After a remarkable breakout year, Jessica Chastain dives into the war on terror with a lead role in Kathryn Bigelow's real-life thriller

By Rob Brunner
November 02, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jessica Chastain is sitting in a coffee shop in Manhattan’s West Village the morning after seeing herself on screen in director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (not yet rated) for the first time, and she sounds a little shaken by the experience. ”I’m really vulnerable in this movie,” says the actress of the eagerly awaited film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which reteams Bigelow with The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal. ”I’ve done nudity before, I’ve done other things like that. But I feel very exposed in this film” — though she never sheds her clothes — ”because there’s an emotional rawness unlike anything I’ve done before.”

Zero Dark Thirty is Chastain’s first high-profile movie since she broke out last year with a whopping six films, including The Tree of Life and The Help (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). In the deeply researched thriller, the 35-year-old actress portrays a strong-willed CIA analyst who plays a key role in the decadelong effort to track the maddeningly elusive terrorist, who was discovered and killed in a compound in Pakistan in 2011. ”You really see the drive and the journey that this woman takes, and you see her unravel,” she says.

Chastain grew up in Northern California, the daughter of a vegan chef and a firefighter. Her family didn’t see a lot of movies, but her grandfather occasionally took her as a treat. One film they saw together was The Silence of the Lambs, and not surprisingly, it made an impression. ”The character Jodie Foster played is so badass,” Chastain says. ”I just thought, ‘I want to play women like that.”’

Chastain had already committed to a Tom Cruise sci-fi movie called Oblivion when she received the Zero Dark Thirty script last year. ”I thought, ‘It’s Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs,”’ says the actress. Unable to fit both films into her schedule, she pulled out of Oblivion — Cruise was quite understanding, she says — and took the part (her Oblivion role went to Olga Kurylenko).

Last February, Chastain leaped into a grueling four-month shoot that began with a 25-hour journey to Chandigarh, India. The previous night she’d taken her grandmother to the Academy Awards (where she lost to her Help castmate Octavia Spencer). ”It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. ”As soon as I landed, they put me in a [costume] and had me walking through a market. But I’m kind of up for anything.”

True enough. Chastain’s next film, Mama (out Jan. 18), is a supernatural thriller, and she’ll later appear in a pair of linked films called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and Hers. The Juilliard-trained actress is now starring in a Broadway revival of The Heiress. ”I started in theater and love theater,” she says. ”It’s more my home than anything else.”

After The Heiress ends its limited run in February, Chastain wants to slow down a bit. Though she’s in talks for a few projects that she’s not ready to discuss, she plans to step back from work for a couple months. Happily, she doesn’t regard her newfound stardom as an obstacle. ”People talk about [fame] like it’s a very negative thing sometimes,” she says. ”I find people to be very respectful and kind and supportive. Like, we’re just sitting here.” She glances around the packed coffee shop, where she goes unrecognized. ”No one’s coming up. I’m not Angelina Jolie.”

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