this, especially since I've wanted to be an actor since I could articulate what it was, since I realized it was a job," she said. "So I realized, OK, it's a lot about patience, because the majority of my life, I've wanted it now. 'Mom, will you take me to L.A. so I can be in commercials? I want to make this happen, force this, let's go.' And it's been good, because it has developed an immense amount of patience for me."