Actress Jessica Chastain enters the drawing room of the Crosby Street Hotel in New York wearing a delicate seafoam Alice + Olivia dress with an icy blue ribbon tied at the waist—her added touch. “I’m very feminine,” she says. “But I do like an edge.” It’s the bandage on her knee covering the remains of a recent motocross accident that suggests her more adventurous spirit.
Relatively unknown a year ago, the Juilliard-trained California native is suddenly one of the most highly sought-after actresses. This summer saw her in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and this season she appears in no fewer than five films: She stars as an over-the-top 1960s Mississippi bottle blonde in The Help, an undercover Mossad agent in The Debt, a working class Ohio housewife in Take Shelter, a rodeo queen turned detective in The Texas Killing Fields, and the wife of a tragic Roman leader in Coriolanus. “Jessica has a deep well of empathy and an ethereal quality that luminates onscreen,” says two-time co-star Sam Worthington. “If you can get Jessica in your film, you get her in your film.”
Of course, back-to-back movie premières require a deep wardrobe. A longtime clothes lover—“fashion magazines were always my splurge growing up,” she says—Chastain is gleaning important style lessons from her high-profile public appearances. “I’m realizing that while there’s something about clothes that can be emotional and evocative,” she says, “they also have to fit who you are.” In her case that means outfits that are pretty but at the same time unexpected—so no head-to-toe frills and lace or as she puts it, “nothing entirely slam-dunk pretty.” She also looks for cuts that work on her hourglass figure—“dresses that allow for hips and have a waist.”
When it comes to red-carpet posing, however, Chastain’s still a newbie. “I can get embarrassed,” she says with a laugh. “I can model for photos, but at events I’m just not a pose-y girl.” But she is learning. “I was at an event in Los Angeles to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, where I saw Heidi Klum on the red carpet. I was like, ‘Ah, so that’s how you do it!’”