Jessica Chastain

To Al Pacino, she's the next Meryl Streep. Others see a Cate Blanchett in her luminous features. And Gary Oldman made her cry after stopping her on the red carpet to rave about her work.

It's been a slow road to what, at first glance, might seem like overnight success for Jessica Chastain.

In 2006, Al Pacino selected her for his adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Salome. He recommended her to Terrence Malick, who cast her opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.

Then, her CV landed on Steven Spielberg's desk just as his DreamWorks studio was producing The Help, a drama about the civil rights movement.

In this film, she played a ditzy Southern dame, who defies convention by befriending her maid. Gradually, the directors' darling was making an impression on audiences too.

Jessica said wryly: "I must be the first unknown actress that everybody is getting sick of. People don't recognise me when I walk down the street, but they'll hear my name and say, 'She's everywhere!'"

One of five children, she was born on March 24, 1977, into a blue collar California family.

It was her grandmother, who sparked her passion for acting by taking her, aged seven, to see David Cassidy in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

"There was a 10-year-old girl on stage as the narrator," she recalled later. "And as soon as I saw the girl … I just knew it was what I was going to do."

After studying at the Julliard School of Performing Arts in New York, she began her ascent up the ranks.

In the four years after her big break from heavyweight Al, the flame-haired actress made 11 films which arrived in cinemas within 12 months of each other.

The biggest of these was undoubtedly The Help, for which she was Oscar-nominated. Shot through with gentle Southern humour, it was unusually successful for a story starring mostly women, making $211 million at the box office.

Her casting in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty sheds light on comparisons with Hollywood's queen of quick changes Meryl Streep.

Jessica, who'd made audiences cry in The Help, played tough. She brought to life a CIA agent hunting Osama bin Laden, once again attracting the attention of the Academy; this time in the best actress category.
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