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Why this is the year of Jessica Chastain

You may have recognized the actress playing sweet, shunned Celia in ”The Help” and wondered where you’d seen her before. The answer is…everywhere

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For once, Jessica Chastain is giving a really bad performance. It happens at the end of an interview that has run so long it’s crossing into the time when John Madden, who directed her in next week’s Holocaust revenge tale The Debt, is supposed to be calling me to chat about her for this article. When my cell phone rings, Chastain playfully decides to answer and trick Madden by pretending to be the reporter. Let’s just say it’s not the most successful audition. First, she can’t keep a straight face. ”Hello,” she says in such an unnaturally deep voice that she starts openly laughing. ”It’s Jessica,” she quickly admits to a perplexed Madden (Shakespeare in Love) before handing the phone back. ”I couldn’t do it!” she says.

There’s a first time for everything. After years of working on stage and in bit parts on TV shows like ER and Law & Order: Trial by Jury, the Juilliard-trained actress, 30, is making one of the most impressive Hollywood breakthroughs in years, with head-turning roles in three current films (and three more films due by year’s end). She is the nurturing, ethereal mother opposite Brad Pitt’s harsh father in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; the buxom, vulnerable Celia in The Help; and now a Mossad agent who’s hunting a sadistic Nazi in The Debt. ”Can you imagine those three characters in a car together?” Chastain says, drinking green lemonade in a Beverly Hills café.

In real life Chastain is delicate and fair-skinned, with hair the kind of red that makes tourists flock to New England in October. She is sometimes mistaken for her Help costar Bryce Dallas Howard, which she takes as a compliment (”She’s really a cool person, and incredibly beautiful”) and jokes about using as a cover for bad behavior: ”Could you imagine if I entered a party like that? ‘Make way for Bryce!”’

Born and raised in Northern California, Chastain lives mostly in Los Angeles, though work has kept her pretty nomadic lately. Her hobby? Playing tunes by Radiohead and the Flaming Lips on the ukulele, because the instrument can be packed easily. She performs only for herself…except for that one Halloween party. ”I was dressed as Spock,” she says. ”We all had to do a talent, and I wasn’t going to do a monologue.”

Chastain’s sudden ubiquity can be traced back to Al Pacino, who first cast her in a 2006 stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (and an upcoming movie version, called Wilde Salomé, which is awaiting distribution). Pacino became her mentor and unofficial publicist, mentioning her to fellow actors and filmmakers, including Tree of Life director Malick. ”Acting all of a sudden opposite Brad Pitt in a Terrence Malick movie,” she says, ”people were taking notice. That was the first time I started to meet with great directors.” Malick recommended her to John Hillcoat, who cast her as a gangster’s moll in the Prohibition drama The Wettest County in the World, and to Jeff Nichols, who cast her in Take Shelter. ”It’s like there’s a game of telephone going around,” she says.

Malick also suggested her to Madden — who’d been looking for a fresh face for The Debt. ”I was quite intent on casting an unknown,” he chuckles. ”She has blown my strategy wide open.”

One Year, Six Vastly Different Characters
The Tree of Life
A Texas mother she describes as ”the embodiment of grace.”

The Help
An outcast who bonds with her feisty maid.

The Debt (Aug. 31)
A Mossad agent trying to trap a former Nazi doctor in 1960s East Germany.

Take Shelter (Sept. 30)
The wife of a troubled man (Michael Shannon) battling apocalyptic visions.

Texas Killing Fields (Oct. 7)
A rodeo star-turned-detective who tracks a serial killer.

Coriolanus (Dec. 2)
Virgilia, the gentle wife of a warring general (Ralph Fiennes) in Shakespeare’s tragedy.