Biography

Who is Jessica Chastain? 

Chastain was born on March 24, 1977, in either Sonoma, California, or Sacramento, California (sources differ), to Jerri Renee Hastey (née Chastain) and rock musician Michael Monasterio. Her parents were both teenagers when she was born. Chastain is reluctant to publicly discuss her family background; she was estranged from Monasterio and has said that no father is listed on her birth certificate. She has two sisters and two brothers. Her sister Juliet committed suicide in 2003 following years of drug abuse. Chastain was raised in Sacramento by her mother and stepfather, Michael Hastey, a fireman. She considers her stepfather to be “one of the greatest people” she knows, and has said that he was the first person to make her feel secure. She shares a close bond with her maternal grandmother, Marilyn, whom she credits as someone who “always believed in me”.

As a student at the El Camino Fundamental High School in Sacramento, Chastain struggled academically. She was a loner and considered herself a misfit in school, eventually finding an outlet in the performing arts. She has said, “I used to cut school to read Shakespeare, not to make out in the park”. She first developed an interest in acting at the age of seven, after her grandmother took her to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Chastain would regularly put on amateur shows with other children, and considered herself to be their “artistic director”. With too many absences during her senior year in school, Chastain did not qualify for graduation, but eventually obtained an adult diploma. She later attended Sacramento City College from 1996 to 1997, during which she was a member of the institution’s debate team. Speaking about her childhood, Chastain has said:

I [grew up] with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. We did not have money. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating. It was a very difficult upbringing. Things weren’t easy for me growing up.

In 1998, Chastain made her professional stage debut as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet staged by TheatreWorks, a company in the San Francisco Bay Area. The production led her to audition for the Juilliard School in New York City, where she was soon accepted and granted a scholarship funded by the actor Robin Williams. In her first year at the school, Chastain described herself as “a wreck of anxiety”; she constantly worried about being dropped from the program and spent most of her time reading and watching movies. She later remarked that her participation in a successful production of The Seagull during her second year helped build her confidence. She graduated from the school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2003.

2004–2010: Early roles

Shortly before graduating from Juilliard, Chastain attended an event for final-year students in Los Angeles, where she was signed to a talent holding deal by the television producer John Wells. She relocated to Los Angeles, and started auditioning for jobs. She initially found the process difficult, remarking that “being a redhead and not having very conventionally modern looks, it was confusing for people and they didn’t know exactly where to put me”. In her television debut, The WB network’s 2004 pilot remake of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, she was cast as Carolyn Stoddard. Directed by P. J. Hogan, the pilot did not perform well and the series was never picked up for broadcast. Later that year, she appeared as a guest performer on the medical drama series ER, playing a woman she described as “psychotic”, which led to more neurotic characters for her. She said, “I played a lot of girls who had something off. Maybe they’d been the victim of some horrible accident. Or they were crazy.” She went on to appear in such roles in a few other television series from 2004 to 2007, including Veronica Mars (2004), Close to Home (2006) and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005–2006).

In 2004, Chastain took on the role of Anya, a virtuous young woman, in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard in Massachusetts, starring with Michelle Williams. Also that year, she worked with Playwrights Horizons on a production of Richard Nelson’s Rodney’s Wife as the daughter of a troubled middle-aged film actor. Her performance was not well received by the critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who thought that she “somehow seems to keep losing color as the evening progresses”. While working on the play, she was recommended by Nelson to Al Pacino, who was looking for an actress to star in his production of Oscar Wilde’s tragedy Salome. The play tells the tragic story of its titular character’s sexual exploration. In the play, Salome is a 16-year-old, but Chastain, who was close to 30 then, was cast for the part. The play was staged in 2006 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles, and Chastain later remarked that it helped bring her to the attention of several casting directors. Writing for Variety, the critic Steven Oxman criticized her portrayal in the play: “Chastain is so ill-at-ease with Salome, not quite certain whether she’s a capable seductress or a whiny, wealthy brat; she doesn’t flesh out either choice”.

Chastain made her film debut in 2008 as the title character in Dan Ireland’s drama Jolene, based on a short story by E. L. Doctorow inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene”. It follows the life of a sexually abused teenager over the course of a decade. Chastain’s performance was praised by a reviewer for the New York Observer, who remarked that she “not only holds her own corner of every scene, she’s the only thing you want to watch”. She won a Best Actress award at the Seattle International Film Festival. The following year, she had a minor role in Stolen (2009), a mystery-thriller film with a limited theatrical release. Also in 2009, she played the part of Desdemona in The Public Theatre production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, co-starring John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Writing for The New Yorker, Hilton Als commended Chastain for finding “a beautiful maternal depth in Desdemona”.

In 2010, Chastain starred in John Madden’s dramatic thriller The Debt, portraying a young Mossad agent sent to East Berlin in the 1960s to capture a former Nazi doctor who had carried out medical experiments in concentration camps. She shared her role with Helen Mirren—both actresses portraying the character at different phases of her life. They worked together before filming to perfect the voice and mannerisms of the character and make them consistent. Chastain took classes in German and krav maga, and studied books about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and Mossad history. William Thomas of Empire termed the film a “smart, tense, well-acted thriller” and noted that Chastain “pulses with strength and vulnerability” in her part. She also appeared in an episode of the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, based on Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express.

♦ 2011: Breakthrough

After struggling for a breakthrough in film, Chastain had six releases in 2011, gaining widespread acclaim and recognition for her roles in several of them. The first of these roles was as the wife of Michael Shannon’s character in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. The drama tells the story of a troubled father who tries to protect his family from an impending storm. It was screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and the critic Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph took note of how much Chastain’s supporting part aided the narrative. She received an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female nomination for the film.

The 61st Berlin International Film Festival saw the release of Coriolanus, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name from actor-director Ralph Fiennes, in which Chastain played Virgilia. Her next role was opposite Brad Pitt, as the loving mother of three children in Terrence Malick’s experimental drama The Tree of Life, which she had filmed in 2008. Chastain signed on to the film without receiving a traditional screenplay from Malick, and she improvised several scenes and dialogues with Pitt. She considered her part to be “the embodiment of grace and the spirit world”; in preparation, she practiced meditation, studied paintings of the Madonna, and read poems by Thomas Aquinas. Following several delays in release, the film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to a polarized reception from the audience, although it was praised by critics and won the Palme d’Or. Justin Chang of Variety termed the film a “hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying […] poem” and credited Chastain for playing her part with “heartrending vulnerability”.

Chastain’s biggest success of the year came with the drama The Help, co-starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, which was based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name. Chastain played Celia Foote, an aspiring socialite in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, who develops a friendship with her black maid (played by Spencer). Chastain was drawn to her character’s anti-racist stand and connected with her “zest and love for life”; in preparation, she watched the films of Marilyn Monroe and researched the history of Sugar Ditch, Tennessee, where her character was raised. The Help earned $216 million at the box office to become Chastain’s most widely seen film to that point. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times praised the chemistry between Chastain and Spencer and Roger Ebert commended her for being “unaffected and infectious in her performance”. The ensemble of The Help won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Cast and Chastain received her first Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category, in addition to BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG nominations in the same category, all of which she lost to Spencer.

Chastain’s final two roles of the year were in Wilde Salomé, a documentary based on her 2006 production of Salome, and the critically panned crime-thriller Texas Killing Fields. The latter, co-starring Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, was a partly fictionalized version of the events in the killing fields of Texas, in which she played a homicide detective. Los Angeles Times Betsy Sharkey praised Chastain’s polished Texas drawl, but criticized the film. Chastain’s work in 2011, especially in The HelpTake Shelter and The Tree of Life, gained her awards from several critics’ organizations, including the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

 2012–2013: Rise to prominence

Two of Chastain’s films in 2012 premiered at the 65th Cannes Film Festival—the animated comedy film Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and the crime drama Lawless. In the former, which marked the third installment of the Madagascar series, Chastain voiced Gia the Jaguar with an Italian accent. With a worldwide gross of $747 million, the film ranks as her highest-grossing release. Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat, was based on Matt Bondurant’s prohibition-era novel The Wettest County in the World. Chastain played a dancer from Chicago who becomes embroiled in a conflict between three bootlegging brothers (played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke). The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with Richard Corliss finding Chastain to be filled with “poised, seductive gravity”. In an experimental biopic of the author C. K. Williams, entitled The Color of Time (2012), directed by the New York University students of actor James Franco, Chastain played the mother of the young Williams. Originally titled Tar for its premiere at the 2012 Rome Film Festival, the film was renamed for its theatrical release later in 2014.

A short part that Chastain had filmed opposite Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (2012) was edited out of the final film, and due to scheduling conflicts, she dropped out of the action films Oblivion and Iron Man 3 (both 2013). She instead chose to make her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1947 play The Heiress, playing the role of Catherine Sloper, a naive young girl who transforms into a powerful woman. Chastain was initially reluctant to accept the role fearing the high anxiety she had faced during her early stage performances. She ultimately agreed to the part after finding a connection to Sloper, saying: “she’s painfully uncomfortable and I used to be that”. The production was staged at the Walter Kerr Theatre from November 2012 to February 2013. Brantley was disappointed with Chastain’s performance, writing that “curiously for an expert film actress, she is guilty here of oversignaling the thoughts within. And her delivery of dialogue sometimes has a flatness that I associate with cold readings of scripts.”

Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller Zero Dark Thirty marked Chastain’s final film release of 2012. The film tells a partly fictionalized account of the decade-long manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. Chastain was cast as Maya, an emotionally hardened CIA intelligence analyst who helped capture bin Laden. The difficult subject matter made it unpleasant for Chastain to film, and she later considered it as “the worst experience” of her life. She suffered from depression while working and said, “[one day] I excused myself, walked off set and burst into tears”. Chastain was unable to meet the undercover agent on whom Maya was based and she relied on the screenwriter Mark Boal’s research. Zero Dark Thirty received critical acclaim but was controversial for scenes of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were shown providing useful intelligence in the search for bin Laden. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone reviewed, “Chastain is a marvel. She plays Maya like a gathering storm in an indelible, implosive performance that cuts so deep we can feel her nerve endings.” Roger Ebert made note of Chastain’s versatility, and favorably compared her ability and range to that of actress Meryl Streep. For her performance, Chastain won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and earned Academy, BAFTA and SAG nominations for Best Actress.

Chastain next took on the lead role of a musician who is forced to care for her boyfriend’s troubled nieces in the horror film Mama (2013). She was attracted to the idea of playing a woman drastically different from the “perfect mother” roles she had played in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, and she based her character’s look on the singer Alice Glass. The critic Richard Roeper noted how different the role was from the ones she had previously played, and considered it as “further proof she’s one of the finest actors of her generation”. During the film’s opening weekend in North America, Chastain became the first performer in 15 years to have leading roles in the top two films (Mama and Zero Dark Thirty) at the box office. Mama eventually earned $146 million worldwide. She then starred as the titular character of a depressed woman who separates from her husband (played by James McAvoy) following a tragic incident in the drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013), which she also produced. The writer-director Ned Benson initially wrote the story from the perspective of Rigby’s husband, then wrote a separate version from Rigby’s perspective on the insistence of Chastain. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in two parts, Him and Her. A third part told from both their perspectives—subtitled Them—was released separately. The film did not find a wide audience, but the critic A. O. Scott praised Chastain for “short-circuit[ing] conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama”.

 2014–2015: Success in science fiction films

Chastain appeared in three films in 2014. She played the eponymous protagonist in Miss Julie, a film adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play of the same name, from director Liv Ullmann. Miss Julie tells the tragic tale of a sexually repressed aristocrat who begins an affair with her father’s valet (played by Colin Farrell). Chastain was attracted to Ullmann’s feminist take on the subject. The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney was disappointed with the picture, writing that despite “nuanced work” from Chastain the adaptation was “a ponderous, stately affair that lacks relevance”. The film received a limited theatrical release and was not widely seen. While filming Miss Julie in Ireland, Chastain received the script of Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film Interstellar (2014). With a budget of $165 million, the high-profile production, co-starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, was filmed mostly using IMAX cameras. Chastain was cast as the adult daughter of McConaughey’s character; she was drawn to the project for the emotional heft she found in the father-daughter pair. Drew McWeeny of the entertainment website HitFix found the film to be “ambitious and amazing” and took note of how much Chastain stood out in her supporting part. The film earned over $675 million worldwide to become Chastain’s highest-grossing live-action film.

Chastain’s final release of 2014 was the J. C. Chandor-directed crime drama A Most Violent Year. Set in New York City in 1981, the year in which the city had the highest crime rate, the film tells the story of a heating-oil company owner (played by Oscar Isaac) and his ruthless wife (Chastain). In preparation, Chastain researched the period and worked with a coach to develop a Brooklyn accent. She collaborated with costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone to work on the character’s wardrobe, and reached out to Armani for clothing of the period. The San Francisco Chronicles Mick LaSalle believed Chastain to be “the embodiment of a nouveau riche New York woman of the era”, and Mark Kermode, writing for The Guardian, found Chastain to be “terrific as the Lady Macbeth power behind the throne”. She received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film. For her work in 2014, the Broadcast Film Critics Association honored Chastain with a special achievement award.

In 2015, Chastain took on the part of a commander in Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian. Starring Matt Damon as a botanist who is stranded on Mars, the film was based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name. Chastain met with astronauts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Johnson Space Center, and based her role on Tracy Caldwell Dyson. She spent time with Dyson in Houston and said, “My character is dealing with the guilt of leaving a crew member behind, but she’s still responsible for the lives of five other crewmates. I tried to play her as Tracy would have been in those moments.” The Martian became her second film to earn over $600 million in two consecutive years. Also in 2015, Chastain played a villainous countess who plots with her brother (played by Tom Hiddleston) to terrorize his new bride (played by Mia Wasikowska) in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance Crimson Peak. Despite the character’s misdeeds, Chastain approached the part with empathy, and in preparation read graveyard poetry and watched the films Rebecca (1940) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Del Toro cast her in the film to lend accessibility to a part he considered “psychopathic”, but critic Peter Debruge of Variety found her “alarmingly miscast” in the role, writing that she “flounders to convey [her character’s] vicious insecurity and black-widow ruthlessness”. Conversely, David Sims of Slate magazine praised her for portraying her character’s “jealous intensity to the hilt”.

♦ 2016–present

After portraying a series of intense roles, Chastain actively looked for a light-hearted part. She found it in the fantasy film The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016), co-starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt. The film served as both a sequel and a prequel to the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman. She was drawn to the idea of playing a female warrior whose abilities were on par with the lead male character, but the film generated negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office. Also that year, Chastain launched a production company named Freckle Films, headed by a team consisting exclusively of female executives. She then starred as the title character, a lobbyist, in the gun control thriller Miss Sloane, which reunited her with director John Madden. Chastain read the novel Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff to research the practice of lobbying in America, and met with female lobbyists to study their mannerisms and sense of style. Peter Travers wrote in his review, “Chastain is one of the best actresses on the planet. She draws us in, making us see what the character keeps inside by the sheer force of her fireball performance.” She received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama nomination for the film.

Chastain began 2017 by serving as the executive producer and providing the narration for I am Jane Doe, a documentary on sex trafficking. She next played the titular character in the drama The Zookeeper’s Wife, an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction book of the same name from the director Niki Caro. Chastain co-starred with Johan Heldenberghas the real-life Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Żabiński who saved many human and animal lives during World War II. The film received mixed reviews, although Stephen Holden took note of how Chastain’s “watchful, layered performance” empowered the film. In May that year, she performed the duties of a jury member at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

As of August 2017, Chastain has seven upcoming projects. She will feature as a “shrewd gossip columnist” in Québécois director Xavier Dolan’s first English-language film, entitled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, alongside an ensemble cast including Kit Harington, Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.  She has filmed the part of the 19th-century activist Caroline Weldon, an adviser to the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull, in the drama Woman Walks Ahead, and the part of Molly Bloom, a disgruntled skier who ran a high-profile gambling operation, in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game. Chastain is set to join the X-Men film series as the villainous empress Lilandra Neramani in the instalment subtitled Dark Phoenix. In addition, she will star as the country singer Tammy Wynette with Josh Brolin’s George Jones in the biopic George and Tammy, will appear in Patrick Brice’s comedy film Plus One, with Cecily Strong, and will serve as a producer and star as the superhero Painkiller Jane in a film of the same name.

♦ Personal life and off-screen work

Despite significant media attention, Chastain remains guarded about her personal life, and chooses not to attend red carpet events with a partner. She considers herself to be a “shy” person, and describing her routine in 2011, she said, “I walk the dogs, I play the ukulele, I cook. I’m not a girl who goes to big parties”. She has cited the actress Isabelle Huppert as an influence, for managing a family while also playing “out-there roles” in film.

Chastain is an animal lover and has adopted a rescue dog. She was a pescatarian for much of her life, but following health troubles she began practicing veganism. In the 2000s, Chastain was in a long-term relationship with writer-director Ned Benson that ended in 2010. In 2012, she began dating Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an Italian executive for the Italian-French fashion brand Moncler. On June 10, 2017, she married Preposulo at his family’s estate in Italy. They live in New York City.

Chastain is a feminist, and has often spoken against the discrimination faced by women and minorities in Hollywood. She wrote an opinion column on gender imbalance in the industry for a December 2015 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Among other issues, she is vocal in her support for equal pay in the workplace: “I think people know, if they’re going to hire me I’m not going to just be grateful. There have been situations where I have lost movies because I’ve said, this is not a fair deal, and I’ve walked away.” In 2013, Chastain lent her support to the Got Your 6 campaign, to help empower veterans of the United States Army, and in 2016, she became an advisory-board member to the organization We Do It Together, which produces films and television shows to promote the empowerment of women. Chastain has campaigned for access to affordable reproductive health care for women, and in 2017, Variety honored her for her work with the Planned Parenthood organization.

Having suffered through the suicide of her sister, Chastain aims to create awareness on depression, saying, “If I can do anything to help someone move through any darkness that they’re in, I’m gonna do whatever I can to help”. She supports charitable organizations that promote mental health, and is involved with the non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms to help high-school students of alternate sexual and gender identities overcome insecurities. She was teased as a child for having red hair and freckles and now takes a stand against bullying and body shaming.