Jessica Chastain and the art of a lonely hunter

The star of Zero Dark Thirty has an almost unstoppable dynamism and energy.

Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. Snap Stills / Rex Features
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Jessica Chastain has managed to pack more films into an 18-month period than would seem physically possible. Add to that, she's been engaged in an 18-week run of The Heiress on Broadway, which will wrap up in next month. Last week, she was awarded the Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama award at the Golden Globes for her role in Zero Dark Thirty, which opens in the UAE today, and there's talk that her second Oscar nomination - her first was for her role in The Help - will actually result in a gold statuette this time around. Despite all this activity, the actress is not lacking energy.

"I want to do crazy villains in comic book movies with accents and scars!" she says, shining with childlike enthusiasm. "I want to do it all. I think I have to calm down and be like: You don't have to do it all, right now. Hopefully, you'll be around for a few years."

Sticking around is at this point assured for Chastain, who in 2011 emerged as an actress of seemingly limitless range, with throwback beauty and the subtlety of a chameleon. Due to various distribution delays, her talent was laid out all at once in widely varied performances in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, Coriolanus, The Debt and Texas Killing Fields.

She hasn't let up. Along with the bootlegging film Lawless, a voice role in the animated Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and her currently running Broadway debut, Chastain is now starring in one of the most anticipated movies of the year: Kathryn Bigelow's dramatisation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty.

"I never think about what's next," she says. "I always just think: What haven't I done yet?" Zero Dark Thirty easily qualified. In it, she plays an obsessed CIA officer tracking bin Laden in a decade-long search that goes from torturing detainees to intrepid detective work and finally to relentless advocacy for the raid that would kill bin Laden.

Aside from her Golden Globe win, Chastain also earned nominations from the Screen Actors Guild and for an Academy Award, her second Oscar nomination in two years (following one for The Help, an honour she glowingly recalls as "crazy town").

The screenwriter Mark Boal based Chastain's character, Maya, on a real CIA officer whose identity remains classified. While Boal acknowledges Maya was dramatised for the sake of a film built around one character, Chastain believes the film is "100 per cent accurate" in depicting the operative's large role in tracking down bin Laden.

Playing such a tough character, Chastain says, was her most difficult role yet because she had to build an emotional arc onto someone who speaks largely in jargon and refuses to turn down her laser-like focus. "Any subtext that I have, any part of the character's journey, I have to show through my technical dialogue and my transformation in the 10 years - what happens to my face, my hair, how I interact with people," says Chastain. "It has to be a more subtle approach. It has to be the kind of acting where you don't see the strings. With Celia [the ditzy Southern belle of The Help], you see the voice, you see all that stuff."

Seeing herself in one scene where Maya confronts and threatens her supervisor (Kyle Chandler) shocked Chastain, who hadn't thought herself capable of evoking, she says, such rage. Chastain, who describes herself as "a very emotional person", lightens the mood of a day discussing the grim Zero Dark Thirty by wearing a flowery dress and keeping a candle going.

Though Chastain's sensitivity and access to her emotions is part of what makes her a great actress, it made aspects of Zero Dark Thirty difficult - particularly the week spent in a Jordan prison filming the brutal interrogations. Those scenes, with a fellow operative played by Jason Clarke and a detainee played by Reda Kateb, have already renewed debate about the role torture played in tracking bin Laden. "There was a 10-minute break while I cried. I had to go hide behind a building. I just lost it and started crying," she says. "I know I'm playing this woman who's supposed to be - it's her job - to be unemotional, but I still feel things. And I wasn't going to be able to do the scene again without letting out, without having a good cry."

The daughter of a firefighter and a vegan chef, Chastain grew up in Northern California knowing she wanted to be an actor. She trained at the Juilliard School of Drama but didn't catch a real break until Al Pacino cast her in a Los Angeles theatre production of Salome.

"I've been fighting so long," says the 35-year-old Chastain. "I'm not 17 years old. I trained in this. I did a lot of theatre. I was playing dead bodies on TV shows. This is the first time I'm getting offered really incredible roles."

Now, her only problem is saying no.