Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Jessica Chastain Always Won at the Oscars—Long Before She Really Did

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What do you say to someone who has just missed out on an Oscar? The impulse is to offer sympathy, as though at a funeral. I’m sorry for your loss…

Jessica Chastain was never down for that nonsense. Years before winning best actress on Sunday for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Chastain was nominated twice before, both times going home empty-handed but with a seemingly full heart. We had talked a few times earlier in her career, and done one of those sprawling interviews at a tea room in Westwood for a magazine profile, just as she was becoming a household name.

Both times she didn’t win—for The Help and, later, Zero Dark Thirty—the thing that struck me was that she seemed like someone who actually had. When I offered my sympathies in 2012, she did a self-effacing eye roll and said something along the lines of, “Come on, man. I was nominated at the Oscars!” That alone was a dream come true. If she couldn’t be satisfied with that, something must be wrong.  

Everyone is exhaustively aware of the bizarre outburst from last week’s ceremony that has eclipsed nearly everything else that came before or after. It has fueled the cynicism and contempt that some people feel toward the Academy Awards, considering it an elitist, self-aggrandizing event. Chastain feels like an exception, and it’s worth noting when someone conducts herself with kindness and good sportsmanship.  

I’ve covered the Oscars for 22 years, often from the wings of the stage, witnessing and writing about the little dramas that unfold just behind the curtain as winners and presenters come and go. There are lots of moments of joy and exhilaration, but you don’t see it all the time from those who don’t win. Sometimes you see sulking, bitterness—even people storming out of the theater.

Back in 2012, I had run into Chastain momentarily before the awards in the swirl of guests entering the Dolby Theatre, and she had a kind of casual, giddy excitement. After she lost, I expected that mood to evaporate. 

But at the Governors Ball, I found that she wasn’t dejected at all. She was dancing, eating. Her grandmother was with her. I seem to recall Grandma dancing too. Chastain’s costar in The Help, Octavia Spencer, had won, and Chastain seemed legitimately overjoyed for her. Being nominated was enough. At one point she said to me, “Hey, let’s take a picture!”

I never ask actors to take photos with me, but if the other person suggests it? Why not. So, someone at the party took my phone (maybe it was Grandma?) and snapped this: 

Governors Ball, post-Oscars 2012.

Courtesy of Anthony Breznican.

It was a personal photo, and so I showed it only to my wife and a few friends and colleagues, usually when discussing people who know how to do the Oscar race in a way that doesn’t dehydrate the soul.  

The following year, in 2013, Chastain was nominated again for Zero Dark Thirty. We’d done more interviews since then, and on Oscar night I met her in the wings of the stage. She opened her arms for a hug. The gowns and jewelry make it intimidating to accept an embrace from an Oscar nominee—it’s like hugging a wedding cake or a sculpture.

I told Chastain that my three-year-old daughter and my wife, pregnant with a little boy who would be born three days later, were at home watching the telecast. My wife had texted that our little girl saw Chastain on TV during the red carpet and walked up to touch the screen. “Look mom, is that a real princess?” she said.

After hearing this, Chastain said: “Turn on your camera. Let’s send her a message.”

I winced. One of the rules about covering the show from backstage at that point was: no photography. Chastain insisted. She sent this message to a girl who had been so awed by her that she wasn’t sure she was real. Chastain didn’t win again that night, but I have no doubt she danced away the night again.

This year, at Vanity Fair’s Oscar party, I found Chastain talking with my editor in chief, Radhika Jones, and approached to say hello. Chastain immediately launched into a story about our interviews—and the backstage video she’d made for my daughter. 

I mentioned her very first Oscar night, and how I had been unsure what to say because I was afraid she’d be downhearted. “Oh, no,” she said. “I had a great time that night.” I showed her our cheesy thumbs-up photo from back in the day. A true blast from the past. It was hard to tell the difference between the Jessica Chastain who won and the Jessica Chastain who hadn’t. Soon, the party swept her away. As it happens, the event photographer, Justin Bishop, had captured the moment I showed Chastain the old shot from way back when. Even on a troubling night, her display of humbleness and excitement felt entirely real.  

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