Jessica Chastain, Star of 'The Help,' the Next Meryl Streep

With seven films out this year, including 'The Tree of Life' and 'The Help,' Jessica Chastain is on fire.

Clad in a strapless, yellow, floor-sweeping gown—perfectly complementing her fair skin—and shimmering Louis Vuitton jewels, Jessica Chastain glided down the Cannes Film Festival red carpet. Holding her left hand was a tuxedoed Brad Pitt, and gripping her right was Sean Penn. The trio paused every so often to pose for the sea of photographers. Pitt waved. Penn grimaced. The wide-eyed actress smiled broadly.

“That was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” recalled Chastain. “I feel like that Cannes experience was just the beginning of me on this new journey of what my life is becoming.”

The story of Chastain’s rise from awkward redhead to one of the most in-demand and versatile actresses in Hollywood, with seven films being released in 2011 alone, started quite a bit earlier than that. Born in Northern California, Chastain warmed to acting at the age of 7, when her grandmother took her to a performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “She explained that this was a job and they were professional actors, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is my job!’ ” said Chastain. “You get to live in a world of make-believe and play.”

After appearing in several plays, Chastain was accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School in order to fine-tune her craft. According to Chastain, moving across the country to New York City was “scary” and “a culture shock.” She was placed in a dorm with other first-year students, and for her entire first week of school she was very homesick. “Then I’d sit at the cafeteria and Baryshnikov would be at my table, or I’d be in the elevator with Yo-Yo Ma,” marveled Chastain. During her freshman year, Ralph Fiennes came to speak to her class. “It exposed me to so many different art forms I’d never been around,” she said.

Chastain later moved to Los Angeles to try her hand at acting, but casting directors had trouble placing her, and despite landing a few roles in TV projects, movie auditions were few and far between. “All of a sudden I’m auditioning for TV shows and everyone is really beautiful, tall, blonde, and perfect-looking, and I’m tall, freckly, and not I guess ‘conventionally’ beautiful,” said Chastain. Then in 2006, she was handpicked by Al Pacino to star opposite him in Salome. The play was first performed in Los Angeles, and called for the young actress to appear nude in front of 1,400 theatergoers every night, which gave her confidence. “I was being cast as this woman who is this object of desire in the play,” said Chastain. “That really changed the waters for me.”

Pacino raved about Chastain’s acting ability to anyone who would listen—including Terrence Malick, who was in the process of casting actresses for the lead role of the compassionate wife of Brad Pitt’s character in his epic bildungsroman, The Tree of Life. Chastain had already passed several rounds of auditions doing behavior exercises like putting a baby to sleep, when Pacino stepped in. “I know that Al Pacino had a conversation with Terry and told him what it was like to work with me, and whatever Al said was lovely and helped me get that part,” said Chastain.

Production on The Tree of Life began in 2008, and the notoriously fussy Malick would rewrite the script daily, encouraging his actors to ad lib wherever possible. Malick’s unrestricted filmmaking style and high demands of his actors provided Chastain with a sort of actor’s boot camp. “There was no action or cut, it was just we were rolling and had four minutes to live in this until the film runs out and they reload it,” recalled Chastain. “There was two weeks of the ‘Grief’ section where I had to be this woman experiencing this immense loss. I had to just live there for two weeks in these feelings of hopelessness, confusion, and absolute despair and agony. I would have lunch breaks where I would come home, be quiet, and just close my eyes for 30 seconds because I was so emotionally exhausted.”

The movie premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and took home the fest’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Critics praised Chastain’s soulful, muted performance. Her other film at Cannes, Take Shelter, also won the Grand Prize in the Critics Week competition. In it, she played the grieving wife of a man (Michael Shannon) who, haunted by apocalyptic visions, builds a storm shelter in the family’s backyard. For her two dazzling performances, The Guardian anointed her as “the next Meryl Streep”; she was also called the “American Cate Blanchett.”

Chastain also stars as Celia Foote, a ditzy and naive blonde bombshell that breaks down racial barriers in The Help—the highly anticipated film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about the iniquities of African-American maids in early 1960s Jackson, Miss. Her catty, giggly character was a complete departure from her role in The Tree of Life, in which she played a woman who communicated mostly through facial gestures. In preparation for the role, she read the book several times and found that it regularly drew comparisons between her character and Marilyn Monroe. So, Chastain proceeded to read Monroe’s biography and view her entire filmography in chronological order. And the actress also felt right at home, being on a set with three other redheaded actresses (Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Sissy Spacek).

“I feel a special sorority with redheads, because I feel like as a redhead, we pay our dues,” said Chastain. “Growing up in elementary school, you’re not the cool girl if you’re the redhead. You’re the one who gets teased a lot. So I feel like we have a shared history of suffering.”

In addition to The Tree of Life and The Help, Chastain will star in five other feature films this year, including as a German-speaking Mossad agent in The Debt, opening Aug. 31; a film version of Salome, directed by and starring Al Pacino, that will premiere at the Venice Film Festival; and a role opposite her former Juilliard lecturer, Ralph Fiennes, in his directorial debut, Coriolanus, out in December. The 30-year-old actress views the sudden onslaught of success, however, as a double-edged sword.

“Right now it’s baptism by fire! There’s this anxiety that I’ve worked for four years making 11 films, got to be an actor and work with wonderful actors, and that has been the main focus for me,” said Chastain. “There is now the scary part of what happens when fame comes into play. When I’m on a film set, will I be able to disappear into each role like I want to? Will people have an idea of how I am and try to typecast me?” She pauses, and adds, “I have no family in the business and didn’t know anybody in the business. I went to Juilliard, studied for four years, and really, really worked hard to be an actor. I hope that even though all my films are coming out at once, people aren’t like, ‘Well, who does she know to get all this?’ To me, it feels like a result of very, very hard work.”