Awards, nominations, red-carpet glamour, interesting projects, her handprints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame… Jessica Chastain, 46, is the epitome of a movie star. The California-born actress has been working for 20 years and has achieved fame and worldwide recognition for her appearance in fifty titles. But before she became one of the most celebrated, hard-working and elegant women in the entertainment industry, she went through a much more complicated stage: high school. Just this week, the 2022 Oscar winner for her performance as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye revealed that in high school, her classmates considered her a weirdo and a nerd. And during that awkward stage in her life, she approached her peers in unorthodox ways.
In a chat on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, she discusses her life and her career (the conversation was recorded in mid-June, before the actors’ strike, which prevents performers from doing any kind of promotion). Chastain explains that she was not a very good student, and she didn’t have many friends, either. So, she tried to grab her classmates’ attention in other ways. “I remember sitting in the cafeteria and eating orange peels and banana peels because it made people notice me. The other kids would be like, ‘Oh my God, look at her.’ I know, it’s terrible. I just wanted people to notice me for being a weirdo, that I was existing, something,” she says.
The actress recalls her difficulties getting through the school year. “I wasn’t, like, the best student. I was a bit… probably obnoxious,” she recounted in a tone that likely reflected more amusement than she felt 30 years ago when it was all happening. “I was kind of nerdy. One time they permed my hair, and I looked like Annie [the fictional character in the movie of the same name, with very curly red hair], and then we cut it off. I had really short hair, red hair. I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh, what a sweet, clueless person.’”
Chastain’s childhood was difficult. Her mother, Jerri Hastey, raised her three children alone: Jessica, her brother Will and the youngest, Juliet, a singer and poet, who committed suicide in 2004, at the age of 23, after experiencing mental health problems and drug addiction. Chastain has said that her childhood was not easy, nor was it what many might expect of a Hollywood star. “We stole food at the store because we didn’t have any money,” Chastain told ES Magazine in 2017. It wasn’t exactly a secret. “Some people knew she was doing it but didn’t stop her,” she said. “So, there is kindness everywhere.” On the podcast with Marc Maron, she also shared that a play by Sam Shepard-turned-film in 1994, Curse of the Starving Class, opened her eyes to her mother’s difficulties in feeding her three children. In it, a character frequently opens the refrigerator and looks inside even though she knows that there is nothing there. The scene was a revelation for Chastain. “That was the first time I realized, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s us.’”
Chastain eventually found success at New York’s Julliard School, one of the most prestigious academies in the world of the performing arts. She received a scholarship to attend thanks to funds provided by the late actor Robin Williams. Al Pacino welcomed her from the very beginning; he saw her talent and cast her in his theatrical production of Salome in 2006. Five years later, she burst onto the movie scene and charmed critics in the film The Tree of Life; that same year, she achieved popular success with her appearance in The Help, for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
This week, Chastain also spoke on Entertainment Weekly’s podcast, Awardist, about the film that catapulted her to fame. “You know who I think about all the time, and I just wish I could play her [again]? Celia Foote,” she said. She was referring to her character, a rich white woman in racist 1960s Mississippi, who tries to befriend her maid, a lower-class black woman, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer (Spencer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Help). “I just want to do something [with] Celia and Minny and see what happened. You know they ended up living together and raising the baby together, they were best friends,. How amazing would that film be? I loved [Celia].”
The actress says that she was “so happy” playing a Southern woman in the 1960s. “[With] a lot of my characters, I feel like I got to experience a lot. Celia…was such a deep dive for me,” she notes. “That’s a character I wish I could revisit.”
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