The first thing you notice about Jessica Chastain is, of course, her hair. The long, burnt-orange curls cascade around her face, framing its angular features. Her skin is luminous and dappled with freckles; her deep-set gray eyes taking in every detail. A Renaissance goddess; a Botticelli in the flesh. She is stunning.
The award-winning actor is in Dubai for the first time when Vogue Arabia meets her. She’s here as Piaget ambassador – the Swiss high jeweler and watchmaker is showcasing its latest collection at Art Dubai. Piaget has a long-standing commitment to supporting the arts and cinema, sponsoring the Film Independent Spirit Awards and showcasing at Art Dubai this year for the third consecutive time. Its new Sunlight Journey range, of which Chastain is the face, recalls the Almafi coast with its azure blues and sparkling light. Her particular favorite is a diamond and sapphire watch: “It feels like it’s from another time yet it’s incredibly modern. It’s really elegant.” Chastain collects jewelry and has amassed a few special Piaget pieces. She’s also keen on paintings, especially by American contemporary artist George Condo, and photographs – “My favorite is Hiroshi Sugimoto, I love the theater series.” She doesn’t choose her pieces, be it jewelry or art, on a whim. For her – an actor who has built a solid résumé on making considered professional choices – it has to feel personal. “I don’t collect art for investment’s sake, even though it is one. With any kind of art piece, it has to be something you love. You’re hopefully not going to buy it and lock it in the dark somewhere, you’re going to look at it every day. So, for me, there has to be some kind of emotional response.”
This erudition comes through clearly in her film choices, too. She’s Hollywood’s go-to actor for portraying steely determination (Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane), making cerebral sci-fi accessible (Interstellar, The Martian), and giving unorthodox female protagonists heart (The Help, Molly’s Game). She’s a director’s darling, disappearing into her characters so completely that it becomes difficult to place her in one specific role. She’s also warm, friendly, open, and spontaneous – and unabashedly full of joy. This is a woman who, at 41, has found her voice.
Chastain arrived on screens relatively late in 2011 in her mid-30s, being feted by Hollywood insiders as one of the best actors of her generation before her movies had even been released. When the public eventually got to see her on film – with a staggering six titles released in 2011 – it was clear that a new star had not only arrived but had staked her claim among the best. Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations followed for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty (she won the Globe for the latter), and she continued choosing emotionally complex roles that don’t play into gender stereotypes. This is by design, it turns out. “When I was a child, whenever I saw women on film or in the media who were doing things that went against what society expected of them, it made me sit up and take notice. Seeing Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien… I’d never seen a female character like that and all of a sudden it made me understand that, oh, it’s possible for a woman to be the hero of her own story.” She wants to do that for today’s little girls – hence her playing quantum physicists saving the world and commanders of space missions to Mars. “I want girls to grow up with these examples to know that it’s possible for them. I definitely feel that responsibility when choosing roles.”
It’s not all noble future-building, though. She also deliberately looks for characters with flaws. She’s not afraid to embrace the darkness of a role, which is part of what makes her so compelling on screen. “Even if my character is a hero, I want people to understand that there’s this myth that you should be the perfect mother, the perfect boss at work, the perfect friend… but I want women to understand that they’re allowed to be human. Women are allowed to have flaws and not be perfect. When I meet someone who presents themselves as perfect, I feel sorry for them. I feel like they’re hiding something honest and authentic about themselves.” Her darkest role was in the Guillermo del Toro-directed gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015). “My character, Lady Lucille Sharp, was not very nice, she’s quite tortured. We filmed it for so long and to wear that energy every day, which is so different to who I am, was a bit depressing,” she says. And her most fun role? “Celia in The Help. We had so much fun working on that movie, I loved being in Mississippi with all the girls.”
Chastain was born and raised in Sacramento, California, with two sisters and two brothers. Hers was an impoverished upbringing and she felt like misfit at school. She retreated into the performing arts and eventually ended up studying acting at the Juilliard School in New York on a scholarship, cutting her teeth in theater productions of Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, and Oscar Wilde. She shares a strong bond with her grandmother, who sometimes accompanies her to movie events, and looks up to women who push against the expectations life has for them. Perhaps this is why she has also emerged as one of the most strident voices of the #TimesUp movement sweeping Hollywood and is vocal about women’s rights, representation, and empowerment. At last year’s Cannes film festival, as a jury member, she critiqued the lack of female storytellers. (At this year’s festival, her ensemble spy movie, 355, with Marion Cotillard, Pénelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, and Fan Bingbing picked up one of the biggest distribution deals at the event.) She also walked the red carpet at this year’s Golden Globes awards with her good friend (and The Help co-star) Octavia Spencer, talking about the movement. “The problem is not just sexism,” she says. “That’s an easy issue to fix. An unconscious bias is more difficult to correct. People – even women – are sometimes unaware of the biases they have, so you have to bring it to light. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. You need to really look at it and examine it before you can change it.” She’s adamant that women should use their voices and support each other. “There’s something very powerful about women. There’s a sisterhood. When we support each other, it’s contagious. It expands. I’m not afraid to use my voice when I hear Oprah Winfrey using hers, when I hear Natalie Portman, or my grandma, use hers. I think we’d solve a lot of problems if each woman understood that using her voice was a beautiful thing.”