Chastain is the founder of the production company Freckle Films, which was created to promote diversity in film. She is vocal about mental health issues, as well as gender and racial equality. She is married to fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, with whom she has a daughter.
Jessica Michelle Chastain was born on March 24, 1977, in Sacramento, California, to Jerri Renee Hastey (née Chastain) and rock musician Michael Monasterio. Her parents were both teenagers when she was born. Chastain is reluctant to publicly discuss her family background; she was estranged from Monasterio, and has said that no father is listed on her birth certificate. She has two sisters and two brothers. Her sister Juliet committed suicide in 2003 following years of drug addiction. Chastain was raised in Sacramento by her mother and stepfather, Michael Hastey, a fire-fighter. She has said that her stepfather was the first person to make her feel secure. She shares a close bond with her maternal grandmother, Marilyn, whom she credits as someone who "always believed in me".
Chastain first developed an interest in acting at the age of seven, after her grandmother took her to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She would regularly put on amateur shows with other children, and considered herself to be their artistic director. As a student at the El Camino Fundamental High School in Sacramento, Chastain struggled academically. She was a loner and considered herself a misfit in school, eventually finding an outlet in the performing arts. She has described how she used to miss school to read Shakespeare, whose plays she became enamored with after attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with her classmates. With too many absences during her senior year in school, Chastain did not qualify for graduation, but later obtained an adult diploma. She later attended Sacramento City College from 1996 to 1997, during which she was a member of the institution's debate team. Speaking about her early childhood, Chastain has said:
I [grew up] with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. We did not have money. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating. It was a very difficult upbringing. Things weren't easy for me growing up.
Shortly before graduating from Juilliard, Chastain attended an event for final-year students in Los Angeles, where she was signed to a talent holding deal by the television producer John Wells. She relocated to Los Angeles, and started auditioning for jobs. She initially found the process difficult, which she believed was due to other people finding her difficult to categorize as a redhead with an unconventional look. In her television debut, The WB network's 2004 pilot remake of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, she was cast as Carolyn Stoddard. The pilot was directed by P. J. Hogan, but the series was never picked up for broadcast. Later that year, she appeared as a guest performer on the medical drama series ER playing a woman she described as "psychotic", which led to her getting more unusual parts such as accident victims or the mentally ill. She went on to appear in such roles in a few other television series from 2004 to 2007, including Veronica Mars (2004), Close to Home (2006), Blackbeard (2006), and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005–2006).
In 2004, Chastain took on the role of Anya, a virtuous young woman, in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard in Massachusetts, starring with Michelle Williams. Also that year, she worked with Playwrights Horizons on a production of Richard Nelson's Rodney's Wife as the daughter of a troubled middle-aged film actor. Her performance was not well received by the critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who thought that she "somehow seems to keep losing color as the evening progresses". While working on the play, she was recommended by Nelson to Al Pacino, who was looking for an actress to star in his production of Oscar Wilde's tragedy Salome. The play tells the tragic story of its titular character's sexual exploration. In the play, Salome is a 16-year-old, but Chastain, who was 29 then, was cast for the part. The play was staged in 2006 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles, and Chastain later remarked that it helped bring her to the attention of several casting directors. Writing for Variety, the critic Steven Oxman criticized her portrayal in the play: "Chastain is so ill-at-ease with Salome, not quite certain whether she's a capable seductress or a whiny, wealthy brat; she doesn't flesh out either choice".
In 2010, Chastain starred in John Madden's dramatic thriller The Debt, portraying a young Mossad agent sent to East Berlin in the 1960s to capture a former Nazi doctor who carried out medical experiments in concentration camps. She shared her role with Helen Mirren, with the two actresses portraying the character at different phases of her life. They worked together before filming to perfect the voice and mannerisms of the character and make them consistent. Chastain took classes in German and krav maga, and studied books about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and Mossad history. William Thomas of Empire termed the film a "smart, tense, well-acted thriller", and noted that Chastain "pulses with strength and vulnerability" in her part. She also appeared as Mary Debenham in an episode of the British television series Agatha Christie's Poirot, based on Agatha Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express.
After struggling for a breakthrough in film, Chastain had six releases in 2011, and received wide recognition for several of them. The first of the roles was as the wife of Michael Shannon's character in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, a drama about a troubled father who tries to protect his family from what he believes is an impending storm. The film was screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and critic Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph noted how much Chastain's supporting part aided the narrative. In Coriolanus, an adaptation of the Shakespearian tragedy from actor-director Ralph Fiennes, Chastain played Virgilia. Her next role was opposite Brad Pitt, as the loving mother of three children in Terrence Malick's experimental drama The Tree of Life, which she had filmed in 2008. Chastain signed on to the film without receiving a traditional screenplay from Malick, and she improvised several scenes and dialogues with Pitt. She considered her part to be "the embodiment of grace and the spirit world"; in preparation, she practiced meditation, studied paintings of the Madonna, and read poems by Thomas Aquinas. The film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to a polarized reception from the audience, although it was praised by critics and won the Palme d'Or.Justin Chang of Variety termed the film a "hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying [...] poem" and credited Chastain for playing her part with "heartrending vulnerability".
A short part that Chastain had filmed in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder (2012) was edited out of the final film, and due to scheduling conflicts, she dropped out of the action films Oblivion and Iron Man 3 (both 2013). She instead made her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1947 play The Heiress, playing the role of Catherine Sloper, a naive young girl who transforms into a powerful woman. Chastain was initially reluctant to accept the role, fearing the high anxiety she had faced during her early stage performances. She ultimately agreed after finding a connection to Sloper, saying: "she's painfully uncomfortable and I used to be that". The production was staged at the Walter Kerr Theatre from November 2012 to February 2013. Brantley was disappointed with Chastain's performance, saying that she was "oversignaling the thoughts within" and that her delivery of dialogue was sometimes flat. At the box office, it emerged as a sleeper hit.
Chastain next took on the lead role of a musician who is forced to care for her boyfriend's troubled nieces in the horror film Mama (2013). She was attracted to the idea of playing a woman drastically different from the "perfect mother" roles she had previously played, and she based her character's look on the singer Alice Glass. The critic Richard Roeper considered her performance as proof of her being one of the best actors of her generation. During the film's opening weekend in North America, Chastain became the first performer in 15 years to have leading roles in the top two films (Mama and Zero Dark Thirty) at the box office. She then starred as the titular character of a depressed woman who separates from her husband (played by James McAvoy) following a tragic incident in the drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013), which she also produced. The writer-director Ned Benson initially wrote the story from the perspective of Rigby's husband, then wrote a separate version from Rigby's perspective on the insistence of Chastain. Three versions of the film—Him, Her, and Them—were released. It did not find a wide audience, but the critic A. O. Scott praised Chastain for "short-circuit[ing] conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama".
2014–present: Science fiction and feminist roles
Chastain at an event for The Martian in 2015; the film ranks as one of her highest-grossing releases
Chastain appeared in three films in 2014. She played the eponymous protagonist in Miss Julie, a film adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play of the same name, from director Liv Ullmann. It tells the tragic tale of a sexually repressed Anglo-Irish aristocrat who wishes to sleep with her father's valet (played by Colin Farrell). Chastain was attracted to Ullmann's feminist take on the subject. The film only received a limited theatrical release. While filming Miss Julie in Ireland, Chastain received the script of Christopher Nolan's science fiction film Interstellar (2014). With a budget of $165 million, the high-profile production, co-starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, was filmed mostly using IMAX cameras. Chastain was cast as the adult daughter of McConaughey's character; she was drawn to the project for the emotional heft she found in the father-daughter pair. Drew McWeeny of the entertainment website HitFix took note of how much Chastain stood out in her supporting part. The film earned over $675 million worldwide to become Chastain's highest-grossing live-action film.
After portraying a series of intense roles, Chastain actively looked for a light-hearted part. She found it in the ensemble fantasy film The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016), which served as both a sequel and a prequel to the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman. She was drawn to the idea of playing a female warrior whose abilities were on par with those of the lead male character, but the film was poorly received. She then starred as the title character, a lobbyist, in the political thriller Miss Sloane, which re-united her with John Madden. Chastain read the novel Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff to research the practice of lobbying in America, and met with female lobbyists to study their mannerisms and sense of style. Hailing her as one of the best actresses on the planet, Peter Travers commended Chastain for successfully drawing the audience into Sloane's life, and writing for Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang called her performance "a tour de force of rhetorical precision and tightly coiled emotional intensity". Chastain received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama for her performance.
Chastain portrayed Molly Bloom, a former skier who ran a high-profile gambling operation that led to her arrest by the FBI, in Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut, Molly's Game (2017). She accepted the part due to her desire to work with Sorkin, whose writing she admired. Instead of relying on Bloom's public persona, Chastain met Bloom to explore her character's flaws and vulnerabilities. She also researched the world of underground poker and interviewed some of Bloom's customers. Peter Debruge hailed her role as "one of the screen's great female parts" and credited its success to both Chastain's "stratospheric talent" and Sorkin's script. She received her fifth Golden Globe nomination for it. In 2018, she hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live and voiced the virtual reality production Spheres: Songs of Spacetime. She had filmed a part in Xavier Dolan's ensemble drama The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, but her role was cut during post-production as Dolan found her character to be incompatible to the story.
Chastain next agreed to play an evil alien in the superhero film Dark Phoenix (2019), which marked the twelfth installment in the X-Men film series, due to its focus on female characters. The critic Peter Bradshaw considered it to be "a waste of her talents", and the film registered poor box office returns. In It Chapter Two, a sequel to the 2017 horror film It, based on Stephen King's novel, she played the adult Beverly Marsh (a woman in an abusive marriage), sharing the role with Sophia Lillis. Filming was challenging for Chastain, as director Andy Muschietti preferred the use of practical effects over CGI; one particular scene required her to be covered in 4,500 gallons of fake blood. It received generally favorable reviews, with Charlotte O'Sullivan of Evening Standard finding her to be "suitably sad and sepulchral" in her part. The film earned over $470 million worldwide.
Despite significant media attention, Chastain remains guarded about her personal life, and chooses not to attend red carpet events with a partner. She considers herself to be a "shy" person, and in 2011 said that she enjoys domestic routines like dog-walking and playing ukulele, rather than partying. She has cited the actress Isabelle Huppert as an influence, for managing a family, while also playing "out-there roles" in film.
Chastain is a feminist, and has often spoken against the discrimination faced by women and minorities in Hollywood. She wrote an opinion column on gender imbalance in the industry for a December 2015 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where she served as a jury member, Chastain bemoaned the passive portrayal of women in most films. She has complained about a lack of female film critics, which she believes hinders a gender-neutral perspective on film. Chastain advocates for greater gender balance on sets, including more representation of women on film crews and in positions of power. On social media, Chastain aims to "amplify the voices" of victims of sexual harassment in the industry. In 2018, she collaborated with 300 women in Hollywood to set up the Time's Up initiative to protect women from harassment and discrimination. In the same year, she appeared alongside several actresses in This Changes Everything, a documentary about the poor representation of women in Hollywood films.
Chastain is vocal in her support for equal pay in the workplace, and has rejected offers of work that she thought were unfair. She spoke out in support of Michelle Williams, who received lesser pay than her co-star Mark Wahlberg for the 2017 film All the Money in the World, which Williams said led to greater awareness about the issue and a donation worth $2 million to the Time's Up legal defense fund. In 2013, Chastain lent her support to the Got Your 6 campaign, to help empower veterans of the United States Army, and in 2016, she became an advisory-board member to the organization We Do It Together, which produces films and television shows to promote the empowerment of women. In 2017, Chastain featured alongside several Hollywood celebrities in a theatrical production of The Children's Monologues, in which she performed a monolog as a 13-year-old girl who is raped by her uncle. The event raised funds for Dramatic Need, a charity that helps African children pursue a career in the arts.
Describing Chastain's off-screen persona, Roy Porter of InStyle magazine wrote in 2015 that "she's an adult, which isn't always a given in Hollywood. Unconsciously candid with her answers, she retains a sense of perspective uncommon among her peers, and has real opinions"; Porter also credited her for being the rare actress who is "all about the craft". Evgenia Peretz, an editor at Vanity Fair, considers Chastain to be "the most sensitive and empathetic actor" she has interviewed.
Chastain specializes in portraying emotionally grueling roles and is drawn towards parts of strong but flawed women. The journalist Sanjiv Bhattacharya has identified a theme of characters who "subvert gender expectations in some way". David Ehrlich of IndieWire credits her for being the sole American actress to consistently play roles that "champion feminist ideals". She believes in extensive preparations for a role: "[I] fill myself up with as much history of the character as I can." The film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have praised Chastain's versatility, and W magazine credits her for avoiding typecasting.
Guillermo del Toro, who directed Chastain in Crimson Peak, believes that she is "interested in being chameleonic", and that she brings authenticity even to bizarre situations. Sophie Heawood of The Guardian believes that Chastain's ability to bring very little ego to her roles renders her unrecognisable to the audience. Sarah Karmali of Harper's Bazaar opines that "she goes for total immersion, sinking so deep into character that her face seems to change shape with each one". Lea Goldman of Marie Claire compares her craft to that of actresses Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett, and writes that she values her craft over her looks. Describing her film career in 2017, the journalist Ben Dickinson of Elle wrote:
With her often haunted-looking eyes, pale complexion, and gorgeous red mane [...] she can project everything from icy hauteur (The Martian, Miss Sloane) to loving warmth (The Tree of Life, The Zookeeper's Wife) or an unstable equilibrium and high intelligence in between (Zero Dark Thirty and A Most Violent Year).
Vogue has described Chastain as being "excessively luscious [with] pale Botticelli features wrapped around a bone structure that has a touch of the masculine, right down to the cleft in her chin". She was named the sexiest vegetarian actress in a poll conducted by PETA in 2012. From 2012 to 2014, she was featured in AskMen's listing of the most desirable women, and in 2015, Glamour magazine ranked her as one of the best-dressed women.