Jessica Chastain
Photo by WireImage

Jessica Chastain: “It’s not a sprint”

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Short Profile

Name: Jessica Michelle Chastain
DOB: 24 March 1977
Place of Birth: Sacramento, California, USA
Occupation: Actress

Ms. Chastain, do you fear failure?

I’m trying to not play it safe. I learn more when I fail than when I succeed, so if I push myself to do something that’s really difficult, I could fail and I’ll learn a lot. I’ll be awful, but I’ll still learn a lot from it. But if I don’t fail, then I’ll be in a great movie. I hope to be the kind of actor that isn’t always great.

Most actors probably think differently.

It’s a weird thing to say that out loud, but otherwise you’re not really learning something. I’ll be in a bad film, or I will be the one that is horrible in a film, but I think it will be good for me to do that. I am where I am because I chose projects that were risky, because it wasn’t the obvious choice. My big fear is being typecast. I love playing different accents, different women, different colored hair… I want to be able to do it all!

That seems to be working out quite well for you, isn’t it?

But I don’t want to get too excited because it means its not going to happen. I’m really superstitious.

In what ways?

If someone says something really positive I’m like, “Don’t say it!” If they say, “I think this movie’s going to do really well.” I’m like, “Don’t say it! Don’t say it! Don’t say it!” I also have these things that I do, like I fly a lot, but I won’t get on a plane without touching the outside. I have to touch the outside of the plane and put both my feet on the lip of the door of the plane at the same time. If I’m carrying a coffee and a bag, I will actually set them down because I can’t get on without doing that.

What happens if you don’t?

We’ll crash, I don’t know!

Would you ever jump out of a plane?

Well here’s the funny thing: in real life I wouldn’t do it, but if I read a script and the character jumps out of a plane I would do it. I always pick movies if there’s something really scary to do because that’s my excuse to do it.

Some actors insist on doing all of their own stunts. In Raider of the Lost Ark, for example, Harrison Ford had himself dragged behind a truck.

The scariest thing I’ve done was in The Tree of Life. There was a scene underwater at Barton Springs. I have a fear of drowning, as I’m sure everybody does, and I’m not a great swimmer. I was wearing this huge dress and the water is like 5 or 6 degrees and they wanted me to hold my breath and go all the way down. I couldn’t do it and I was getting cold, so they had these guys who took me all the way down to the bottom of the spring, it’s really deep, and put sandbags on my feet so I wouldn’t float up.

That doesn’t sound much better than getting pulled behind a truck…

Yeah, really scary. And what they would do is I would take one breath and then I would open my eyes and I’m at the very bottom moving around doing my thing and all of a sudden I had to touch my lips like, “I need air, I need air!” And they would give me air.

But I’m sure you were happy to do whatever Terrence Malick asked. Was working with such a celebrated and influential director a turning point in your career?

I think there are a lot of filmmakers that really like his work and they might have been like, “Well who is this new girl?” I was so impressed to see all the filmmakers that were at the Tree of Life premiere in Los Angeles. It’s a very rare thing to see so many in one place, but Terry’s got a lot of friends in the business. I think that was the thing that put me on the map. Before I did The Tree of Life I was living off of credit cards – thank goodness I don’t have to do that now!

Were you that broke before?

What I would do is I would have no money and I’d say, “Okay, I’m going to do this film in four months. I’m going to prepare for this film and I’m not going to take another job.” So I lived completely on credit – not an intelligent way to do it! – while working on the role and then when I got paid I would pay off my credit cards. That was the cycle that I was going through.

“For me it’s always been the artistic first. I’ve realized that if you get 100 dollars or you get 1000 dollars, you’re going to still spend it.”

Did you ever think about getting a day job to help make ends meet?

For me it’s always been the artistic first, always. I’ve realized that if you get 100 dollars or you get 1000 dollars, you’re going to still spend it. You’ll just end up spending the 1000 dollars on a nicer house or whatever and then you’re going to have to keep that money at that level to sustain that lifestyle. But if you get used to the 100-dollar lifestyle, then you’re fine. You can choose the jobs because of the creativity and the challenge of the characters rather than the money.

What role does money play for you now? I’m sure you’re getting paid much better these days.

Now the only time I really think of money is if it’s a bigger company or a bigger budget film. I just want to make sure they aren’t taking advantage of me because they know it’s not about the money for me. You don’t want them to be like, “Oh, well she’ll do it for free!”

Has your success, including several prestigious awards, made you feel vindicated for those difficult years of sticking to your principles? I’m sure there were times when you had your doubts.

Of course winning awards makes me feel good and that people acknowledge that hard work, especially the four years living on credit cards and my movies never coming out – and every time I showed up on set and the crew thought it was the first film I’ve ever done! So much of those four years were so difficult, but I really want to be here when I’m 70 years old. I want to be the actor that has the long career, I hope for the long haul. It’s not a sprint for me.