Redheads in Hollywood were once typecast as fiery temptresses or hot-blooded vixens. Yet, this stereotype has subsided somewhat thanks in no small part to the many varied onscreen performances of such talented ginger actresses as Jessica Chastain, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.
Chastain, in particular, has found serious cinematic success across a wide array of genres, be it sci-fi (she played Commander Melissa Lewis in 2015’s The Martian), biographical (last year she was the titular character in The Eyes of Tammy Faye), thrillers (2012’s Zero Dark Thirty) or more. For her efforts, she has nabbed a Golden Globe and was nominated for two Academy Awards and two Baftas, in addition to being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012. With the talented screen siren set to grace cinemas this month in The 355 – an action-packed spy film with a star-studded cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Fan Bingbing – we take a look at some of the lesser-known facts about Jessica Chastain.
Jessica Michelle Chastain was born on 24 March 1977 in the Californian city of Sacramento. Her mum, Jerri Renee Chastain, and dad Michael Monasterio were extremely young parents, the latter being 20 and the former just 16 when Chastain entered the world. As an aspiring rock musician, her father abandoned his family a few years later, leaving Jerri to raise two young children by herself. Understandably, the Zero Dark Thirty star remained estranged from him for the rest of his life, and did not speak to him again before he passed away at the age of 55 in 2013.
As a single mother of four children, Jerri Chastain struggled to make ends meet. In one case, when they were living in North Carolina, the situation grew so dire that they were even evicted from their home. Recalling this turbulent period, the star has said: “Because my mom had us very young, many times we were in situations where we didn’t have stability. So, we moved around quite a bit when we were younger, and one time I came home from school, I was probably 13 years old, and there were people there locking the door…”
Unlike many of her colleagues, Chastain was still a young child – seven years old, in fact – when she realised she wanted to become an actress. The seminal moment came when her grandmother took her to see a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. When she discovered the on-stage narrator was a scant three years older than her, she became determined to follow in her footsteps. Chastain never forgot her debt to the person who helped to spark her acting bug, and thanked her grandmother by taking her to the Oscars in 2012 and 2013 as her plus one.
From Dropout to Juilliard
Despite her obvious intellect, Chastain and school were not the best fit; she preferred to spend time reading Shakespeare rather than studying. Although she didn’t graduate from high school, she attended a local community college, and later, in 1999, was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York on a degree programme funded by a scholarship from Robin Williams.
“It was after my second year I found I got that scholarship, and it paid for not only all my schoolwork, but my apartment and my books, and my flight home to see my family for Christmas. It took care of all of that,” reminisced Chastain. “Each year I wrote him a letter about how significant that gift was to myself and to my family.”
Sadly, though, she never got to meet the comedian before his untimely death in 2014. The closest she came was at a restaurant when he was seated at a nearby table. She wanted to wait until he finished eating to introduce herself, but Williams slipped out the second he was done and she never saw him again.
Graduating from New York’s prestigious Julliard should have been one of the happiest days of Chastain’s life, but unfortunately a dark cloud hung over her. Just three days before, her sister Juliet had committed suicide at the age of 24, having struggled with drug abuse and depression for many years. Unlike Jessica, who was a year older, Juliet had reconciled with their estranged father and was living with him when she tragically ended her life.
Love in her Acts
After her sister’s suicide, Chastain took measures to raise awareness about depression, mental health and suicide, and began supporting the charity To Write Love on Her Arms. An animal lover, she also volunteers for the Humane Society of the United States, and used to spend Sundays at Los Angeles’s Animal Acres shovelling hay for horses.
Chastain’s career may have started slowly, but she blossomed into a major star. As well as Oscar-nominated movies, she has appeared in blockbuster hits, from the animated success of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted to the epic Interstellar and the horror giant It: Chapter Two. As of 2020, the domestic box-office takings from 23 of her movies raked in over US$1.4 billion and totalled US$3.65 billion worldwide.
The Zero Dark Thirty star has always been notoriously tight-lipped about her personal life, but she is, in fact, married to Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an Italian count and scion of a revered noble family from the country’s Lombardy region. She and Preposulo – who is a fashion executive at Moncler – were married in 2017 in a private ceremony at his family’s Treviso estate, and share two children.
Help in the Dark
Since 2010, the actress has racked up more than 30 credits, most of them feature-length films. These include her Oscar-nominated performances in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty and acclaimed headlining roles in the likes of Miss Sloane and Molly’s Game, both of which earned her Golden Globe nominations. While The Help may have put Chastain on the map, it was Zero Dark Thirty that solidified her credentials and catapulted her into the big league.
But she nearly didn’t appear in the latter film at all. It wasn’t due to a lack of interest on her part – she accepted the lead role of CIA agent Maya Harris even before reading the screenplay – but because of scheduling conflicts due to a contractual obligation to co-star in Tom Cruise’s 2013 action film Oblivion. Thankfully, Cruise released her from that former commitment, and we now have a wide breadth of fantastic films from that one fateful decision.
The full version of this feature appears on Gafencu Magazine’s January 2022 print issue as ❝Double Digits❞ by Tenzing Thondup. Download the free app (iOS, Android) for digital editions of the magazine.