Chastain is the founder of the production company Freckle Films, which was created to promote diversity in film. She is vocal about mental health issues, and gender and racial equality. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012. She is married to the fashion executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo.
Chastain was born on March 24, 1977 in California, to Jerri Renee Hastey (née Chastain) and rock musician Michael Monasterio. Her parents were both teenagers when she was born. Chastain is reluctant to publicly discuss her family background; she was estranged from Monasterio and has said that no father is listed on her birth certificate. She has two sisters and two brothers. Her sister Juliet died by suicide in 2003 following years of drug abuse. Chastain was raised in Sacramento by her mother and stepfather, Michael Hastey, a fireman. She has said that her stepfather was the first person to make her feel secure. She shares a close bond with her maternal grandmother, Marilyn, whom she credits as someone who "always believed in me".
Chastain first developed an interest in acting at the age of seven, after her grandmother took her to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She would regularly put on amateur shows with other children, and considered herself to be their artistic director. As a student at the El Camino Fundamental High School in Sacramento, Chastain struggled academically. She was a loner and considered herself a misfit in school, eventually finding an outlet in the performing arts. She has described how she used to miss school to read Shakespeare. With too many absences during her senior year in school, Chastain did not qualify for graduation, but later obtained an adult diploma. She later attended Sacramento City College from 1996 to 1997, during which she was a member of the institution's debate team. Speaking about her childhood, Chastain has said:
I [grew up] with a single mother who worked very hard to put food on our table. We did not have money. There were many nights when we had to go to sleep without eating. It was a very difficult upbringing. Things weren’t easy for me growing up.
In 1998, Chastain made her professional stage debut as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet staged by TheatreWorks, a company in the San Francisco Bay Area. The production led her to audition for the Juilliard School in New York City, where she was soon accepted and granted a scholarship funded by the actor Robin Williams. In her first year at the school, Chastain suffered from anxiety and was worried about being dropped from the program, spending most of her time reading and watching movies. She later remarked that her participation in a successful production of The Seagull during her second year helped build her confidence. She graduated from the school with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2003.
Shortly before graduating from Juilliard, Chastain attended an event for final-year students in Los Angeles, where she was signed to a talent holding deal by the television producer John Wells. She relocated to Los Angeles, and started auditioning for jobs. She initially found the process difficult, which she blamed on other people finding her difficult to categorize as a redhead with an unconventional look. In her television debut, The WB network's 2004 pilot remake of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, she was cast as Carolyn Stoddard. The pilot was directed by P. J. Hogan, but the series was never picked up for broadcast. Later that year, she appeared as a guest performer on the medical drama series ER playing a woman she described as "psychotic", which led to her getting more unusual parts such as accident victims or the mentally ill. She went on to appear in such roles in a few other television series from 2004 to 2007, including Veronica Mars (2004), Close to Home (2006) and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005–2006).
In 2004, Chastain took on the role of Anya, a virtuous young woman, in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard in Massachusetts, starring with Michelle Williams. Also that year, she worked with Playwrights Horizons on a production of Richard Nelson's Rodney's Wife as the daughter of a troubled middle-aged film actor. Her performance was not well received by the critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times, who thought that she "somehow seems to keep losing color as the evening progresses". While working on the play, she was recommended by Nelson to Al Pacino, who was looking for an actress to star in his production of Oscar Wilde's tragedy Salome. The play tells the tragic story of its titular character's sexual exploration. In the play, Salome is a 16-year-old, but Chastain, who was 29 then, was cast for the part. The play was staged in 2006 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles, and Chastain later remarked that it helped bring her to the attention of several casting directors. Writing for Variety, the critic Steven Oxman criticized her portrayal in the play: "Chastain is so ill-at-ease with Salome, not quite certain whether she's a capable seductress or a whiny, wealthy brat; she doesn't flesh out either choice".
Chastain made her film debut in 2008 as the title character in Dan Ireland's drama Jolene, based on a short story by E. L. Doctorow inspired by Dolly Parton's song "Jolene". It follows the life of a sexually abused teenager over the course of a decade. Chastain's performance was praised by a reviewer for the New York Observer, who considered her as the only notable aspect of the production. She won a Best Actress award at the Seattle International Film Festival. In 2009 she had a minor role in Stolen (2009), a mystery-thriller film with a limited theatrical release. Also in 2009, she played the part of Desdemona in The Public Theatre production of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello, co-starring John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Writing for The New Yorker, Hilton Als commended Chastain for finding "a beautiful maternal depth" in her role.
In 2010, Chastain starred in John Madden's dramatic thriller The Debt, portraying a young Mossad agent sent to East Berlin in the 1960s to capture a former Nazi doctor who had carried out medical experiments in concentration camps. She shared her role with Helen Mirren, with the two actresses portraying the character at different phases of her life. They worked together before filming to perfect the voice and mannerisms of the character and make them consistent. Chastain took classes in German and krav maga, and studied books about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and Mossad history. William Thomas of Empire termed the film a "smart, tense, well-acted thriller" and noted that Chastain "pulses with strength and vulnerability" in her part. She also appeared in an episode of the British television series Agatha Christie's Poirot, based on Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express.
After struggling for a breakthrough in film, Chastain had six releases in 2011, getting wide recognition for her roles in several of them. The first of these roles was as the wife of Michael Shannon's character in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter. The drama tells the story of a troubled father who tries to protect his family from an impending storm. It was screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and the critic Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph noted how much Chastain's supporting part aided the narrative. She received an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female nomination for the film.
The 61st Berlin International Film Festival saw the release of Coriolanus, an adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name from actor-director Ralph Fiennes, in which Chastain played Virgilia. Her next role was opposite Brad Pitt, as the loving mother of three children in Terrence Malick's experimental drama The Tree of Life, which she had filmed in 2008. Chastain signed on to the film without receiving a traditional screenplay from Malick, and she improvised several scenes and dialogues with Pitt. She considered her part to be "the embodiment of grace and the spirit world"; in preparation, she practiced meditation, studied paintings of the Madonna, and read poems by Thomas Aquinas. Following several delays, the film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to a polarized reception from the audience, although it was praised by critics and won the Palme d'Or. Justin Chang of Variety termed the film a "hymn to the glory of creation, an exploratory, often mystifying [...] poem" and credited Chastain for playing her part with "heartrending vulnerability".
Chastain's biggest success of the year came with the drama The Help, co-starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, which was based on Kathryn Stockett's novel of the same name. Chastain played Celia Foote, an aspiring socialite in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, who develops a friendship with her black maid (played by Spencer). Chastain was drawn to her character's anti-racist stand and connected with her energy and enthusiasm; in preparation, she watched the films of Marilyn Monroe and researched the history of Sugar Ditch, Tennessee, where her character was raised. The Help earned $216 million at the box office to become Chastain's most widely seen film to that point. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times praised the chemistry between Chastain and Spencer and Roger Ebert commended her for being "unaffected and infectious". The ensemble of The Help won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Cast and Chastain received her first Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category, in addition to BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG nominations in the same category, all of which she lost to Spencer.
Chastain's final two roles of the year were in Wilde Salomé, a documentary based on her 2006 production of Salome, and the critically panned crime-thriller Texas Killing Fields. The latter, co-starring Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, was a partly fictionalized version of the events in the killing fields of Texas, in which she played a homicide detective. Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey praised Chastain's polished Texas drawl, but criticized the film. Chastain's work in 2011, especially in The Help, Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, gained her awards from several critics' organizations, including the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Two of Chastain's films in 2012 premiered at the 65th Cannes Film Festival—the animated comedy film Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and the crime drama Lawless. In the former, which marked the third installment of the Madagascar series, Chastain voiced Gia the Jaguar with an Italian accent. With a worldwide gross of $747 million, the film ranks as her highest-grossing release. Lawless, directed by John Hillcoat, was based on Matt Bondurant's prohibition-era novel The Wettest County in the World. Chastain played a dancer from Chicago who becomes embroiled in a conflict between three bootlegging brothers (played by Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke). The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with Richard Corliss finding Chastain to be filled with "poised, seductive gravity". In an experimental biopic of the author C. K. Williams, entitled The Color of Time (2012), directed by the New York University students of actor James Franco, Chastain played the mother of the young Williams. Originally titled Tar for its premiere at the 2012 Rome Film Festival, the film was renamed for its theatrical release later in 2014.
A short part that Chastain had filmed opposite Ben Affleck in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder (2012) was edited out of the final film, and due to scheduling conflicts, she dropped out of the action films Oblivion and Iron Man 3 (both 2013). She instead made her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1947 play The Heiress, playing the role of Catherine Sloper, a naive young girl who transforms into a powerful woman. Chastain was initially reluctant to accept the role fearing the high anxiety she had faced during her early stage performances. She ultimately agreed to the part after finding a connection to Sloper, saying: "she’s painfully uncomfortable and I used to be that". The production was staged at the Walter Kerr Theatre from November 2012 to February 2013. Brantley was disappointed with Chastain's performance, saying that she was "oversignaling the thoughts within" and that her delivery of dialogue was sometimes flat.
Kathryn Bigelow's thriller Zero Dark Thirty marked Chastain's final film release of 2012. The film tells a partly fictionalized account of the decade-long manhunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. Chastain was cast as Maya, an emotionally hardened CIA intelligence analyst who helped kill bin Laden. The difficult subject matter made it unpleasant for Chastain to film. She suffered from depression while working and once walked off the set in tears because she was unable to continue. Chastain was unable to meet the undercover agent on whom Maya was based and she relied on the screenwriter Mark Boal's research. Zero Dark Thirty received critical acclaim but was controversial for scenes of torture that were shown providing useful intelligence in the search for bin Laden. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone thought that Chastain played Maya "like a gathering storm in an indelible, implosive performance that cuts so deep we can feel her nerve endings". Roger Ebert made note of Chastain's versatility, and favorably compared her ability and range to that of actress Meryl Streep. For her performance, Chastain won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and earned Academy, BAFTA and SAG nominations for Best Actress.
Chastain next took on the lead role of a musician who is forced to care for her boyfriend's troubled nieces in the horror film Mama (2013). She was attracted to the idea of playing a woman drastically different from the "perfect mother" roles she had played in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, and she based her character's look on the singer Alice Glass. The critic Richard Roeper noted how different the role was from the ones she had previously played, and considered it as proof of her being one of the best actors of her generation. During the film's opening weekend in North America, Chastain became the first performer in 15 years to have leading roles in the top two films (Mama and Zero Dark Thirty) at the box office. Mama eventually earned $146 million worldwide. She then starred as the titular character of a depressed woman who separates from her husband (played by James McAvoy) following a tragic incident in the drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2013), which she also produced. The writer-director Ned Benson initially wrote the story from the perspective of Rigby's husband, then wrote a separate version from Rigby's perspective on the insistence of Chastain. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in two parts, Him and Her. A third part told from both their perspectives—subtitled Them—was released separately. The film did not find a wide audience, but the critic A. O. Scott praised Chastain for "short-circuit[ing] conventional distinctions between tough and vulnerable, showing exquisite control even when her character is losing it, and keeping her balance even when the movie pitches and rolls toward melodrama".
Chastain appeared in three films in 2014. She played the eponymous protagonist in Miss Julie, a film adaptation of August Strindberg's 1888 play of the same name, from director Liv Ullmann. Miss Julie tells the tragic tale of a sexually repressed aristocrat who begins an affair with her father's valet (played by Colin Farrell). Chastain was attracted to Ullmann's feminist take on the subject. The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney thought that the production lacked relevance despite the subtlety of Chastain's performance. The film only received a limited theatrical release. While filming Miss Julie in Ireland, Chastain received the script of Christopher Nolan's science fiction film Interstellar (2014). With a budget of $165 million, the high-profile production, co-starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, was filmed mostly using IMAX cameras. Chastain was cast as the adult daughter of McConaughey's character; she was drawn to the project for the emotional heft she found in the father-daughter pair. Drew McWeeny of the entertainment website HitFix took note of how much Chastain stood out in her supporting part. The film earned over $675 million worldwide to become Chastain's highest-grossing live-action film.
Chastain's final release of 2014 was the J. C. Chandor-directed crime drama A Most Violent Year. Set in New York City in 1981, the year in which the city had the highest crime rate, the film tells the story of a heating-oil company owner (played by Oscar Isaac) and his ruthless wife (Chastain). In preparation, Chastain researched the period and worked with a coach to develop a Brooklyn accent. She collaborated with costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone to work on the character's wardrobe, and contacted Armani who provided her with clothing of the period. The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle believed Chastain to be "the embodiment of a nouveau riche New York woman of the era", and Mark Kermode, writing for The Guardian, found Chastain to be "terrific" in a part inspired by Lady Macbeth's character. She received a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film. For her work in 2014, the Broadcast Film Critics Association honored Chastain with a special achievement award.
In 2015, Chastain took on the part of a commander in Ridley Scott's science fiction film The Martian. Starring Matt Damon as a botanist who is stranded on Mars by a team of astronauts commandeered by Chastain's character, the film was based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name. Chastain met with astronauts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Johnson Space Center, and based her role on Tracy Caldwell Dyson, with whom she spent time in Houston. The Martian became her second film to earn over $600 million in two consecutive years. Also in 2015, Chastain played a countess who plots with her brother (played by Tom Hiddleston) to terrorize his new bride (played by Mia Wasikowska) in Guillermo del Toro's gothic romance Crimson Peak. Chastain approached the villainous part with empathy, and in preparation read graveyard poetry and watched the films Rebecca (1940) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Del Toro cast her in the film to lend accessibility to a part he considered "psychopathic", but critic Peter Debruge of Variety found her "alarmingly miscast" and criticised her for failing to effectively convey her character's insecurity and ruthlessness. Conversely, David Sims of Slate magazine praised her for portraying her character's "jealous intensity to the hilt".
After portraying a series of intense roles, Chastain actively looked for a light-hearted part. She found it in the fantasy film The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016), co-starring Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt. The film served as both a sequel and a prequel to the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman. She was drawn to the idea of playing a female warrior whose abilities were on par with those of the lead male character, but the film generated negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office. Also that year, Chastain launched a production company named Freckle Films, headed by a team of female executives. She then starred as the title character, a lobbyist, in the gun control thriller Miss Sloane, which reunited her with John Madden. Chastain read the novel Capitol Punishment by Jack Abramoff to research the practice of lobbying in America, and met with female lobbyists to study their mannerisms and sense of style. Hailing her as one of the best actresses on the planet, Peter Travers commended Chastain for successfully drawing the audience into Sloane's life. She received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama nomination for the film.
Chastain began 2017 by serving as the executive producer and providing the narration for I am Jane Doe, a documentary on sex trafficking. In an effort to work with more female filmmakers, Chastain starred in two projects directed by women—Niki Caro's The Zookeeper's Wife and Susanna White's Woman Walks Ahead. In the former, an adaptation of Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book of the same name, she co-starred with Johan Heldenbergh as the real-life Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Żabiński who saved many human and animal lives during World War II. The film received mixed reviews, although Stephen Holden took note of how Chastain's "watchful, layered performance" empowered the film. Woman Walks Ahead tells the story of the 19th-century activist Catherine Weldon, who served as an adviser to the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull prior to the Wounded Knee Massacre. She was interested in portraying a role that young girls could look up to for inspiration, and provided off-screen inputs to avoid a white savior narrative.
In Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut Molly's Game (2017), Chastain was cast as the real-life character of Molly Bloom, a disgruntled skier who ran a high-profile gambling operation that led to her arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Chastain accepted the part due to her desire to work with Sorkin, whose writing she deeply admired. Instead of relying on Bloom's public persona, Chastain met Bloom to dig deeper into her character's flaws and vulnerabilities. She also researched the world of underground poker and interviewed some of Bloom's customers. Peter Debruge hailed Bloom as "one of the screen’s great female parts" and credited its success to both Chastain's "stratospheric talent" and Sorkin's script.
As of September 2017, Chastain has five upcoming projects. She will feature as a "shrewd gossip columnist" in Québécois director Xavier Dolan's first English-language film, entitled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, alongside an ensemble cast including Kit Harington, Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Chastain is set to join the X-Men film series in the instalment subtitled Dark Phoenix. She will also star as the country singer Tammy Wynette with Josh Brolin's George Jones in the biopic George and Tammy, will appear in Patrick Brice's comedy film Plus One, with Cecily Strong, and will serve as a producer and star as the superhero Painkiller Jane in a film of the same name.
Despite significant media attention, Chastain remains guarded about her personal life, and chooses not to attend red carpet events with a partner. She considers herself to be a "shy" person, and said in 2011 that she enjoyed domestic routines like dog-walking and playing ukulele rather than partying. She has cited the actress Isabelle Huppert as an influence, for managing a family while also playing "out-there roles" in film.
Chastain is an animal lover and has adopted a rescue dog. She was a pescatarian for much of her life; following health troubles she began practicing veganism. In the 2000s, Chastain was in a long-term relationship with writer-director Ned Benson that ended in 2010. In 2012, she began dating Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo, an Italian executive for the Italian-French fashion brand Moncler. On June 10, 2017, she married Preposulo at his family's estate in Italy. They live in New York City.
Chastain is a feminist, and has often spoken against the discrimination faced by women and minorities in Hollywood. She wrote an opinion column on gender imbalance in the industry for a December 2015 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where she served as a jury member, Chastain bemoaned the passive portrayal of women in most films. She has complained about a lack of female film critics, which she believes hinders a gender-neutral perspective on film. Among other issues, she is vocal in her support for equal pay in the workplace, and has rejected offers of work that she thought were unfair. In 2013, Chastain lent her support to the Got Your 6 campaign, to help empower veterans of the United States Army, and in 2016, she became an advisory-board member to the organization We Do It Together, which produces films and television shows to promote the empowerment of women. Chastain has campaigned for access to affordable reproductive health care for women, and in 2017, Variety honored her for her work with Planned Parenthood.
Having suffered through the suicide of her sister, Chastain aims to create awareness on depression and support sufferers. She supports charitable organizations that promote mental health, and is involved with the non-profit organization To Write Love on Her Arms to help high-school students of alternate sexual and gender identities overcome insecurities. She was teased as a child for having red hair and freckles and now takes a stand against bullying and body shaming.
Describing Chastain's off-screen persona, Roy Porter of InStyle magazine wrote in 2015 that "she's an adult, which isn't always a given in Hollywood. Unconsciously candid with her answers, she retains a sense of perspective uncommon among her peers and has real opinions"; Porter also credited her for being the rare actress who is "all about the craft". Evgenia Peretz, an editor at Vanity Fair, considers Chastain to be "the most sensitive and empathetic actor" she has interviewed.
Chastain specializes in portraying emotionally grueling roles and is drawn towards parts of strong but flawed women. She believes in extensive preparations for a role: "[I] fill myself up with as much history of the character as I can". The critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper have praised Chastain's versatility, and W magazine credits her for avoiding typecasting. David Ehrlich of IndieWire credits her for being the sole American actress to consistently play roles that "champion feminist ideals".
Guillermo del Toro (who directed her in Crimson Peak) believes that Chastain is "interested in being chameleonic" and that she brings authenticity even to bizarre situations. Sophie Heawood of The Guardian believes that Chastain's ability to bring very little ego to her roles renders her unrecognisable to the audience. Sarah Karmali of Harper's Bazaar opines that "she goes for total immersion, sinking so deep into character that her face seems to change shape with each one". Lea Goldman of Marie Claire compares her craft to that of actresses Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett, and writes that she values her craft over her looks.
Vogue has described Chastain as being "excessively luscious [with] pale Botticelli features wrapped around a bone structure that has a touch of the masculine, right down to the cleft in her chin". She was named the sexiest vegetarian actress in a poll conducted by PETA in 2012. From 2012 to 2014 she was featured in AskMen's listing of the most desirable women, and in 2015, Glamour magazine ranked her as one of the best-dressed women.
Time magazine named Chastain one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012. That same year, she was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she endorsed an Yves Saint Laurent fragrance called Manifesto. In 2015, she became the global ambassador for the Swiss jewelry and watchmaking company Piaget SA, and in 2017, she was made the face of Ralph Lauren's fragrance campaign, named Woman.
According to the review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and the box office site Box Office Mojo, Chastain's highest-grossing and most acclaimed films include Take Shelter (2011), The Help (2011), Coriolanus (2011), Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Mama (2013), Interstellar (2014), A Most Violent Year (2014), The Martian (2015) and Miss Sloane (2016). Among her stage roles, she has appeared in a Broadway revival of The Heiress in 2012.
Chastain has been nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actress for The Help (2011) and Best Actress for Zero Dark Thirty (2012). She won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and has been nominated three more times: Best Actress in a Drama for Miss Sloane (2016) and twice for Best Supporting Actress, for The Help (2011) and A Most Violent Year (2014).