I never expected my most memorable moment from 2011 to take place in a movie theater, but sometimes, life surprises you.
I was in my senior year of college and went with some friends to see a new movie called The Help starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone. The powerhouse cast also included Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, and Bryce Dallas Howard, but there was one actress in the ensemble I didn’t recognize. She played a character named Celia Foote and turned in such a masterful performance, I couldn’t believe I’d never seen her before. When the credits rolled, I kept an eye out for any names I wasn’t familiar with, which is when I saw Jessica Chastain flash across the screen. Why does that name sound so familiar?
That’s when it dawned on me that I did know who she was, because I had seen her before ⏤ in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life only a couple of months prior. She’d starred in the experimental family drama alongside the likes of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and I remember wondering how she’d managed such a feat as a relative unknown. The fact that she was doing it again in The Help, this time opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest leading ladies, was a revelation.
What really left my jaw on the movie theater floor, though, was how vastly different these two performances were. In The Tree of Life, Jessica played a quiet mother who did most of her communicating through movement and facial expressions, but in The Help, she was a giddy Southern belle with blond curls and a bubbly, scene-stealing personality. Celia ran the emotional gamut as well, giggling and shaking a bag of chicken in one scene and then screaming on the bathroom floor after suffering a heartbreaking miscarriage the next. Everything from Jessica’s voice to her physicality did a complete 180 from her previous performance, revealing her to be not just a stunning actress, but an actual chameleon.
Who was this sorceress, and how had she managed to churn out such divergent portrayals with the ease of a seasoned performer? I was shocked, impressed, and utterly flabbergasted. That was the moment I became a Jessica Chastain fan, and probably her biggest.
I began following her career religiously after that, always on the lookout for her next dramatic transformation. I was thrilled when she received her first Oscar nomination for The Help and her second for Zero Dark Thirty one short year later. After appearing in five films in 2011 and four in 2012, Jessica went on to make her Broadway debut in The Heiress, a show I knew I needed to see.
“He’s your biggest fan!” a friend of mine shouted when we arrived at the stage door before one of her performances. Jessica had just walked into the theater to begin preparing for the day’s matinee, but upon hearing my friend’s announcement, she came back outside to see who this “biggest fan” was. As a hush fell over the throng of photographers and fellow fans all around me, I tried to convey to Jessica just how blown away I was by her work. I have no idea if any of it came out coherently, but she thanked me, took a photo with me, and said she hoped I liked the play. I can safely say after seeing it a few days later (and clocking five separate moments when tears fell directly from her eyes to the stage floor) that she was mesmerizing. Naturally, I gave her a standing ovation during the curtain call (she beamed at me from center stage, it’s fine), and after the show, Jessica took another photo with me, held my hand while I praised her brilliance yet again, signed my playbill, and even imparted valuable acting advice.
I know I sound like a total fanboy, and I’ll be the first to admit that I am one, but when your acting idol turns out to be an authentically kind human being, it feels a bit like winning the lottery. Conversely, an actor I met a few years later couldn’t have cared less about our mutual left-handedness when I pointed it out during a playbill signing. Another I’d hoped to congratulate after her Broadway debut walked straight past the cluster of fans waiting for her at the stage door and ran to a bar across the street without making any eye contact. (I’ve hit Neil Patrick Harris with a bathroom door, and even he wasn’t that rude.)
These interactions made me appreciate the ones I’d had with Jessica that much more, and as her career continued to flourish, I reveled at her ability to consistently craft unique and vastly different characters with the proficiency of a young Meryl Streep. She didn’t just play wives and mothers, but aliens and assassins, and was never afraid to try new things or stretch herself in challenging directions. Trying to figure out how she did it was like trying to understand a magic trick ⏤ how could one person play the tortured Miss Julie, the clever Molly Bloom, and the vicious Anna Morales, all with such conviction and dedication that you believed you were witnessing completely different women on screen? Surely her Juilliard training helped, but I had a sneaking suspicion that Jessica was also just that talented. Only she would think to make the woman she played at the beginning of X-Men: Dark Phoenix a warm and happy hostess before a stoic alien takes over her body for the rest of the film.
I’ll admit, I waited with bated breath for her next Oscar nomination, which I knew could come at any time, and when I saw the trailer for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I knew she’d finally done it. Watching the film, I was blown away all over again by her ability to become the character, using her voice, mannerisms, makeup, and comedic timing to completely disappear into the role. It wasn’t just the “big” moments that sold me, either, like when Tammy cried during an interview or had a dramatic confrontation with her husband (played by my favorite actor, Andrew Garfield ⏤ a gorgeous bonus). It was the little ones, like when she introduced herself to a group of young men after they openly mock her appearance. Any actor can pretend to have that level of humanity on camera, but it’s a different story entirely when one innately does.
When Jessica announced that she would be returning to Broadway in A Doll’s House, it was a no-brainer for me. Even though I don’t live in New York anymore, I knew I’d be hopping on a plane to see her, and in order to properly ring in another year of life this year, that’s exactly what I did. From the fourth row of the Hudson Theatre, I watched as Jessica gave her all to the role of Nora, largely confined to a chair she was directed to sit in throughout the play (another acting challenge she met with aplomb). What surprised me most about her this time around wasn’t her actual performance (which I already knew was going to be fabulous), but what happened after the show’s shocking final moment.
Jessica returned to the stage for the curtain call looking visibly shaken by what she had just experienced. As she bowed with the rest of the cast, she took deep breaths as if trying to calm herself down and be as present as possible for the standing ovation she was receiving. It occurred to me that this was not an actress going through the motions of performing a play eight times a week, but an artist living and breathing her character’s journey with such fierce commitment that she was having a difficult time letting go of the play. That, to me, was almost more emotional than Nora’s final moments ⏤ seeing Jessica, a consummate professional, be remarkably human as she struggled to snap back to reality. It was the same heartfelt humanity I witnessed in her Celia Foote and at the stage door of The Heiress. It is also, I believe, what has led her to be one of the best and most accomplished actresses working today.
At the stage door of A Doll’s House, Jessica signed every playbill and took pictures with every fan who wanted one. When she finally got to me, I stepped forward and informed her (with shocking coherence) that she’s still my favorite actress in the world 12 years after witnessing her first remarkable performances. When I told her that I met her 10 years ago at the stage door of The Heiress, she said, “REALLY?” with such delight and enthusiasm, I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend. She signed my playbill, took a photo with me, and was so engaged during our conversation, you’d never know she was an Oscar-winning actress who had just delivered a nearly two-hour Tony-nominated performance without a single bathroom break. You did know, however, that you were in the presence of a deeply genuine artist who was visibly grateful that you came to see her do what she loves most.
And now, when she wins her Tony, Emmy, and next Oscar, you’ll know where all the screaming and applause is coming from.