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Jessica Chastain Rules the Box Office

January 21, 2013

By John C.

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark ThirtyAfter racking up critical acclaim over the past few years, it can now be said that Jessica Chastain rules the box office.  The horror movie Mama opened strong in first place over the weekend, and the excellent Zero Dark Thirty was the runner up, as the Oscar-nominated film continues to do well in its second week of wide release.

That would be an impressive feat no matter what, but add in a recent Golden Globe win and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Zero Dark Thirty, and you have a genuine success story built around one of the best actors currently working.  Jessica Chastain’s talent is evidenced by how different her characters are in each of the top two films at the box office, and how she brings something unique and memorable to both of the roles.

Jessica Chastain is just excellent in Zero Dark Thirty, perfectly capturing the steely determination of a character who has devoted much of her adulthood to the same mission, while allowing her vulnerability to show through during the unforgettable final few scenes.  This is a role that is both contrasted and complimented by her work in the surprisingly effective horror film Mama, where she changed her look to play a punk rocker.  The actress delivers a nuanced performance as a woman who doesn’t want kids, but is tasked with caring for two feral children (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) who were raised by the supernatural presence of the mysterious title character, forcing her to form a bond with them.

These different types of performances fall perfectly in place with the rest of her relatively short career, which has already proven that she has an incredibly wide range when it comes to portraying memorable characters, without getting typecast into any single role.  It also means that the Oscar race for Best Actress is especially tight this year, with Jessica Chastain going head to head with Jennifer Lawrence for her brilliant performance in Silver Linings Playbook, another actress whose career has taken off in a comparable way in the last little while.  But Jessica Chastain could easily win, and the award would be seen as a recognition and celebration of how her stardom in general has really taken off over the last couple of years.

The California-born actress made her big screen debut with Jolene in 2008, effortlessly portraying ten years in the life of a young woman travelling across the country, experimenting with her sexuality and finding work as a stripper.  It was a role that led to her being cast as the younger version of Helen Mirren’s character in The Debt, a thriller that premiered in 2010 and was released in 2011, which could be seen as the breakout year for the actress.  It was the year that also brought us her excellent supporting work in the psychological drama Take Shelter and her role in the modern take on the Shakespeare play Coriolanus, but her big break came a few months before those films.

Jessica Chastain was a revelation as the radiant mother in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, delivering a beautiful and luminous performance as the embodiment of grace that caused every critic to stand up and take note.  A few months after the film was released, the actress once again proved that she deserved to be a star with a performance in The Help that was sincere and unforgettable without ever sidestepping into cliché, leading to a much deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  Both The Tree of Life and The Help also shared the unique distinction of ranking among the finest movies of 2011, picking up Oscar nominations for Best Picture and finding spots on my own top ten list.

Her career has continued to go in interesting directions.  Last summer, she voiced a sleek jaguar in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted and had a supporting role in the prohibition drama Lawless.  Her upcoming roles include playing the title character in the double hitter of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: His and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Hers, a set of relationship dramas that will be released together and tell the same story from different angles.  With two Oscar nominations already to her name, now she has proven that she can be capable of both critical and commercial recognition with her financially successful performances in Zero Dark Thirty and Mama.

But she has also not lost sight of where she came from in her rise to stardom, and this shines through in the style and grace with which she accepts her many accolades.  “I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was a little girl and I’ve worked for a really long time,” she said during her Golden Globes acceptance speech last week, “I’ve auditioned and struggled and fought and been on the sidelines for years and to be here now, in this moment, it’s a beautiful feeling.”  She has attributed her love of acting to the fact that her grandmother used to bring her to stage productions when she was a kid, prompting her to study drama at Juilliard and still find time to perform in theatrical productions.

Jessica Chastain is an actress who is able to seamlessly move between numerous different types of roles, having effortlessly proven herself in arthouse films like The Tree of Life and mainstream hits like The Help, as well as thrillers like Zero Dark Thirty and now horror films with Mama.  These are all different roles that are worthwhile in their own unique ways, representing a true testimony to the versatility and talent that drives one of the best actors currently working.

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