Jessica Chastain has come into the cinema world like a house on fire in 2011, storming screens with five different — and critically acclaimed — films. But while it may seem like she’s just appeared on the scene, the truth is that Chastain is a well-practiced and studied actress, a Juilliard graduate with a very dedicated approach to preparing for her roles.
In a new interview with Interview Magazine — conducted by her “Take Shelter” co-star Michael Shannon — Chastain explains how she prepped for her role as a 1950s housewife in “The Tree of Life.” Casting her as a sort of grace incarnate, director Terrence Malick suggested she go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and take in a few paintings.
“There was one picture in particular: Raphael’s Madonna. I would go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just sit for hours looking at the portraits of the Madonna, because I found that there’s a completely different energy when you look at a painting of the Madonna and you look at a painting of any other woman, even from that time period,” Chastain said. “There’s something in her eyes and in her hands. There’s never a direct gaze. Usually her eyes are kind of downcast, and her fingers seem like they’re reaching up towards the heavens, even if they’re at her heart. I found that was very helpful.”
Whatever it was she saw, it worked: Chastain won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for the role, as well as critics awards from critics in LA and Toronto, amongst others. Of course, the star gives all credit to her director for the transposition from painting to film.
“Now when I watch the film, I see that in one of the very first shots of me, I’m sitting at the kitchen table and looking down to the right, and when I pause it, it looks like Raphael’s Madonna. It’s like, ‘Terrence Malick! You knew!’” she said.
Chastain grows close to all of her roles, preparing in different ways; as she told The Huffington Post earlier this year, she spent time reading and looking at photographs of children in the holocaust for her role as a survivor and spy in “The Debt.” When she leaves the characters, as she told HuffPost in an interview about “The Tree of Life,” it’s an emotional experience.
“I love every character I play, especially if I’m with them for a while, to me I don’t see them as me, I see them as realized women, so when I leave them, I feel sad because I’m not going to meet that woman anymore,” she confessed. “And I’m not a crazy, method person who always needs to be called by the character’s name, but there’s a feeling like I’m saying goodbye to someone I really really liked to get to know.”
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