When the calendar turns to January, she'll have starred in seven major films in 2011, which is more than three times her previous career output. And as the first of those films heads to DVD and Blu-ray, Jessica Chastain still is in awe of the experience, from first audition to final product.
In June, the 30-year-old actress starred as the angelic mother of three young boys in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." It's a meditation on life that uses the juxtaposition of tough and tender love in a 1950s Texas family to frame the story of Earth's creation, Chastain the mother, Brad Pitt the father. Gorgeously shot and expressive in emotion conveyed by visuals more than words, the film is in no way conventional, and the initial audition process gave Chastain just a hint of what the enigmatic "Thin Red Line" director had in mind.
"I got something sent to me, which was just this small, small piece of text and then these different behaviors that they wanted to see me audition," she said in a phone conversation with The Huffington Post, "like putting a baby to sleep, looking at someone with love and respect, and then there was text from a Eugene O'Neil play."
She gave in entirely to the material in her first go-round, channeling all the improv work she did as a student at Juilliard. It worked, as the soft-skinned, redheaded stage veteran was called to meet with Malick the next day. Having watched all of his movies the weekend prior, she felt comfortable enough to run lines with him right then and there. It was once she got the part that the hard work really started, though perhaps not in the way one who has seen the film might surmise.
"Actually it's the best script I ever read," she said, admitting it's counter-intuitive to what one would expect of a film that has such little dialogue. "It's very similar to what the movie is, the whole section, the whole creation, is absolutely written, it's like 20 pages in the script. It's so beautiful, it's so emotional. For me, when I first read the script, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, my part is amazing.' I couldn't believe it, I was like, how is it possible that I got this lucky, that I got this opportunity to play this role?”
After all, no amount of schooling or training can truly prepare someone to play modest perfection in its human form.
"It was a lot of pressure. I first read it and I thought, 'How do I do this?'" she laughed. "She symbolizes grace and the spirit world and how do you play that?”
As any mother might tell you, her answer came from an obvious place. "For me it's all about the children," Chastain revealed. She established a close bond with the three young boys who played her sons, sharing lunches and off-camera time on a daily basis. "It's about inspiring them and protecting them and loving them and encouraging them."
Chastain, in fact, grew close with everyone on the production team, and decided to swing by the set of Malick's next, untitled film to visit a crew she calls her extended family. That's how she may or may not have earned a part in that next feature -- while she did get in front of the camera for a few days, she can't quite be sure whether it'll make the cut. Which is what happens when you're not really sure what the film is in the first place.
"I think it's a completely different film," she guessed, unsure about speculation that it may be a sequel or follow up to "The Tree of Life." "I haven't read the script to be honest, I don't even know if I'm in the film.”
Of course, she isn't pushing for screen time either way.
"You'd have to go out of your way, put in a big big effort, to not see a movie I'm in," she sheepishly laughed, reminded that she is filling multiple screens at a time in theaters this fall. By this weekend, she'll be taking up screen real estate in "The Help," "Take Shelter," "Texas Killing Fields" and "The Debt." But she's not a bragging; she seems almost embarrassed by her ubiquity.
She'll have to get used to it, though, as her film streak continues into 2012. Chastain has a whole docket of films on the way; she co-stars in Al Pacino's indie drama "Salome," "The Wettest County in the World" and the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick "Horizons," which she said has a budget 10 times the amount of any film she's ever been in. It's a lot to take on, both commitment-wise and emotionally.
"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."
But while she'll be getting to know a lot of new fully-realized women, there's something about "The Tree of Life" that will stick with her no matter how many films she makes.
“It changed my life and my career,” she said, “but it also made me change my life in making me focus on what's important in life and how I want to treat people and how people should be treated. It was created with this loving energy that it will always be incredibly special to me.”