Jessica Chastain has spent the last decade building the kind of career most actors spend a lifetime pursuing. Here, the L'OFFICIEL Fall 2021 global coverstar gets to dress the part—all the parts.
Despite the close attention it’s paid on the red carpet, fashion, for a celebrity, is typically fairly disconnected from a star’s real interior world. For the chameleonic actor Jessica Chastain, though, fashion is elemental: a true pleasure that is both a vehicle for self-expression and an opportunity for inward expansion. Fashion is like music, she says one morning this summer. It’s an art that doubles as a tool she can use. “It constantly makes me feel different things,” she says. “It opens up other parts of myself.” It’s this perspective—along with the kind of exquisite bone structure that belongs as much in Old Hollywood as it does new—that made Chastain the natural choice to pose in decades-spanning designs for the Centennial Issue of L’OFFICIEL.
Anniversaries were on her mind, too, when Chastain spoke to the magazine. It was a few days after she’d returned from Cannes, a full 10 years after her debut there with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. “My career in cinema is a decade old now, which is shocking,” she says, though that’s really only true in the sense that she’s managed to build one so rich and interesting in such a relatively short period of time. If you need an idea of the actor’s range, consider the two projects she has premiering this month: Michael Showalter’s biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, in which Chastain transformed into the emotive, scandal-plagued evangelist, and Hagai Levi’s present-day reprise of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 two-hander Scenes from a Marriage for HBO, in which the roles of the husband and wife have been flipped.
Chastain speaks with L’OFFICIEL about conquering her fears, her deep feeling for fashion, and what keeps her striving forward—both as a champion of equal rights for women in and out of Hollywood and as an artist.
L’OFFICIEL: I watched the first two episodes of Scenes from a Marriage available to reviewers, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and congratulations on both really tremendous—and incredibly different—projects and performances. What attracts you to a role?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Well, it depends. Sometimes what attracts me to a role is who I’m working with. Oftentimes it’s if the role is something I’ve never done before and feels challenging. But always what attracts me to a role is feeling like I’m putting something positive out into the world. It may not be a nice person I’m playing, but positive in terms of breaking gender stereotypes or pushing a conversation forward. I always ask myself, “What am I putting out in the world? Am I contributing to society?”
L’O: Is that something you always thought about? Or is that something that you realized you had to think about once you were in the industry?
JC: I never really thought about it because I was never given the option. At the beginning of your career you’re just so excited to be chosen. And then your career starts to develop and evolve, and instead of feeling excited to be chosen you’re also excited to have choices. And you—everyone actually— start to understand that your power comes from the choices you make.
When I did Zero Dark Thirty with Kathryn Bigelow, I saw the questions she was being asked, and I saw the difference between how the world and the industry talked to her and how they talked to male filmmakers. I also saw the stereotypes people held about my character. It was really upsetting to me, but at that moment I understood that film can be a political act. That really ignited a desire in me to choose projects that create some kind of ripple in the conversation, push a kind of boundary, and depict real human beings.
L’O: Was that what drew you to making a movie about Tammy Faye Bakker?
JC: I think it was the award circuit for Zero Dark Thirty, and people were asking what I wanted to do next, and the Tammy Faye documentary was on TV and I watched it and thought, Wow, this feels like an incredible part. The singing, the preaching, everything about her. It ticked all the boxes, because for me, it also rights a wrong. I was so upset that she’d been treated the way she had by the media. The fact that we vilified her for the makeup she wore and how she looked instead of listening to what she was saying about love, what she was saying about religion, about Christians, and about what Christianity is supposed to be about; how she was reaching across and really trying to love those who feel like they’ve been abandoned. It broke my heart that she was never acknowledged for that. She was just made into a joke.
Even now when you mention Tammy Faye, people say, “Oh yeah, she’s singing and there’s mascara running down her face.” I spent hundreds of hours studying her, I looked through all the footage I could find; there’s not one video I could find of mascara running down her face. I think it’s in our memories because of the media, the comedy sketches, and the people making fun of her. And that’s what we remember; it changed our memories of what the reality was. I wanted people to see what she was really about.
L’O: Speaking of the makeup, and the incredible prosthetics, and the very long manicured nails— the way you open cans of Diet Coke with a nail file in the film answered a lot of questions for me.
JC: The reason I know to do that is because my mom had those nails. As soon as we were on set I was like, I need to open one of these, anyone got a nail file? My mom always had a nail file in her purse, and she would use it to open her cans of soda.
L’O: Did you have hours and hours and hours in the makeup chair?
JC: Oh yeah. Honestly, I’m probably never going to do that again. It was pretty anxiety-ridden for me. I’ve had some health problems in the past: I had a pulmonary embolism, and when I get on an airplane I always think about how I have to be careful and not get blood clots. And sitting there, the first week of work, I’m like, Oh my gosh, it’s like I’m going cross country on a plane every day. You have to sit very still; I would wear compression socks on my legs. The first day of shooting they picked me up at 3:30 in the morning. What I would do is think: How could I make this into something positive? And I watched Tammy Faye for at least 4 hours every morning. Andrew [Garfield, who plays Jim Bakker] would be there and we’d share clips related to the scenes we were doing that day. I watched her, I listened to her, I had an audio file that was just her voice, and when I had to close my eyes for the prosthetics and the makeup and everyone painting me, I would listen and I would repeat after her. I had the longest runway for taking off each day. So by the time I’m in the air, by the time I’m acting, I’ve been on the runway for 4 hours. It really helped once I got on set. But the first time I did the very first test with the whole prosthetic on, it was way too much, and I had a bit of a panic attack. And then when you start to go oh god oh god oh god it looks terrible, at that moment normally you start to sweat, and your heart is beating fast, and all that stuff makes it worse because your skin can’t breathe, and you can’t remove it because it can rip off your skin.
L’O: Did you do all of your own singing in the film?
JC: Yes! Here’s another thing. I was really scared. I mean, I sang in college. But like, actor singing. Cabaret and stuff, nothing like this. And Tammy Faye is a fearless singer, just like she’s fearless in her fashion and in her love—she’s a belter. She just sings it out, sings it to Jesus! And that was very different. When I went into pre-record with Dave Cobb [who produced the music for A Star is Born], who I was so excited to work with, I was terrified. I showed up with a bottle of whiskey and I drank whiskey for two days while I sang. Dave, this is the kind of producer he is, he’s so smart, he raised the notes to a higher key on the second day. He said, we’re going to re-do everything from day one. What?! But he said, “You’re singing it like it’s easy. When she sings, she’s at a 10, she’s at 12, she’s beyond. We need to get you to the point where you’re afraid you’re not going to hit these notes. I need every ounce of energy from you in these songs.” And that’s what we have in the film. You hear me really pushing for every song.
L’O: It’s perfect; you’re the face of L’OFFICIEL’s Centennial Issue, because you go through at least half a century’s worth of fashion trends in this one role. Did you have a favorite?
JC: The one thing I really loved, because it was so silly, was the white fur coat with the white hat. Faux fur of course. That’s actually from a picture I saw of her that I took to Mitchell Travers, our costume designer, like “Mitch, please! we have to recreate this look!” I also love the ‘90s for her. I love her red jacket with the leopard lining—she famously said her two favorite colors were pink and leopard. It’s a way of honoring her.
L’O: It’s nice when a character enjoys fashion and it’s not solely portrayed as a flaw, or pure vanity.
JC: Exactly! Also, what’s wrong with that? I do have an issue with people blaming women for having a ton of shoes, or too many clothes—come on. If someone wants to look fabulous, let them look fabulous. Let them express themselves in whatever way they want to. If they want to wear a pound of makeup, let them do it. If they want to wear wigs, let them do it. I love fashion and glam as a form of self-expression.
L’O: You’ve just been at Cannes, which is obviously the ne plus ultra of big, glamorous red carpet moments. Is that something you always enjoyed, or is it just part of the job?
JC: Always. Growing up, my grandmother and my mom were always so glamorous—I told you about my mom and her nails and her nail file. It’s always something that I enjoyed, if something I could not ever really afford until I got into this industry. I love fashion because—and this is a strange thing to say—I’m very sensitive, and I can get overstimulated. My husband teases me about this because I chose a career where there are a lot of people around, but if there’s a lot of noise, if there’s a lot of energy, sometimes I have to get quiet and sit in a quiet room for a while. I’m very open and closed. If I’m wearing yellow, I feel it. If I’m wearing a suit, I feel it. I feel the energy of what I’m wearing. If I’m wearing all white and my hair is in braids, if I’ve got a miniskirt on, whatever it is, I feel it and it contributes to me in some way. I do really enjoy putting on gowns and going on the red carpet at Cannes. I don’t know how to describe it, but each outfit that I have the opportunity to wear makes me feel like a different kind of woman.
L’O: Do you find yourself drawn to any one style in particular? You have a very classic look; I feel like every article I read about you referenced Botticelli.
JC: I love that, though. I love the history of fashion. I love wearing a corset, I love those kind of classical looks. I’m not a stick figure and I really don’t…over exercise. I exercise, but I’m not crazy about it. I’m happy about that, and I’m happy to show that I have curves on my body. I’m drawn to that, but I’m also drawn to androgyny sometimes. The one thing I’m not drawn to, and I will say this, is grandma chic. That’s kind of what I’m not drawn to.
Women are flesh and blood, and they have desires and they are complicated just like men are.
L’O: How did you approach doing Scenes from a Marriage in 2021? Did you revisit the original Bergman film, or did you want distance from it?
JC: Oscar [Isaac] and I definitely revisited. It was important looking at it, but also it was freeing, because a lot of people might ask why we would remake a Bergman film. Also because Liv Ullman is one of the greatest actresses ever—which I know not only because I’ve seen all of her films, but because I’ve worked with her when she directed me. I know who she is and how great she is; there’s nothing I can do better than anything she’s done. For me it was the freedom of us not remaking it, because the genders are swapped. Scenes from a Marriage from the 1970s is incredible because it really is a picture of the marriages of that time: this is what femininity is, this is what masculinity is. And now we take it and go, Okay, what are we going to say about marriage today? What is feminine, what is masculine; what is being a mother and what is being a father; and what is the expectation of the roles that we have to play? I love the original, and Oscar and I studied it in terms of the bigger themes, but in terms of performance, there’s no such thing. I’m playing a completely different character than Liv Ullman played, not only because of the time difference, but because I am playing a different character: the husband. So we studied it, but we also let it go.
L’O: It did feel very important somehow that this time it was a woman who was driving the action, leaving her husband for a younger man, rather than being the one left behind with the kid.
JC: I mean, it happens! It has always happened! It’s happened for hundreds of years actually. That’s what A Doll’s House is about. It isn’t about infidelity, but Nora leaves her family. That play was made a long time ago. So it’s time that we start to go, okay, women are flesh and blood, and they have desires and they are complicated just like men are. Men have been complicated and have done not nice things and sometimes selfish things, and sometimes women do not nice things and selfish things. That’s what it just means to be human, and I think actually we need to understand that women are humans.
L’O: And in one of your 2022 movies, The 355, they get to be action stars, which is exciting. Are there other upcoming projects you’re excited about?
JC: The 355 is with Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o, Fan Bingbing, and Diane Kruger, and because all of the actresses are owners of the film, we raised the money ourselves in Cannes, sold the distribution rights, and all get a percentage of the box office. It’s a new way of doing things. I also just did The Good Nurse with Eddie Redmayne, who is divine, and I’m about to go shoot Tammy Wynette with Michael Shannon playing George Jones. And I just want to say, in response to your first question, of what draws me—one thing is looking at all these co-stars. To go to work every day and work with people like that? Who knows how things will turn out, but it’s just so important to me.