Saturday, June 15, was Jessica Chastain's time to shine at the Celestial Cinema. (For the Maui Film Festival's tribute in prose, click here). Clips from "Zero Dark Thirty," "The Help," "The Tree of Life," and "Take Shelter" gave ample evidence of Chastain's emotional transparency, her fearlessness, and her range. A charming conversation with E! Entertainment's Marc Malkin followed.
The chemistry between them was palpable. He elicited stories she had evidently told him before, well worth sharing, such as the one about attending her first Oscar show with her grandmother.
"Seeing everything through her eyes, watching her watching me, that made the whole experience so much greater than the nomination itself," Chastain said.
Malkin's promise that he would get Chastain to sing went unfulfilled, however. And pro that she is, she kept mum about Chris Nolan's top-secret sci-fi project "Interstellar," revealing merely that the script had been hand-delivered to her by courier while she was on the set in remote Ireland, filming Strindberg's blistering classic "Miss Julie" with Ingmar Bergman's longtime muse Liv Ullman.
(The courier waited two hours while Chastain read, and then took the script back.)
Before the show, Chastain stopped in on the terrace at Gannon's to pose for photographers and take questions from local scribes. With her slender figure, her poise and her ponytail, she might have passed for one of the ballet students I used to see at Lincoln Center on their way to class at the School of American Ballet. In fact, she is an alumna of the drama division of the Juilliard School, a no-less-illustrious sister institution on the same campus.
From her conversation with a colleague, I overheard there's little time in her life for anything but acting.
"Is there anything but work?" she asked — adding the afterthought that she liked to cook and garden. Another scribe wanted to know if she was enjoying Maui, and she ticked off excursions on zipline and helicopter, as well as explorations around Hana.
As someone who for decades before moving to Hawaii followed Juilliard's drama classes closely, I was curious about the transition from school to the club of the legends of her profession: Al Pacino, for whom she played the title role of Oscar Wilde's dancing princess Salome, onstage and then in the movies; Vanessa Redgrave, her mother-in-law in the Ralph Fiennes film adaptation of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus"; and the perennial enfant terrible Peter Sellars in a poorly received touring show of Shakespeare's "Othello."
How intimidating was all that?
"Al Pacino really helped me, actually," Chastain replied. "I was really scared about how to work with the camera, and then got cast in the stage production of 'Salome.' That was comfortable for me. I had spent my life up to that point doing theater.
"Then Al decided to do the film, and I got to see how he changed from one medium to the other. That helped me bridge the great divide. It made it all more manageable."
Hollywood has a way of pushing serious actors into franchise movies, which is good for their bank accounts but seldom helps them to grow as artists. I wondered how Chastain viewed this dynamic.
"I'm open to a franchise project," she said. "To me, the choice is all about the character. I ask myself: Is this a role I've played before? What's difficult about franchise properties is that they want you to sign on for three movies. I have to see the scripts, I have to feel the connection.
"I've said that I'd love to be in a James Bond movie, or a Marvel movie. But it has to be really exciting. Something I've never done before. Something I can sink my teeth into."
(Later in the evening, Chastain told Malkin that she didn't want to be a "personality actor" before adding, "not that there's anything wrong with that.")
She has often said that she's not afraid of making mistakes. But what is a mistake when it's all about the journey?
"For me it's okay to make a mistake," she said, deflecting just a little. "I try to be gentle with myself. I try to put myself in position where I can fail. I try to take roles that are different from anything I've played, so that I'm going into uncharted territory. I don't know if I can do it!
"I'm easier on myself than perhaps I used to be. Because now I realize that whenever I do something that didn't quite hit the mark, I need to ask: What have I learned? How am I better for having done this?"
Last year, Chastain appeared on "Time" magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people. The citation was written by non other than the actor Gary Oldman, a nonpareil chameleon. He called Chastain formidable, italicizing the word because he meant it to be understood in its French meaning, which he went on to gloss in eloquent detail.
I wondered, did she know him?
"That was insane," Chastain said. "I had met Gary on a red carpet at the Palm Beach festival, and he was so nice to me about my work. Afterwards I burst into tears. I was so shocked that he had seen it. I didn't realize he'd be writing about me until the text was online and someone showed it to me.
"It was a moment I'll always remember. I remember seeing his films ever since I wanted to be an actor. And Gary Oldman was the kind of actor I always wanted to be."
P.S. In her public conversation with Malkin, Chastain mentioned that she had always done poorly in school but that she had been a very imaginative child. Maybe those things help explain her determination never to repeat herself. Yet like great artists in other media (literature, the fine arts), great actors often have a kind of watermark that always shows through. Chastain's reel of clips suggested that hers is an oceanic reserve of barely contained emotion always on the verge of flooding over. The emotions vary (and sometimes we may not know what they are at all), but the fullness and intensity do not.