"How do I put this?"
Jessica Chastain is struggling to diplomatically describe her last stage appearance, in 2009 as Desdemona in Othello, a co-production of LAByrinth Theater Company and The Public Theater. "Did you see it?" she asks.
I tell her that I did not, but I did read some less-than-favorable reviews.
"Then you understand everything," she says. "It was a very draining experience," she continues, sipping a bottle of Kombucha tea. "When I got back to L.A., I received an e-mail from a director who wanted me to consider another play in New York. I replied, 'Thank you, but I will never do theatre again.' I wanted to focus my energy elsewhere."
Although her theatrical boycott lasted only three years, Chastain's shifted focus was fruitful: In 2011 alone she appeared in no less than seven films, including The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Help, the latter of which earned her an Oscar nod. In New York last summer for the premiere of The Debt, she was offered the part of spinster Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 play based on the Henry James novel Washington Square.
"It's been my dream to be on Broadway since I was a little girl, but at this point I was so busy, so it seemed crazy to even consider," Chastain recalls. "Then I read the play and fell in love with the character, but I still wouldn't have done another play had I not felt I was going to be in great hands."
Helming The Heiress, which opens Nov. 1 for a limited engagement at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Moisés Kaufman now has those great hands over his ears as his star embarrasses him with praise. "Besides his brain, what I love about Moisés is that he makes me feel safe and supported," she says. "I do my best work with a director who creates a space where I feel the freedom to be both brave and vulnerable."
"I didn't want to do this production without Jessica," says Kaufman, whose Broadway credits include I Am My Own Wife, 33 Variations and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. "The moment she sets foot onstage, you know she has a lifetime of theatrical experience. She's a stage animal who lives and breathes theatre."
"Wow," Chastain responds, blushing. "Maybe I should cover my ears, too."
A California native, Chastain starred in the 2004 Off-Broadway production of Rodney's Wife and as the titular temptress in a 2006 Los Angeles staging of Salome opposite Al Pacino.
"I've been in far more plays than I have in movies and TV shows," explains the Juilliard-trained actress. Before long, she's singing "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame — "Where's that boy with the bugle?" She played the title role while president of her high school drama club. "All the other kids would cut school to go smoke pot and stuff, but I'd cut school to go read Shakespeare."
"That tells you everything you need to know about Jessica," Kaufman laughs.
Throughout the play Catherine finds herself caught in a tug-of-war between her chronically disappointed father (David Strathairn) and handsome suitor (Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens), who might only be attracted to her inheritance. "Catherine's so ahead of her time in so many ways," observes Kaufman, who found much inspiration for his "very Jamesian" revival from the play's source novel. "Henry James really used Catherine to herald a new era, and it's exciting to think about her as the beginning of a different idea of womanhood."
It's no mystery why the plum role won Cherry Jones a Tony for the 1995 Broadway revival and Olivia de Havilland an Oscar for the 1949 film version, but Chastain finds these facts more empowering than intimidating. "I would love to have lunch with Cherry Jones, Olivia de Havilland, Jane Alexander, Jennifer Jason Leigh and all the other women who have played Catherine, so we could talk about her," she says. "It feels like a wonderful sisterhood."
Is that familial connection enough to bring Chastain back to the stage for good? "I want to keep working in all mediums," says the actress, who next appears on the big screen in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty this December. "I just want to play great characters and work with people I know I'll learn a lot from, but theatre will always be my home."
Playbill, November 2012 issue.