TORONTO – Jessica Chastain, the Hollywood It Girl in theaters everywhere, still draws on financial advice she received from veteran actress Cherry Jones back when she was at Juilliard: "If you get $100 or $1,000, you are still going to spend it," Chastain said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "You'll just end up spending the $1,000 on a nicer house or whatever and then you'll have to keep the money at that level to sustain your lifestyle. But if you keep it at the $100 lifestyle, then you're fine. You can choose the job for the creativity and the challenges of the characters rather than the money."
Chastain is getting many opportunities to test her theory. She appears next as a mother troubled by the apocalyptic visions of her husband (Michael Shannon) in Take Shelter, opening Sept. 30. She played Brad Pitt's soulful better half in The Tree of Life, a ditzy outcast in the civil rights-era smash The Help, and a Mossad agent in The Debt.
There was a time when the porcelain-skinned redhead was a real-life damsel in distress, fiscally speaking. She lived off credit cards. When she signed for a role, she'd pay off her debt. Then, she'd rack up charges again until the next job. "It was not an intelligent way to do it," she told The Price of Fame. "Thankfully, now I don't have to do it."
Only after The Tree of Life did she begin to live life in the black, she said. And while there is no such thing as job security in Hollywood, she at least has job frequency. In September alone, she had five movies to promote, she said, another good reason for hiring a publicist and an accountant. The latter comes in handy, she said, when you're trying to figure out the tax ramifications associated with acting on location in Serbia, which she did for Coriolanus. That's another Chastain movie on the way to theaters later this year, in addition to the upcoming Texas Killing Fields (Oct. 7). The only time she would think about money now is if she felt producers were taking advantage of her, she explained.
In business terms, the demand for her is still meeting the supply. She's on more magazine covers than a subscription bar code, but realizes that won't always be the case. "It's not a fear, it's a fact," she said. "You can't hold on to the buzz. It's not real and it doesn't last."
Part of her business plan involves taking roles that keep audiences and the industry guessing. "I feel it's more about trying to be as mysterious as the business allows me to be," she said. "The roles I like are different than I am."
Chastain gives the impression that she won't be squandering her compounding largesse. She grew up in Northern California in a middle class family of five siblings. Her dad is a firefighter and her mom a vegan chef. She was the first to receive a higher education, attending Juilliard through a library-stacking work-study arrangement.
John Wells, a producer on E.R. and The West Wing, signed her to a one-year exclusivity deal when he saw her at one of the Manhattan school's showcases. She later pulled a few guest appearances on shows such as Veronica Mars before shifting to film. While it might seem like she has worked nonstop, many of her movies were delayed for years, prompting her to jokingly warn directors of "the Jessica Chastain curse."
But The Tree of Life's disputed reign at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, virtually ensured that no Jessica Chastain movie would be shelved in the foreseeable future. Now overexposure is a concern, so she's doing her best not to become tabloid fodder. That includes avoiding press "that has nothing to do with films."
"I'm not going out to night clubs and dancing with other actors," she said. "I'm not having lunch at The Ivy."
Jessica Chastain's Plastic Problem: Hollywood's 'It Girl' Used to Live on Credit