I’m waiting to meet Jessica Chastain, who is already being touted by critics as possibly the “greatest actress of her generation.” I have to admit that I’m excited — tracking her fame feels like watching time-lapse photography of a seedling turning into a towering maple. The hype was kicked off when her film The Tree of Life debuted at Cannes. Audiences raved about Brad Pitt’s tour-de-force performance, patted Sean Penn on the back for another impressive turn — and then asked “Who’s that redhead?”

When Chastain walks onto the set of our L.A. cover shoot wearing faded CK jeans and a gossamer tee from Aussie designer Ruby Smallbone, she looks more like a film-festival darling than a budding A-lister. In fact, still enjoying her soon-to-be-short-lived anonymity, Chastain went to see the latest X-Men flick with a few friends last weekend.

How normal, right? But that’s where the relatable part ends. “The trailer for Warrior came on and, because I’d just worked with Tom Hardy [in The Wettest County in the World], I was excited,” she says, laughing.

The next preview was for The Debt — starring Chastain alongside Helen Mirren. Even though her face was projected on the 12-metre screen, no one in the theatre recognized her. “But my first big movie had only been in theatres for two weeks,” she adds. “I know I have to be a bit more realistic; by December — when I have, like, five movies out — things will probably be different.”

That’s putting it mildly. While the 30-year-old actress seems poised for overnight success, she has actually been working toward it since she was six years old: After her grandmother took her to see a play, Chastain was hooked. “Everything was very real for me when I was playing make-believe,” she says with a little smile.

“So to know there was a job where you just basically play all day, I was like, ‘Why doesn’t everyone want to do this?’” Well, probably because most people don’t have a clear vision of their life’s goals at five. (I spent years wanting to be an astronaut chef, as if that were a viable option.) Chastain’s early expression of quiet confidence was telling, to say the least.

Read on to find out how Chastain got her big break…

jesschascanvas.jpgEspecially since, growing up in Nor-Cal with a fireman father and a stay-at-home mom, she couldn’t rely on Hollywood nepotism for her first break. Instead, she cut her acting teeth on school plays.

That is, until she auditioned for the Juilliard School, the exclusive New York arts college that is alma mater to boldface names like Kelsey Grammer and Christopher Reeve. When Chastain queued up at the San Francisco auditions in 1999, she was painfully aware that, while 1,400 would try out, only 20 students from across the country would get into the four-year program.

She had prepared a classic monologue from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet — with a twist. “I played it like a hot 14-year-old girl who was going to become a woman that night,” she says. “I was lying on the floor and really into the monologue. When it was over, I looked at the panel of older Juilliard people — they were all just staring at me,” she says, laughing self-consciously. “I think they were like, ‘Well, she’s brave.’” The panel didn’t need to see anything else. She was in.

“No one in my family really knew what Juilliard was,” she says. “When I told my mom that I’d been accepted, I could see the worry on her face and my dad’s, like, ‘How the heck are we going to pay for you to go to New York?’” But Juilliard has an impressive reputation for sorting out financial aid, so Chastain flew to the Big Apple on the wings of a scholarship from Robin Williams (a generous alumnus). That’s where she bloomed. “I was exposed to all the arts that I had never experienced before,” she says with a flush of excitement. “I was in an elevator with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma!”

Then, in 2006 — a few years out of school and with some television gigs, stage productions and indie parts to her name — Chastain landed a role alongside Al Pacino in a stage production of Oscar Wilde’s
Salome in her new hometown, L.A. When Pacino decided to direct it as a feature film (
Wilde Salome, which will be lighting up the
festival circuit this year), Chastain won the title role. “It’s like Al Pacino was my acting teacher for a year,” she says, adding that he taught her to work with the camera rather than just in front of it. “I take all his lessons into every film now.”

Read more on Chastain’s A-list acting mentors…

jesschascanvas.jpgSo, while Chastain has learned from an enviable list of
famous men, including director Jeff Nichols (
Take Shelter) and Ralph Fiennes (
Coriolanus), it was a welcome break to hang out with the girls for
The Help — a film adaptation of the bestselling book starring Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard, which hit theatres in August. “All these amazing women took over this little Mississippi town,” says Chastain. “The locals thought it was hilarious.”

Ensemble work is obviously something she values. (She even likes auditions, taking them as opportunities to gauge her chemistry with other actors.) “Acting with people creates
a connection that’s real,” she explains. “There are definite bonds that are made.”

But creative types aren’t always easy to deal with, right? I mention a recent
New York magazine piece in which Christopher Plummer teased
Tree of Life director Terrence Malick for his eccentric obsession with nature and birds. Whenever a flock flew overhead, Malick would apparently cut away from the actors in mid-sentence to focus the shot on the birds instead. I’m obviously amused by this whimsical, almost oddball, image — but Chastain bristles a bit. She is still close to Malick and clearly protective.

Maybe she’s defensive of the “famously shy” director (probably the most-used phrase in
The Tree of Life reviews) because she feels a certain kinship. “I’m self-conscious, and I’m a bit awkward and shy,” she admits. “I even get uncomfortable when people sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. I just threw my best friend a party for her 30th birthday and she loved that part. So, I think I am too shy.”

Read on to find out why Chastain takes on such diverse and challenging roles…

jesschascanvas.jpgChastain talks in almost hushed tones as the cogs of a fashion shoot hum around her: Stylists debate over which shade of red nail polish is “more ’50s”; another stylist drags a brush through her fiery locks, while yet another dangles a glittery dress in front of her; the photographer gestures expansively, discussing the lighting; and everyone clatters away on their BlackBerries.

And there’s Chastain in the centre of it all, wrapped in a thick, oversized robe. Her skin, nearly translucent, is dappled with fawnlike freckles. She closes her eyes for a moment and suddenly seems so palpably vulnerable that I’m tempted to throw a comforting arm around her.

But then her eyes flutter open and she makes it clear to me that her tenderness doesn’t translate into weakness. “I do things when I’m acting that I would never in a million years do in my personal life,” she says. “There is something that’s freeing. Maybe that’s why I always take parts that scare me a bit — I think I’m going to fail. That fear creates some desire in me to prove myself wrong.”

It’s partly Chastain’s willingness to take on such divergent roles — and challenges — that has the industry buzzing. She learned hand-to-hand combat to play an Israeli agent in The Debt, spent a whole day filming underwater while playing an archetypal mother in The Tree of Life and crafted a depression-era Chicago accent to play a gun moll in The Wettest County in the World.

But, ironically, her biggest obstacle might be that very attention. “It’s a little scary to be the one people are talking about,” she admits hesitantly. “There has been a lot of hype, but until someone sees your work, it’s just hype. Sometimes I feel like I’m going into a read-through of a movie and all the cast members are looking at me. I feel like I have to prove myself more.”

Read on to find out Chastain’s intrument of choice…

jesschascanvas.jpgSo, with the increasing demands on her time, I ask Chastain if she’s able to achieve that illusive balance we all crave. “I don’t really have a personal life — like, how could I?” she asks. She seems to actually want an answer — as if I could tell her how Helen Mirren, someone whom she truly admires, seems to have managed to carve out a fantastic career and have a happy family and
bustling social life to boot.

I’m baffled, though: Chastain has worked on six films in the past year and a half — tackling the parade of junkets and promotions that go along with each project — and attended five film festivals. To fill the silence (and maybe to absolve me), she states the obvious: “I haven’t really unwound in a long time.”

She tried to, but her first attempts to kick back after the over-the-top Cannes scene ended badly. And publicly. She jumped at an offer to try motocross and then bit the dust — shredding the ligaments in her knee — the day before the
Tree of Life premiere. Hence the crutches she hobbled in on today and the blue pen marks still on her knee from her appointment with the surgeon earlier this morning.

“I’m really a very responsible person,” she says a little defensively. “So when I tell people about my motocross accident, I feel like they think I’m Evel Knievel, like this crazy daredevil person — which I’m so not! I’m the girl who reads Shakespeare and plays the ukulele.”

Wait — what? “I couldn’t travel with my guitar, so I started playing the ukulele,” she says simply. Had I not heard Eddie Vedder’s new all-uke album? “My favourite song to play on it is The Flaming Lips’ ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’” she says.

Suddenly the image of Chastain holed up in a
swank hotel room in, say, Vienna and jamming on the ukulele to a song about interspecies warfare is too hilarious. She laughs with me, but she remains adamant about her love for the pintsized instrument. “It sounds really sweet, so when you play songs like Radiohead’s ‘Creep,’ there’s this amazing contradiction — this beautiful dichotomy,” she explains.

Read on to find out how Chastain copes with her pending fame…

jesschascanvas.jpgChastain’s reasoning makes the ukulele sound like the perfect metaphor for the chasm between her life as a softspoken vegan who spends Sundays at L.A.’s Animal Acres shovelling hay for horses and her seemingly inevitable life as a “movie star.” So, once again, our conversation winds its way back to how she’s coping with her looming celebrity status.

“My dogs treat me the same, my parents treat me the same — the only difference in my life is that I have a film in theatres,” says Chastain. “But what happens when I go to do a project and the
fame element is dropped in? When there’s less mystery about you, it’s way harder to disappear into a role. The thing is, I hope to have the kind of career where I have the courage to try far-out characters and new filmmakers and know that it’s okay that sometimes it won’t work out. I will be horrible in some films. That’s when people are going to be like, ‘See? She wasn’t all that!’ So I get really scared because I feel like I’m
only going to disappoint people.”

Night has fallen and the shoot’s a wrap. Double kisses are being tossed around like confetti, and Chastain is ready to jump into her car to head straight to the airport — she’s off to New York, then London, then God knows where. As I watch her go, I’m still struck by something she said earlier. “I can never live up to being ‘the next Cate Blanchett,’” she sighed. “I’m Jessica Chastain, and that’s all I can be.”

Somehow, though, I’m pretty sure that’s more than enough. But, instead of making grand predictions about which stage you’ll see her on later this year clutching an award, I’ll just do what I think she’d prefer: keep my mouth shut and wait for my opportunity to applaud.

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