Declaring Jessica Chastain the "young Meryl Streep" makes for a catchy sound bite, but there is really no need to equate her with anyone else. She stands on her own through her nonstop work with major filmmakers and indie newcomers alike.
She's been an Oscar nominee as an endearing Marilyn Monroe look-alike in "The Help," and as a grim CIA agent hunting Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty."
Her latest, "A Most Violent Year," is a dark drama of family and business set in New York at the beginning of the 1980s. Chastain plays the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster, moving toward a higher social and economic position by keeping the books of a heating oil company owned by her husband. He's played by Oscar Isaac, Chastain's pal since they were acting students at Juilliard.
Just as Chastain has flickered between science fiction, period crime tales and romance, Isaac has played a Russian security guard, a secret agent, the king of England in "Robin Hood" and a 1960s folk singer in Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"We went to college together, so maybe that's why we're similar," she said in a recent phone conversation. "That's where I first saw his work and he first saw my work, and we've remained friends for 12 years. And I've always thought we ought to work together."
Playing a cadaver
Isaac was the first of the two to score a major role, in "PU-293," a 2006 film about the Russian black market for plutonium. Directed by longtime screenwriter and Minneapolis native Scott Z. Burns, it went to HBO rather than theatrical release, but Isaac and Chastain celebrated it with a private screening at Burns' house in Los Angeles.
"The three of us went upstairs, and they grabbed guitars and I grabbed a triangle or something, and we all started playing music," she said.
Chastain was thrilled for Isaac "because he's such a wonderful actor, but at the time I was thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, I want to work, too.' "
It didn't happen instantly. In her early years, the biggest role she got was playing a cadaver in a TV pilot.
"The character I played had a couple lines and then she gets killed," Chastain said. "The whole episode is about basically my corpse. After we had shot it, we needed to reshoot some things. So they brought me back just to lie there as a corpse.
"I remember it was San Francisco, it was raining, it was cold, and I'm lying on the ground, a dead person. And I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is the life.' "
'The Debt' pays off
By 2010, though, she had a premiere of her own for Isaac to attend. "The Debt," her first major film, was a thriller in which she played a Mossad agent hunting a Nazi surgeon in 1965 East Germany. She learned German and Israeli accents, took intense Krav Maga fight training for four months and studied medical experiments to prepare for the role.
"We've been very good friends; he's just wonderful," she said of Isaac. "He showed me his audition for the Coen brothers film on his iPhone over Thai food."
Working with him is a gift, and not just because of their friendship, she said. "When I watch a performance he's giving, he just makes me want to be better. And I knew that working with him would bring out the best in me. Because it really forces me to be present."
Playing the tough, upwardly mobile fashion horse in "A Most Violent Year" was attractive not only because they would finally co-star, but because Chastain relishes the variety of different roles.
She recently finished production of Guillermo de Toro's Edwardian horror tale "Crimson Peak" with Tom Hiddleston. The shoot took four months.
"After two months," she said, "I was like, 'OK, I don't want to put these clothes on anymore, I don't want to carry around this woman's energy.' She's a very sad person.
"I had 7-inch platforms and corsets and a wig that went all the way down to my feet. It was heavy and so constricting I couldn't really move my arms. That was a tough one, really!"
A tough 1980s glamour
It was a different experience to play a 1980s woman with a large degree of creative control. Chastain considered the character's glamour — long pink nails, big glasses, classic Armani — as her way to overawe her community.
"As an actor I'm very involved in what my characters wear. It's very important for me. How you present yourself to the world, you're telling a story. And I find that usually people present themselves to the world in a different way than they actually are. And this time I played a woman who is in a quest for power.
"When you look at images from that time period, a lot of the rich women dyed their hair blond," so she considered it well worth giving up her natural red.
Similarly, Armani was a rock star designer in 1981. "She could intimidate people by wearing all Armani," even for her daughter's birthday party.
"She wants to make sure all the other mothers and all the other husbands and families in town look at her. She's the queen, you know," Chastain said. "You don't mess with her; you don't mess with her family.
"I even wanted her in a white coat, because that shows money. I've had white clothes and they don't last very long. But if you have money you don't care."