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Jessica Chastain on 'challenging' new role and rebelling against Hollywood's expectations

The Oscar-winning actress stars in Michael Franco's Memory 

Jessica Chastain in a green dress
6 March 2024
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The life of Jessica Chastain seems impossibly glamorous. One of Hollywood's leading actresses, she's also married into Italian aristocracy. But for her latest role, the Oscar winner prepared by working as a carer to understand her character.

"I really studied her and thought about her situation," she explained. "I thought about the money she would make; where and how she lived. But it never felt like research.

Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard star in Memory © Getty
Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard star in Memory

"Working at the day centre, I was helping residents on and off the bus and making them lunch, so it felt like living the character rather than preparing for a role."

Jessica's new film Memory tells the story of Sylvia, a social worker whose life is changed by meeting Saul (Peter Sarsgaard), who has early onset dementia, at a school reunion.

Jessica Chastain attends day four of the 20th Marrakech International Film Festival on November 27, 2023 in Marrakech, Morocco© Pascal Le Segretain
The actress portrays Sylvia – an alcoholic trying to forget her past

A friendship develops as alcoholic Sylvia tries to forget her past while Saul attempts to remember his. "Memory is a very low-budget, independent film," Jessica said. "We had to do whatever we could to save money; I shopped for my wardrobe at Walmart and did my own hair.

"The daycare residents you see in the film and Sylvia's co-workers are real people who live and work in the centre I worked at to prepare for the role."

Award-winning director Michel Franco kept things real in other ways, too, by turning a scene at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting into a genuine AA session. "The first day of shooting was tough," Jessica recalled. 

"Although we had actors there, it was a real AA meeting. There was a lot of trauma and sadness around the high rate of women who have suffered violence and sexual violence in their lives.

"I found myself creating Sylvia's history and her trauma in my mind, but then having to try to forget it because that's what she is trying to do. That was challenging."

Jessica Chastain with bronzy eye makeup © Getty
Jessica likes to 'shock' people with her choice of roles

The film is certainly a departure from Jessica's roles so far, which have included playing country singer Tammy Wynette in miniseries George and Tammy and her Oscar-winning turn as a TV evangelist in 2021's The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

"If there's a role I'm told maybe isn't right for me, that's the one I will take a second look at," she said. "When I was starting out at Juilliard [drama school in New York], Val Kilmer came to speak and I will always remember what he said: 'Hollywood isn't unimaginative, they are anti-imagination.' That is something I've come to understand, so now, I try to be rebellious. I try to shock people and do the opposite of what they expect.

Jessica Chastain attends The 76th Annual Tony Awards at United Palace Theater on June 11, 2023 in New York City© Getty Images
The star is more interested in playing flawed characters

"The most important thing is to do something challenging. I don't have to play the most noble person in the world. In fact, I love playing flawed characters because that shows humanity. I want to know I'm contributing to something positive."

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Away from the big screen, Jessica, 46, is married to fashion company executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, 41, the son of Count Alberto Passi de Preposulo from one of Italy oldest aristocratic families. They met at a fashion show in Paris in 2012 before marrying at his family estate in 2017, and now have two children.

Jessica's husband comes from an Italian noble family © Getty Images
Jessica with her husband Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo

As for her glamorous red carpet looks, Jessica is selling some of her gowns to raise money for Women to Women International, a charity that supports female survivors of war. "I can't believe I get to do this," she noted of her career.

"This started as a dream; now here I am living it. I'm still in shock that I have an Oscar and hope I will always be, because then I'll always appreciate it."

Interview by Sally James 

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