On Movies: For Chastain, Cannes experience will be hard to top

Posted: June 05, 2011

Jessica Chastain was in Cannes last month, where the film she stars in, The Tree of Life, a modest number about the dawn of man, about grace and nature and the struggles of a family in 1950s Texas, won the festival's grand prize, the Prix d'Or.

And Jessica Chastain was in Cannes last month, where the film she stars in, Take Shelter, about a man (Michael Shannon) who is either going crazy or has foreseen the end of the world, won the Critics' Week grand prize.

And Jessica Chastain was in Cannes last month, where the film she stars in, The Wettest County in the World, a Depression-era crime drama with Shia LeBoeuf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska, was the object of a bidding war. Harvey Weinstein ended up with the distribution rights.

In short, the 30-year-old Juilliard graduate, who hadn't even worked in movies until four years ago, had the Cannes Film Festival experience of her life.

"I'm realistic enough to know that my first Cannes experience will never, ever, be repeated," says the actress, on the phone from Austin, Texas, where The Tree of Life was premiering last week. Terrence Malick, the famously private and independent-minded writer/director, lives in Austin and had been working on the film, shot in the Lone Star state, for the last three years. Hugely successful in its first week's run in New York and Los Angeles, and the object of mostly rapturous reviews, The Tree of Life opens Friday at the Ritz East.

Chastain plays the wife, the mother, in The Tree of Life, opposite Brad Pitt and three preternaturally self-possessed first-time actor kids. Like Malick's other films - Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) - his fifth feature has long passages of wordless action and moments of reverie, of transcendence, that other movies, and moviemakers, rarely approach.

"I first heard from my agent, who said that they were casting this role," says Chastain, recalling the long and winding road she has been on with her director and The Tree of Life. "That was 31/2 years ago, and no one really knew anything about it.

"So I showed up at the audition and it was a lot of behavior - putting a baby to sleep, singing a lullaby, looking at someone with love and respect. And there was a bit of dialogue from a Eugene O'Neill play, so they could hear my voice. And after that audition I got a call: Would I like to meet Terrence Malick? . . . So I got on an airplane."

More meetings, and more auditions, followed.

"A lot of people were vying for this part," she says. "It was very strange. I always had faith that if it was meant to be it was going to happen, and I would go away from every new audition thinking even if I don't get this part I'll forever be able to say I worked with Terrence Malick - because in the audition room, I'm working with Terrence Malick! . . .

"And, of course, then when I heard that I got the part, that was like the best day ever."

Chastain says that unlike typical Hollywood scripts, Malick's was markedly devoid of dialogue. It was "incredibly dense" with prose, and took her more than four hours to read.

"It was so different. I'm going to be honest. When he first called me and offered me the role, I still hadn't read the script yet. And I said, 'Yes, of course,' and he said, 'Will you please read the script before you make the decision?' I told him I don't need to read the script. 'I trust you. I want to be in one of your movies.' But he insisted . . . .

"The Tree of Life screenplay is like an epic poem - I found it so beautiful, I hope it's published someday. It's really a fascinating read. The whole beginning of the universe/cosmos section, I mean, I had to pull out my dictionary - what are we talking about right now? It's so beautiful. . . . I guess it's exactly how you would expect the screenplay for The Tree of Life to be."

Chastain says that once on set, things were similarly atypical. For one thing, Malick didn't call out 'Action' or 'Cut!'

"We would just roll through the four minutes of film, then take the two minutes to reload the camera and then go again," explains Chastain, who says scenes were shot with dialogue, and then the same scene would be shot again, without the dialogue. "Essentially, he was saying can you do the speech without the words! It's a scary thing for an actor to hear. How can you express this without the words telling the audience where we're headed? But then it also was incredibly freeing . . . it was an exploration."

In addition to The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Wettest County in the World, Chastain will soon be seen in The Help - the adaptation of the Kathryn Stockett novel about three white women in the 1960s South (Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone are the others) and the African American maids who were part of their lives. She also has completed work on The Fields, a murder mystery from Ami Canaan Mann, director Michael Mann's daughter; Coriolanus, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play directed by (and starring) Ralph Fiennes; The Debt, an espionage thriller about the Mossad; Wild Salome, from the Oscar Wilde work, with Al Pacino; and, yes, a new Terrence Malick.

"I worked for two days on this movie that he's just finished, and all my scenes were with Ben Affleck," reports Chastain. "It's easier for me to say I've been on two Terrence Malick sets, rather than I'm in two of his films. I don't know if I'm going to be in [the final cut]. It was more for me an opportunity to be with the crew and with Terry again. I'd do all of his films - I'd be a production assistant on his films!"

Malick at Drexel (his movies, that is). Speaking of Malick, the Philadelphia Film Society and Drexel University's Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design are presenting a Malick mini-retrospective this week. On Wednesday, Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, and Badlands, with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, screen. The Thin Red Line, Malick's Oscar-nominated adaptation of James Jones' World War II Pacific Theater opus, will be shown Thursday night. Screenings are at the Mandell Theater, 33d and Chestnut Streets, and admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 to the Philadelphia Film Society. For information: www.filmadelphia.org, or 267-239-2941.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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