The sentiments are genuine, but they also dovetail nicely with Chastain’s latest movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, which tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska, who ran the Warsaw Zoo with her husband during the Nazi invasion and went on to save hundreds of lives (and risk her own) by hiding persecuted Jewish people in stalls and cages. Chastain—a Golden Globe winner and two-time Oscar nominee—is famously scrupulous about researching her roles, but you feel that this one wasn’t such a stretch. “If I see something that’s not right or an injustice,” she says, “I can’t not talk about it.”
In the film’s publicity shots, we see the 5’4” actress, her distinctive red hair bobbed under a blonde wig, nuzzling a lion cub. Another image has her taking two zebras for a walk—moments before one of them bolted for the woods near the film’s set in Prague. “When I’d convinced our animal wrangler to let me do the shot, I asked, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ And she goes, in Czech, ‘Yes: pray.’”
It’s easy to think of Chastain—who turns 40 this month—as an earnest, serious-minded person. Her most prominent movie roles to date have included a persistent CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty, a grieving mother in The Tree of Life and a murderous schemer in Crimson Peak. Even her character in the animated Madagascar 3, Gia the circus leopard, had a certain gravity to her.
Off-screen, Chastain is a passionate and sometimes combative champion of gender and ethnic equality in Hollywood. Also, to the dismay of tabloid reporters everywhere, she doesn’t chatter on about her personal life. You can be lulled into thinking she’s the kind of person you’d want to have beside you at a protest march, but not necessarily a dinner party.
And yet over a vegan lunch of insalata mista and a big order of bruschetta at Sotto Sotto, one of her favorite bistros in Toronto (where she’s shooting the upcoming Aaron Sorkin drama Molly’s Game), Chastain reveals a funny, even goofy side beneath the gravitas. Wearing a soft blue turtleneck with her hair pulled back, she easily kids with the waiter and interrupts herself midsentence to say hello to an elderly man, who nods as he shuffles by. Later, she recalls another Zookeeper’s Wife moment, when she was shut in a cage with an increasingly agitated wolf. “Rawr!” Chastain snarls suddenly. “Her face was right up next to me, and that was the first point that I thought, ‘This is—stay calm—but, wow, this is dangerous.’”
Chastain has a loud, delightful cackle of a laugh, and she uses it a lot. She seems particularly amused by the fact that next year’s musical biopic, George and Tammy, will have her playing the late country superstar Tammy Wynette. “We’ll see if I’m going to do the singing,” she says, her laughter turning one or two heads. “We’ll try it. I don’t know. I’m really nervous.” One of her few regrets about her career, she adds, is that she hasn’t had much of a chance to be funny. “I’d like more comedies in my life.”
Five years ago, few people would have troubled themselves with the niceties of Jessica Chastain’s personality. She first came into the public eye with a raft of six films in 2011, including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and The Help, which earned Chastain her first Oscar nomination. Even back then, she shied away from celebrity. “I mean, I want to be seen by my friends and family, but in this restaurant, I don’t want everyone to stare at me,” she says. “I want to have a conversation with another person and not feel like I’m performing.”
Unlike many publicity-shy celebrities, however, Chastain does not go into hiding when she’s not on screen. With a flair for the visual, she relishes the chance to be glamorously dressed as a model for Prada campaigns and in red carpet appearances. She declares that attending a fashion show is “the same thing as going to a museum.” But she does not show up at these events with a Hollywood hunk on her arm.
For fear of attracting the wrong kind of scrutiny, Chastain has studiously avoided dating other actors. She is in a long-term relationship with the dashing Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, a fashion executive from a prominent Italian family. He now spends much of his time with her in New York, where she tries to lead “a simple life” in her apartment across from Carnegie Hall, which was once occupied by Leonard Bernstein while he was writing West Side Story. “That real estate agent knew what to tell me when I walked in the door,” she says.
Chastain is especially cagey about her family background. We do know that she was born to a teen mom for whom money was extremely tight, and was estranged from her biological father. When he died in 2013, around the time she was nominated for her second Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain did not attend the funeral. She had a younger sister, who died by suicide in 2003. She has a firefighter stepfather she loves, as well as a couple of younger half-siblings. For a while, she was even evasive about exactly where in Northern California she was born. It was Sacramento.
“When I started in the industry, my little brother was 14 years old,” she explains. “I didn’t want anyone to know where I came from, because I wanted my brother to have the opportunity to keep it a secret from his classmates that I was his sister.” She worried he would be teased, the way she had been in high school, as a shy and studious child, which contributed to her dropping out in her senior year. (She later earned an adult diploma.) “He graduated this year, so now I can be more relaxed.”
Another thing we know about Chastain is that she is utterly devoted to her grandmother, Marilyn, whom she has described as “the biggest influence in my life.” It was she who took Chastain to her first play as a child, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Marilyn, who may have had artistic ambitions of her own, were derailed when she became pregnant at 17—like Chastain’s mom. “I’m the first one to break that cycle,” she says.
A turning point came when another young Sacramento actor, who was in a local production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, got into Juilliard, the prestigious New York acting, dance and music school. Chastain decided to audition and was accepted, managing the expenses partly on a scholarship established by alumnus Robin Williams, whose death in 2014 came before she’d gotten a chance to thank him in person.
After graduation, Chastain lived on a shoestring but thrived in theater. At the beginning of her career, casting directors didn’t quite know what to do with her delicate looks and flaming red hair, which her mother discouraged her from altering. She won mostly small TV roles, often as victims of abuse on shows such as ER and Veronica Mars. Finally, while playing the biblical temptress Salome in a production of the Oscar Wilde tragedy, director Al Pacino praised her to some industry friends. The offers started coming in.
She was in her 30s at this point, but has made up for lost time, appearing in 21 movies since 2011, with another half-dozen on the slate for the next couple of years. Her stage career has included an acclaimed Broadway run in a revival of The Heiress.
Chastain is often praised for the intensity and depth she brings to her characters— the critic Richard Roeper has described her as “one of the finest actors of her generation”—but in the industry she is equally renowned for the legwork she does prepping for a role. For The Zookeeper’s Wife, she visited the still-operating Warsaw Zoo, as well as Auschwitz. She also spoke to Antonina’s surviving daughter, Teresa, who provided her with details that weren’t in the script or the book it’s based on.
“Teresa told me—and I didn’t expect this—she said in her entire life she never saw her mother wear pants,” says Chastain with a chuckle. “Like, what? How do you work at a zoo, and wear a dress every day, in the winter?” She eventually realized that this small detail pointed to something larger. “I live in pants. I love pants,” she says. “But in her mind, with this ugliness of soldiers and darkness, she was there as a representation of femininity, love, softness and anti-war compassion.”
Such insights are, of course, invaluable to an actor, but Chastain’s work ethic has not come without cost. He personal life, she admits, has suffered in the past—although she has learned to find more of a balance. “Every August, for example, we do a big vacation, with all of my family and all of Gian Luca’s family, and we all go away together,” she says. “It’s a tradition we’ve started.”
Just as her career is really heating up, Chastain seems ready to pull away. Last year, she founded her own production company, Freckle Films, with an aim of addressing Hollywood’s gender inequality. It’s a consuming issue for Chastain. When discussing it, she grows intense. “I just don’t know why it’s not changing,” she says, citing a litany of damning statistics. “I’m doing my part to make the change, so why isn’t everyone else?”
She has felt pressure to be less strident about the cause. “I had one male director say to me that I talk too much about all of this ‘women stuff.’ This is a person I love, and maybe he was concerned I would hurt my career.” She pauses. “I’m not attacking anyone. I’m trying to create more inclusiveness, compassion and empathy—which in turn makes better movies, better art.”
Chastain is growing increasingly eager to teach, produce and possibly direct. But why would anyone step away from a career as fruitful as hers? “I never spent my life thinking, ‘I have to be a movie star,’” she says. “So much attention has been on me for a few years, and what gives me the most pleasure is shining a light on someone else.” When asked if reducing her acting roles might provide more space to start a family of her own, Chastain’s trademark reticence kicks back in. “I haven’t made any kind of decision about my life in terms of that,” she says. “I would never prioritize my career over any of my loved ones. And, yes, I talk about my family, but also I keep a lot private, so I’m not going to answer your question the way you want.”
Almost as quickly as she dismisses the question, she flashes a broad, highly composed smile, and marvels at the empty basket of bruschetta on the table—“I must have had, like, 12 slices of bread!”—then she invites the next question. Proceed, says Chastain’s friendly nod, with caution.
FIVE PEOPLE INSPIRING JESSICA CHASTAIN
George Condo, artist
“As a person, he’s always in the moment. And his paintings are filled with so much life and color and passion and questions.”
J. S. Bach, composer
“I’m inspired by artists who have layers to what they create. Bach, for me, is the most spiritual composer. When I listen to him I feel closer to something bigger than myself.”
Xavier Dolan, filmmaker
“If you could concentrate whatever that energy is of what it is to be alive, Xavier has it. It’s really exciting to be around, and it’s exciting to watch his films.”
Riccardo Tisci, fashion designer
“There’s a celebration but also a freedom in his clothes. He’ll take something from the Victorian age but modernize it. You always feel like there’s something breaking forth, breaking out.”
Marilyn Herst, grandmother
“There are people who want to get every experience out of life because they realize how short it is. My grandma is the epitome of that.”
THE MANY FACES OF JESSICA CHASTAIN
A looka at her chameleonic turns:
The Tree of Life (2011)
Chastain made a big impression playing the bereaved mother in Terrence Malick’s expansive spiritual allegory—a feminine archetype she’d feel the need to break from in years to come.
The Help (2011)
Donning a blonde wig, Chastain played a lonely but bubbly Southern woman in this tale of Civil Rights-era race relations, earning her first Oscar nod as best supporting actress.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Chastain broke her good-girl mold with an intense portrayal of a steely CIA analyst, garnering her second Oscar nomination and winning best actress at the Golden Globes.
Christopher Nolan’s apocalyptic cosmic puzzler features Chastain as the scientist daughter of an astronaut father. The role—originally written as a son—is the film’s emotional key.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Chastain received her third Golden Globe nod as a mob-connected wife playing the angles to assist her husband (played by Oscar Isaac) in corrupt 1980s New York.
Miss Sloane (2016)
As an obsessive Washington lobbyist campaigning against gun violence, Chastain found it a challenge to keep up the intensity, pace and “dominance the character has in the story.”
The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
In this true wartime story, Chastain embraced the chance to portray “someone who risked everything to give shelter to everyone around her, animals and people.”