Before signing on to the fantasy action-adventure The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Jessica Chastain had one requirement: She wanted to kick some ass. When the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, approached her about a year before filming began, “I said, ‘Listen, I really want to work with you. But please don’t send me a script if my character doesn’t kick ass. I don’t want to be the girlfriend,’” she recalls. “He was like, ‘You have no idea.’”
Clearly, her terms were met. In fact, it would be hard to even keep count of the number of foes Chastain mows down in the sequel to the 2012 hit Snow White & the Huntsman, whether she’s acting as top henchman for cold-hearted ice queen Freya (Emily Blunt), or fighting for her true love, Eric the Huntsman (Hemsworth). The actress also made a point of challenging the way heroines are perceived. “When I first arrived on set, I begged the director, Cedric [Nicolas-Troyan], for a scar on my face,” says the actress, who’s known for her red hair, fair complexion and dimpled chin. “I didn’t think the studio was going to go for it, but they did. I was so happy with it too. When you think of heroines or love interests, you think of these perfect little packages, but I think scars are really beautiful. Flaws are beautiful.”
While Chastain, 39, had to learn a slew of martial arts moves for the fierce warrior role, she already had one skill in common with her sharpshooting character: She never misses her mark. Whether playing the resolute commander of an ill-fated space mission in The Martian, an obsessive CIA operative hot on the trail of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, a steely Brooklyn wife in A Most Violent Year or an openhearted Southern belle in The Help, she always nails the part.
Audiences first took notice of Chastain’s expansive range as an actress in 2011, the year she appeared in her first Oscar-nominated role, Celia Foote in The Help, as well as several other movies that opened in quick succession. “It was the most incredible year,” she recalls. “I started working in film about four years before that. It was a dream come true to do the work, but… my movies were being stalled. Terrence Malick took four years to edit The Tree Of Life. The Debt was about to be released, and then Miramax got sold, and it got delayed. I kept having this bad luck. In 2011, everything came out at once. It just completely changed my life.”
Wary of the tendency for women to be typecast in Hollywood, she considers herself lucky. “If I had only come out with The Help, the industry would have seen me as my character Celia Foote — a comedian who could also do dark themes maybe. But I also played a Mossad agent in The Debt, an Oklahoma woman in Take Shelter, a Texas beauty-queen cop in Texas Killing Fields,” Chastain says. “I got this great variety of scripts sent my way.” And she continues to play against type in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. “I’ve never done a movie like that. I want to be challenged. I want to be in all dramas. I’m sad because they don’t make Westerns anymore. I’m dying to do a Western and play some badass, gun-toting, horseback-riding lady cowboy.”
Perhaps that will be one of the directives for her new production company, Freckle Films, which she recently formed in an effort to develop projects that focus on diversity, present alternate points of view and provide meaty roles for women. “I’m not necessarily going to be in them, but I’m going to make movies that I want to see, that showcase voices that usually we don’t hear,” she explains.
Her sensitivity to others is understandable, considering that Chastain was bullied while growing up in Northern California. “I didn’t do well in school,” she admits. “I was kind of awkward and strange, didn’t have a lot of friends. I had a terrible perm. I fried my hair and had a red ’fro. I wore cowboy boots in school. I was not a cool kid at all.” One life-altering day, Chastain went to the theater with her grandmother. The moment the curtain rose, “I saw this little girl onstage, narrating the show, and I thought: Oh, my god; that’s her job? I want that to be my job. That’s who I am. … As soon as I had the vocabulary for it, I understood what I was.” Soon, she found friends in drama club and became its president in high school. In 1999, she became the first member of her family to attend college when she enrolled in The Juilliard School in Manhattan, where she received a scholarship funded by Juilliard alum Robin Williams.
A self-described “Northern California hippie,” Chastain moved back to New York City in 2012, when she was appearing in The Heiress on Broadway, and purchased a two-bedroom apartment. “I had been in a one-year relationship with someone who lives in Italy, and I knew that if I remained in California it would be harder to see each other,” she explains. Three years later, she and her longtime boyfriend, Italian fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, upgraded to a nine-room co-op across the street from Carnegie Hall, formerly owned by Leonard Bernstein.
Intensely private, Chastain rarely talks about her personal life. “I don’t know if you could tell, but I started stuttering when I started to say the reason I moved to New York,” she laughs. But she will say that the pair enjoy a low-key life together in Manhattan, where they take in plays in the nearby Theater District, attend museums and dine out at favorite vegetarian haunts like the Korean restaurant Hangawi (“It’s amazing. You go in and sit on the floor. I love their tasting menu”) and the upscale Candle 79. Chastain became vegan nine years ago for health reasons. “I was sick and couldn’t figure out how to get well,” she says. “Someone told me to try vegan for two weeks, and it completely changed my life.” Her mom soon followed suit and is now a vegan chef.
One of five children, Chastain remains close with her family, and she is especially fond of Chaplin, a rescue pup adopted from Pet Rescue in Venice Beach who’s a staple on her Instagram account. “He had been hit by a car when he was a puppy,” she says. “Basically he was on death watch. His pelvis was broken; he lost a leg. Whenever I’m feeling down at all, I just look at Chaplin, who always has the best smile on his face, and I’m like, ‘What is wrong with me? Look at this beautiful bit of sunshine here who is just so happy to be alive.’ That is the most grounding thing for me.”
The hardworking actress is in Toronto today, where she’s recovering after pulling an all-nighter on the set of Miss Sloane, in which she plays the titular character, a lobbyist advocating for background checks and gun safety. Off camera, she prefers to not discuss her own politics — “I don’t necessarily think voters should be swayed by a celebrity” — but she does advocate compassion and support for those suffering from depression, addiction, self-injury and thoughts of suicide.
In the wake of the deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom played pivotal roles in her life (she spent nine months filming with the latter), she became passionate about the work of To Write Love On Her Arms, a nonprofit that deals with depression, substance abuse and suicide prevention — three issues that hit uncomfortably close to home. Chastain’s own sister took her life just three days before the actress graduated from Juilliard. “She had struggled a long time with drug abuse, and she had a lot of attempted suicides, but you never really think this is going to happen, even though, in your mind, you know it can happen,” says Chastain. “And when you get the call, it’s… shocking.”
Naturally compassionate, Chastain always makes an effort to nurture friends’ children. “If there is one kid who sticks out and doesn’t really get along in the group, I’m always drawn to that kid. And I’m always like, ‘Keep what is special about you; keep it close; don’t try to get rid of it; don’t try to fit in.’ I love the ones that keep their uniqueness,” she says. “If I wasn’t an actor, I would want to be a teacher for elementary school because I love the idea that, just by spending a little bit of time, nurturing a kid can change their whole life.” On that note, she recalls a moment in her own childhood that had a profound affect on her. “A stranger came up to me at Disneyland, one of the dancers of this parade singled me out, and was so nice to me. I’ve remembered this my whole life. I don’t know anything about her, but she made me feel special when I didn’t feel special.”
As an adult, Chastain cherishes relationships with friends who understand her. Among her closest connections are Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy (“I met him and immediately felt: You’re one of my people”) and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen. The latter designer created the dramatic gold-embroidered black silk gown the starlet wore to the Academy Awards in 2012. “I am an emotional person. If someone gets my heart, then they kind of get me forever,” she says. “Sarah and I were at a fitting for my Oscar dress, and I got a little emotional. I told her, my whole life I never thought about my wedding dress. Little girls are supposed to grow up dreaming about their wedding and their wedding dress. I never did. I always dreamed about my Oscar dress. My eyes started tearing up, and then she teared up! We were hugging each other and crying. That is someone that I will love forever.” One year later, when Chastain received her second nomination — best actress in a leading role for Zero Dark Thirty — she showed up to the ceremony in a shimmery copper strapless Armani Privé gown that cemented her reputation as one of the red carpet’s best dressed. Her role in that film, says Chastain, solidified her resolve to be strong, outspoken and in control of her own destiny. Her character, CIA officer Maya, is a 30-something woman who “keeps being referred to as ‘the girl.’ It’s the story of this woman in this man’s world and what she had to do to get people to listen to her,” she says. “The movie condensed a lot, but, in real life, the real Maya knew for a long time where bin Laden was, and it took forever, in her own words, to get anyone to believe her — to actually go into the compound. I loved playing the part. It empowered me. Now, I really fight if I have an opinion. I make sure that I’m not too scared to say it. I don’t want someone to silence me. I want to participate in this life.”