12/12/2011 03:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

Jessica Chastain Takes on Hollywood With Grace

Jessica Chastain is not your typical Hollywood actress. She approaches her surroundings as a student, eager to take in the advice and help of the directors, writers, producers and actors around her. She is exceedingly calm and gracious, responding with a "thank you" after you ask her a question. The seemingly unknown actress made waves in 2011, starring in a majority of the years' praised films: Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, and The Help, for which she has already taken home a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress.

As she stood on the red carpet in Cannes this past May, holding hands with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it appeared to the world that success had come to her overnight. She made her film festival jury debut at this year's Marrakech International Film Festival, and found herself eating dinner in between the jury president Emir Kusterica and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco. And yet despite her new whirlwind lifestyle, Chastain remains humble. In Toronto this year, she went to see a festival movie at a theater where no less than three of her films were playing, and claims that not one person there recognized her.


The Prince and the Princess

Chastain spoke to a group of international journalists at the Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech during the festival, praising the Moroccan films she had recently viewed for their colorful cinematography and music. Read on to get a glimpse into the mind of cinema's current "it" girl, and why in the world of acting, patience is king.

What is your process from landing a role to portraying it on screen?

When I get a role, I do a lot of research. I read a lot of books. This sounds bizarre, but I think a lot about the energy of the character, and how it may be different from my energy.

Like Celia Foote from The Help, you know, I started with the novel. I read it many times. And every time something was said about Celia, I highlighted it and bent the page over, so it was like my Bible to me. It said in there that she grew up in Sugar Ditch. I went to Tunica country and saw what the area was. I researched what it was like in the 60s and how it is different from what it is like now.

To me, I'm such a scaredy cat and acting is my way of being a spy. I feel like all of a sudden I'm going under cover and I get to research things. So for me it's just a lot of work before I show up on set.

What kind of characters are you drawn toward playing?

Right now I like to play characters that I've never played before. Mrs. O'Brien in Tree of Life, that's a character that will always be so special to me, because when you spend six months of your life trying to cultivate grace in yourself, it can't help but change you. It's like going on the most amazing spiritual journey that you'll always remember. So every character I play leaves an impact on me.

I love all female characters that I've played. I just want, in films, for the female character to be proactive and not just reactive. I want to be the woman that makes a difference in a story.

How are you responding to all the critical acclaim?

There have been a lot of interesting conversations and debates about the films I'm in. People are very passionate about them, which I love. Right now it's so great. I know at some point it's not always going to be like this. I will be in a movie that is just so awful and then everyone will be like 'oh I knew she wasn't that great.' Just from seeing the business, I know that it goes back and forth and it's not always like this, but right now it's great. I'm trying not to completely attach myself to this is how it's going to be in my life, because there will always be ebbs and flows.

How much of your success would you attribute to being in the right place at the right time?

I do believe the famous quote that says success is talent plus luck. And I also believe that if you have talent and drive, no matter what at some point you will find luck. All of us at some point in our lives are lucky. I knew I was going to be an actor when I was five years old. So for me, I was like 'when am I going to get lucky?' I feel like if you know what you want to do and you have talent for it and determination, if you stay on it, it will absolutely happen.

If you look at Melissa Leo, she's gotten so much attention in the past few years, and she's been working for a long time. Look at Mark Ruffalo. He was a bartender for 19 years. I don't want people to think that it's all luck, because I think luck is a very small part of it. You just have to be patient and wait for the luck.

What advice do you have for artists in this increasingly tough industry?

The advice I always have for people is I only think you should be in this industry if you're willing and you'll be happy being poor. And because the success I have right now, I'm very lucky, is very rare. But I would have been happy even without the success, because I love what I'm doing. And so you know, sometimes I go to Julliard and I see people there and I always tell them, if you'll be happy doing theater for $300 a week, then you should do this. But if you won't be happy doing that, don't choose this profession, because it's very rare to have something other than that.

You've given a lot of credit for your success to Al Pacino. How did that come about?

When I got the audition for Al Pacino [for Wilde Salome] I asked him the very first time I met him I said, why am I here? How have you even heard of me? Because I heard that he requested that I come in. And he said that Marthe Keller, who is a dear friend of his, they did Bobby Deerfield together, she had seen me in this play off Broadway. And so when he was looking she said oh there was this young actress, and she mentioned my name.

So I think if you're doing what you love, if you follow the drive to create something, and not necessarily like 'oh this is going to make me a lot of money,' it will always lead to things. And I also feel like if you're someone who really tries to grasp or really tries to force something, it never happens. But if you just live your life in an honest way, then it comes.