Jessica Chastain has starred in six films this year, including Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning meditation The Tree of Life (as Brad Pitt's wife); the Nazi-hunting thriller The Debt (as Helen Mirren's younger Mossad-agent self); and the summer blockbuster The Help (as a social outcast who befriends her black maid in 1960s Mississippi). Her résumé is bursting, in other words – and yet she still drives a 14-year-old Toyota, calls her mom before she makes major purchases (like she did with her car), rides the subway and works out at the local gym.
"I'm not going to be the girl with the private yoga instructor at my house," she says. "I don't want anyone to think, 'Oh, she's famous, she's different than me.'" Still, Chastain, who had a sturdy, down-to-earth upbringing in Northern California with four siblings, a vegan-chef mom and a firefighter dad, can't deny her ubiquity: "I feel like I'm everywhere. But my personal life hasn't changed. I think only three people have come up to me in the past six months. Which is too bad, because I love to meet people. I wouldn't be mean to them."
Pre-2011 – a year The New York Times has dubbed "the Jessica Chastain film festival" – the L.A.-based actress, a Juilliard grad who has shot 11 films since 2006, spent four years convincing her family that she was actually employed.
"I'd go home for Thanksgiving, and everyone would ask, 'When's your movie coming out?'" the 30-year-old recalls. "It was frustrating, but the lag was good for my career. Directors hadn't seen my work, so I could go into auditions and not carry the baggage of past performances."
Those who have worked with her could not be more lavish with their praise. "She's a celestial talent," says Al Pacino, who cast Chastain in his film version of Salome. Adds Helen Mirren, "She's an amazing actress and an utterly lovely person. She reminded me of myself at her age, serious, eager and committed to doing good work above all." And Help director Tate Taylor calls her a "treasure to have on the set."
This winter, Chastain will appear in the Depression-era crime drama The Wettest County in the World and an adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. And she's booked for the foreseeable future: In 2012, she'll star on Broadway (the show's title hasn't been announced) and play a punk-band bassist in the horror film Mamá; come 2013, she'll star in an as-yet-untitled sci-fi epic opposite Tom Cruise.
And though Chastain, who's now filming Mamá, routinely logs four hours of sleep – every day starts with a 5:30 a.m. workout – she's reveling in the attention: "I know this is all gonna go away. I'm not some naive 20-year-old trying to cling to this amazing year. Because a year like this... it's just not normal."
This is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.