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Chastain ready for stardom after work with two Austin directors

Charles Ealy

Jessica Chastain is about to become famous, even though you've probably never heard of her.

She was the belle of the ball at this year's Cannes Film Festival, starring in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter."

And while acknowledging that Malick is one of the world's great artistic directors, she predicts that Nichols will have a similarly long and distinguished career.

Both movies took home top prizes in Cannes: Malick's "Tree" won the coveted Palme d'Or, while Nichols' "Shelter" won the Grand Prize of the 50th annual Critics' Week, a prestigious sidebar, as well as the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers Screenwriting Award.

"There are a lot of similarities between the two directors," she said during an interview in Cannes. "Both have distinct voices, both are artists, both use lots of nature in the movies, and both live outside of Hollywood and New York." And, of course, both live in Austin.

Both movies also share a producer: Sarah Green. Green introduced Chastain to Nichols after working with her on "The Tree of Life."

In "Take Shelter," which opens later this year, Chastain plays Samantha, the wife of Curtis (Michael Shannon), who is beset by very realistic nightmares involving natural disasters. Curtis becomes convinced that his family is in danger and builds an elaborate bomb shelter in his backyard. But Curtis doesn't explain his paranoia to his wife until late in the movie.

In "The Tree of Life," Chastain plays Mrs. O'Brien, the wife of Brad Pitt's character — and the voice of love and acceptance in opposition to her husband's hard-nosed approach to life.

Chastain said that Malick told her to watch the early movies of Lauren Bacall to prepare for the role. "He wanted me to listen to the slow, deliberate way she talked."

But since Chastain had to embody a character that always responds to even bad situations with love, "it was sort of like acting in a straitjacket," she said.

"When Brad would be angry with the kids, I'd have to realize that I couldn't be Jessica, who would want to scream at him. I'd just have to respond with a kind of grace and love," she said.

"But the beautiful thing about Terry is that he captures memory in a way that I've never seen before, like if you want to show a life and something happening, generally you'll see a flashback and it's a scene. With Terrence, instead of a scene it'll be an image, the perfect image," she said. "It's captured in a way where he makes the perfect film. It's hard to explain, but in 'The Tree of Life' he has created a lifetime, this journey without big long scenes. I'm a big Terrence Malick fan."

Chastain said that while the two directors share many similarities, their on-set approach was dramatically different, primarily because Nichols was facing a low-budget quick shoot while Malick had a more leisurely pace.

In fact, months after the shooting, Malick called up Chastain and asked whether she would go to a sound booth and do voiceover work for the film. "He sent me about 40 pages of script, and it was beautiful," she said. But the phone call for the voiceover work came during a Thanksgiving weekend, while Chastain was visiting her parents in Northern California.

"When I was recording the voiceovers, no one knew who I was while I was doing it," she says. But she realizes that's about to change.

Besides "Take Shelter" and "The Tree of Life," Chastain is also starring in three other upcoming movies. Two of them, in fact, are with Sam Worthington, the star of "Avatar."

"I haven't done any franchise movies, so my life hasn't changed that much," she says. "But you can tell what happens when you're in that kind of movie," she says, based on watching Worthington.

She made "The Debt" with Worthington and Helen Mirren before the release of "Avatar." In "The Debt," which is scheduled for release this summer, Chastain plays an Israeli Mossad agent sent on a mission to capture a Nazi surgeon.

But she is also starring with Worthington in "The Fields," a psychological thriller. And during that filming, she says, she would eat dinner with Worthington and realize that "every eye in the restaurant was on him. I can't imagine being in that position."

Chastain also recently wrapped up work on "The Help," based on the best-selling Kathryn Stockett novel about an insecure Southern lady who doesn't fit in with the society dames in 1960s Jackson, Miss.

And she says that, for a change, she's actually in an amusing role. "After seeing it, my agent came up to me and said, 'Jessica, you're actually funny!' "

"The Help" is scheduled to open in August.

Chastain, who was in Austin this week for a special Austin Film Society screening of "Tree," conducted more interviews Tuesday.

But one thing was noticeably different: While still animated in her discussions of movies, she was hobbling after hurting her knee in a motocross accident. And she has taken plenty of ribbing for the injury.

"At the end of filming 'The Tree of Life,' Brad gave the three boys (in the movie) dirt bikes. And I was so nervous about their getting hurt. So I gave them laptops.

"And when Hunter (McCracken, the young actor who plays Jack) saw me on crutches (in Austin this week), he really got a kick out of teasing me," she said.

"He knows that I'm a vegan, and he said, 'If you'd put some meat on your bones, you wouldn't get hurt.' "

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931