Before her Oscar, Jessica Chastain lived off residuals. ‘I just know the actors can’t give in’

A close-up black and white portrait of Jessica Chastain, with her eyes cast down.
“I barely got through it now,” Jessica Chastain says of making the limited series “George & Tammy,” a project she first learned about more than a decade ago. “Back then, I was so green. I wouldn’t have even known where to begin. And I wouldn’t have had the experience of fame or an idea of motherhood. I just wouldn’t have understood her the way that I think I do now.”
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“We can talk until 3 a.m.,” Jessica Chastain says, smiling. It’s a warm, mid-July evening and, looking at the clock, it’s either 30 minutes or 3 hours and change before the actors union goes on strike. Is it Eastern Time or Pacific Time? We’re not sure. But we do know that tomorrow morning, per SAG-AFTRA guidelines, Chastain won’t be able to talk to me about her work, so we’re extending our conversation via Zoom at this late hour. Her kids are in bed. All’s quiet in her New York-adjacent home. This is, as she says, her “last hurrah,” so she’s letting it all hang out.

“I just know the actors can’t give in,” Chastain says. “They just can’t. If they do — especially what I’ve read about background artists — then they’re really writing themselves out of the industry in the future.”

It wasn’t all that long ago, Chastain remembers, that she was driving around Los Angeles in her beat-up Honda Civic, reading for every role she could find and living off the residuals she’d get from doing TV pilots or a guest spot on “Law & Order.”


“I don’t know what I’d have done without that residual money,” she says, not to mention the notes she’d get from casting directors on how she could improve. (The industry has moved mostly to self-taped auditions, a point of contention in the current labor strike.)

Was there any particular note that helped her in her career journey?

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette and Michael Shannon as George Jones perform a duet on stage.
Showtime’s six-part limited series, “George & Tammy,” covers the professional and personal partnership between Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
(Dana Hawley / Showtime)

“I do recall someone showing me a Backstage article where a casting director was talking about their early days starting out, saying, ‘I remember Jessica Chastain coming in and she had like five auditions that day and she was all sweaty and her hair was kind of all over the place and she did a really good job.’” Chastain laughs. “I mean, I didn’t book it. And now I understand that I didn’t book it for a long time because I was sweaty and my hair was all over the place and I was stopping at gas stations to change my clothes and quickly memorize my lines ... you know, trying to do as much as I could.”

Chastain made her film debut at the age of 31, though that 2008 movie, “Jolene,” didn’t arrive in theaters until 2010. Her breakthrough came the following year with six movies — including “The Help,” “The Tree of Life” and “Take Shelter” — opening in 2011. She earned an array of acclaim for her turn as the unaffected, at times desperate housewife in “The Help,” including an Oscar nomination. At the Golden Globes, Josh Brolin approached Chastain, telling her she should play Tammy Wynette in a movie project he was developing about her professional and personal partnership with country singer George Jones.

More than a decade later, “George & Tammy” arrived on Showtime as a limited series, with Michael Shannon now playing Jones.


Can Chastain imagine how she would have played Wynette if the project had started filming shortly after Brolin proposed it?

“I barely got through it now,” Chastain says. “Back then, I was so green. I wouldn’t have even known where to begin. And I wouldn’t have had the experience of fame or an idea of motherhood. I just wouldn’t have understood her the way that I think I do now.”

Chastain shot the six episodes of “George & Tammy” beginning in late 2021 and continuing through the following April, often shuttling from North Carolina to Los Angeles to collect awards for her turn as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”

And, yes, she did get the day off after she won the Oscar.

Before we spoke, I watched that moment again and could hear Chastain say, “Thank you. Yes, please. Please do” to Anthony Hopkins when he handed her the award. What did he say that prompted that response?

Jessica Chastain, shot under a blue-tinged light, sits for a portrait.
Jessica Chastain earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of country singer Tammy Wynette.
(Benedict Evans / For The Times)


“He said, ‘May I embrace you?’” Chastain answers, reveling in the memory. “He was such a gentleman. It was a strange evening and he helped ground me. And then also, walking off with him, I just felt so held in such a protective way.”

That feeling registers in Chastain’s face as she left the stage after delivering a passionate speech in which she talked about mental health and suicide prevention, particularly among the LBGTQ+ community. It was a heartfelt moment that came during a ceremony largely remembered for Will Smith slapping Chris Rock onstage.

“The energy in that room was so bizarre,” Chastain says. “I’m kind of grateful for it now because I’m a very emotional person, and I can’t help myself. I’m incredibly open, so I can get caught up and carried away in an emotion, even when I don’t want to. And because of the weirdness of the night, I was, in some sense, outside my body. So I was able to speak from a place that wasn’t, ‘Oh, my God!’ And I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say, but I knew I wanted to talk about suicide. And as I started to, I could feel the emotions start to come up, but then I was like, ‘No, no, no. Stay grounded.’”

When I mention that she has a beatific expression on her face as she finished her speech, Chastain says, “It’s interesting that you say that because this is the first time I’ve ever articulated or thought about it. It was like ...” She pauses, collecting her thoughts. “This sounds crazy, but you know how they talk about when you leave your body and you’re just kind of observing? That’s what it felt like. I was able to swim in the current. It’s rare for me to be able to give a speech and not start crying. So to win that award and be able to say the things I wanted to say ... maybe that look on my face was a sense of relief.” She laughs. “I got it all out in a moment that was monumental in my life.”

I remembered a play on words from a May Emmy event that costume designer Mitchell Travers, who worked with Chastain on “Tammy Faye” and “George & Tammy,” made on the two Tammys, extraordinary women living very public lives. They’re so different, I tell Chastain, wondering if she found any points of connection.


“I was thinking about this the other day,” she says, “and I think it’s a point of connection between a lot of characters I’ve played, even Nora in ‘A Doll’s House.’ [Chastain recently starred in a Broadway revival of the Henrik Ibsen play.] This idea of, especially with women, who they are versus who does society deem them to be. And what is that contradiction? Does society allow them to feel safe to really speak their personal truth?”

Jessica Chastain wears a matching teal outfit and heavy makeup as the title character in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."
2021 was a big year for Chastain, who starred in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” along with five other films released that year.
(Searchlight Pictures)

Was that ever a struggle for you?

“Maybe the girl in 2011, yeah,” Chastain answers. “I was just so excited and grateful. But in our industry, there were a lot of situations I was in that I look back now and think, ‘What the ...?’ I was never put in a place where an audition was happening and I was being assaulted in any way. But I had plenty of auditions where I was told to go to a hotel room and it was the director holding a video camera filming the audition. Or I’ve had to audition with an incredibly sexual scene, speaking quite intimately, and the director was reading opposite me rather than an actor or a reader. And I look back and think, ‘That just seems impossible now and why did I allow it to happen?’”

Once Chastain starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” it stopped happening. But she was so convincing as the sharp-edged CIA analyst obsessively leading the operation and, later, in portraying strong women in movies like “A Most Violent Year” and “Miss Sloane,” it led to another problem: Directors were scared to work with her, telling her as much. Or they’d approach her and caution her to be careful because she “talked too much.”

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“I think there’s a Reddit page or some page where the whole category is ‘Jessica Chastain gets rid of all the useless men around her,’” Chastain says, laughing, “and there’s a whole list of movies where my character does something incredible. And I wonder — and I could be speaking completely out of turn — if that could be intimidating. Like, if I was similar to Maya in ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ I’d imagine she’d be difficult to work with.”


“I remember being at Juilliard and Val Kilmer came to speak,” Chastain continues. “And he said, ‘Hollywood isn’t unimaginative. They’re anti-imagination.’ People see your character and imagine you are that person in some way.” She laughs. “I guess that means I’ve done a great job. But hopefully they’re also willing to meet me afterward and see if it’s true.”

If you’re one of the lucky few to have witnessed Chastain emoting her way through Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Blue Jeans” at a karaoke bar (or, if she’s in the mood for a duet, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”), you know that it’s most definitely not true.

“You’re a Neil Diamond karaoke person, which tells me so much,” I tease.

“I hope so,” she answers, “because Neil Diamond is f— great. Excuse my language.”

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All the 2011 talk has sparked a memory of the last time I saw Chastain at a film academy screening of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” after which I led a conversation with her and the production team. It’s a treasured movie, I tell her, but I haven’t seen it since. I’m waiting to find it playing in a theater.

“Terry, when he did the Criterion edition, he sent it to me with a nice note and I’ve never been able to watch it,” Chastain says. “It’s my favorite film I’ve ever been a part of. You know, Tammy [Wynette] says you have to live the songs. I live the loop of films. I live the characters. And I felt at the end of that one that they took my children away. It was devastating to me. Those boys sent me Mother’s Day cards, even after we stopped shooting. Terry created a deep, profound relationship and family. And I’m so afraid to watch it again because I think I’ll just sob through the whole thing.”

“And seeing myself embody this grace and this love,” she continues, lost in the memory. “Also, it’s before everything, everything in my life changed and the purity of what that was. But I will revisit it sometime and I hope there is a screening and maybe it’ll be in L.A.,” and here she laughs (we’re a little punch-drunk, it’s late) “and we both can go.”