Jessica Chastain/Photo © Cinemafest/Shutterstock
In 2002, Halle Berry won an Academy Award for “Monster’s Ball” and became the first African American best actress, but later that same year she portrayed a bikini-clad Bond girl. Her supernatural dud “Gothika” followed in 2003, but her historic award was more than two years old when she led one of the most critically savaged films of all-time: “Catwoman.” Accepting that year’s Razzie for her efforts, Berry thanked Warner Bros for “putting me in a piece-of-shit, godawful movie.” Almost a decade later, the broken-winged Berry brandishing that gold spray-painted Razzie in one hand and her good-plated Oscar in the other could be the symbol of this year’s best actress race. Two-thirds of the nominees have recently released what contender Jessica Chastain politely calls a “genre picture.”
A year before her first nomination, “Silver Linings Playbook” star Jennifer Lawrence shot teeny bop schlock-fest “The House at the End of the Street.” Initially slated to preempt “The Hunger Games,” it bumped to last fall, pegging its DVD release to early January when the ink was barely dry on Lawrence’s name on this year’s Oscar ballot.
“The Impossible” nominee Naomi Watts put some distance between herself and 2011′s suburban gothic bomb “Dream House,” but her Academy Award-nominated director Jim Sheridan was so unhappy with the final product, he fought to have his name removed. Though a supporting player, she’s still closely associated because leads Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz bailed on promoting the film, leaving Watts holding the bag.
But it’s “Zero Dark Thirty” star Jessica Chastain who may have the most to lose. Her smoky-eyed step-goth in flea-bitten fairy tale “Mama” dropped the week after her Oscar nomination was announced and is on screens though the February 19 ballot deadline. She tries to laugh it off at a recent whistle-stop on her Oscar campaign tour at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “I also played an Italian jaguar in ‘Madagascar 3′ this year,” she deadpans. But her career is subject to the same lag as Lawrence’s, wherein questionable fare like Chastain’s title role in “Jolene,” based on the Dolly Parton song, surfaces years after their creation. Or sometimes not at all. “My first film didn’t come out yet,” she laughs, “and it was directed by Al Pacino. I thought ‘Salome’ was my big break. Hopefully it’ll come out soon.”
The thirty-five-year-old graduated from next-door Juilliard a decade ago and still recalls her courses. She details a class trip to the Bronx Zoo wherein each student found an animal – Chastain chose a tiger – and then “explored what that energy does to the body. You can find really interesting character choices through animals.” She remembers another Juilliard visit, from alumnus Val Kilmer, who advised: “Hollywood isn’t unimaginative, it’s anti-imagination.”
“I really remembered that,” she continues. “Every time I get a script, I’m only interested in parts I’ve never done before. If representation says, ‘This will be a nice paycheck for you,’ that’s a guarantee I’m not going to do the film. They’ve since learned not to open with that. I like to play women who are different from me because I like to learn about them. Women in this industry are typecast immediately.”
She sidesteps that by concentrating on the frisson between each successive role, so much so that she mentions her “genre picture” in the same breath as her upcoming lead in Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of the nineteenth-century play “Miss Julie.” Chastain enthuses, “It’s great that I can go from ‘Mama,’ a fantasy horror film, to Strinberg. We’ll see if I succeed.”
“Mama” happened once “The Tree of Life” hit Cannes and she started getting a lot of “supportive wife” scripts. “My character in ‘Mama’ goes to a community college and plays in a punk band,” Chastain continues, “and she hates kids. That’s the opposite of ‘Tree of Life.’ Not only am I playing such a different character, but I’m going from Terrence Malick to a genre film. It’s less about career strategy and more about, ‘You’re telling me I can’t do that? I’m going to fight you.’”
Enter the fighting tiger Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Chastain’s sketched lengthy biographies for each character since “Tree of Life,” but that was particularly important for the CIA agent who tracked down Osama bin Laden and still operates under deep cover. Chastain is reluctant to reveal details that may jeopardize the real Maya, but loosened up recently when the film’s writer prepped her for a recent “Tonight Show” appearance by saying, “You know, you can say [itals]some things really happened.”
“I studied Maya for three months,” Chastain says. “But I had to fill in all these personal lines that I couldn’t find out about her. I need to know what her favorite food is, but it had to follow the research. Sometimes I let the director in on it and sometimes I don’t, but the more I’ve worked, the more I’ve taken ownership. It can’t go against the script – that’s the spine of the character – but at the end of the film, I know more about the woman I’m playing than even the writer.”
She compares the “the pain of someone trained to emote” portraying the analytical Maya and compares it to her current day job as the title character in “The Heiress” on Broadway. “I’ve been doing it for five months,” she says, “and every day I have to have a full-on breakdown. I wonder if something happens in your brain? Something must be happening if you’re crying every day, but it has to be personal. That’s our job as actors. We have to give everything we own.”