You may not have heard of Jessica Chastain, but she’s had all of Hollywood buzzing for a while now. Though she’s filmed several high-profile films over the last several years (including the adaptation of the popular novel The Help and the Helen Mirren thriller The Debt), none of them has been released yet…until now. Next week sees the opening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, where the Juilliard graduate stars alongside Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as a Texas mother of three dealing with various family struggles and tragedies. (The Help and The Debt, meanwhile, open later this summer.) Last night, she walked the famous steps at Cannes’ Palais des Festivals in a yellow Zac Posen dress, and although she looks placid in the photo, she says she was anything but.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did it feel like to be on the Cannes red carpet with Brad Pitt on one side of you and Sean Penn on the other?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I still haven’t fully understood what that experience was. I was kind of in panic mode. I know that I was shaking a lot, because I could feel my feet shaking. I was holding Brad and Sean’s hands—and thank God for them because there’s no way I could have done that by myself. There was a moment walking up the stairs where I almost stumbled, but they held me up. They were also talking to me a lot. They were like, “Okay, now we’re going to go up the stairs…” and guiding me and making me feel calm. Once we got to the top of the stairs and I turned, it was like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Maybe it’s like the energy of what a rock star or president feels like.
The Tree of Life is such a unique film. How was it first explained to you?
No one really knew what the film was about. We knew that they were looking for a woman that looked like she was from another time. And I thought, “Oh! That’s perfect!” Because I’ve been hearing that about myself for so long. It wasn’t until I got the script that I realized how important this woman was. And that was after I got the part.
You all do voiceovers in the film, and they’re very consistent in their whispery quality. What were they like to record?
I have done voiceover before. I did a Yoplait commercial. [seductively] “Whips by Yoplait.” It was right out of college. This was very different than that. Terry said he didn’t want the voiceover to sound like someone was really talking. He said he wanted it to be as though you were speaking from your soul. That’s why there is this breathiness to it.
You also had your drama Take Shelter at Cannes this year, so you’re doing double duty.
I’m so tired! But Cannes is a festival I’ve always wanted to go to because I worship French cinema and my favorite actress is Isabelle Huppert.
I saw her at your premiere last night.
Was she at the screening? If she was at the screening, that means she saw me act! If she was there, I’m really happy I didn’t know it. Because that would have made me really, really, really nervous.
You’ve shot all these movies over the last few years and it seems like they’re all coming out now. Is it overwhelming?
It’s a strange thing. For the past four years, I’ve been able to totally concentrate on the work. And I’ve been able to play characters that are so different. They couldn’t be more different women. So I haven’t been typecast. If Tree of Life came out immediately, it would have been like, “She plays moms.” It is daunting to think, “What is my life going to be like at the end of the year?”