Jessica Chastain in the 2012 drama, "Zero Dark Thirty," for which she received her second Academy Award nomination.
In just the past few years, Chastain has gone from virtual unknown to one of the hottest names in Hollywood, with stellar performances in such films as "The Tree of Life," "The Help," "Take Shelter," and "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."
Of her recent success, she told CBS News' Tracy Smith, "There's something actually kind of freeing [about] the whole 'Who knows how long this is gonna last, so we might as well enjoy it.' It is such a lesson in living for this moment. And as an actor that's what you have to do. You have to be able to really be in the moment and be present and not have expectations. So as long as we are here, let's really put as much as we can into the moment.
"That's what I try to do when I act, and that's also what I try to do personally. I mean, if I wasn't an actor, I would be so incredibly shy that I would probably be in my house a lot (laughs)!"
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1977, Jessica Chastain knew from a very early age that an actor was what she was. "It wasn't like, 'I want to be an actor,'" she told CBS News' Tracy Smith. "I was like, that's what I am.
"My grandmother took me to a play when I was seven years old. 'Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,' I think it was. She said, 'Well, this is kind of a special occasion because this is a real theater (laughs). As a professional play, they do this for their job.'"
"And then I remember there was a little girl on stage, and as soon as I saw that a little girl was doing it as her job, it's just like clicked in my head: This is my job."
"I wasn't a great student. I wasn't so good at sitting in a desk and doing the math stuff. I had a great imagination, but I didn't know how to make it work in a public school system (laughs). But for some reason when I saw this girl onstage, immediately I knew this is what I'm supposed to do. There's something in me that wants to use my imagination and my creativity, and there's this closeness you feel with other actors when you're onstage, and this incredible connection."
After appearing in a TheatreWorks production of "Romeo & Juliet" in California, Chastain auditioned for the Juilliard School in New York City (left),
"The actor I was working with who was playing Romeo got into Juilliard," she recalled. "It felt like this faraway place that you had to be this insanely amazing person [to get in]. And of course the guy playing Romeo was amazing, but I thought, well, we're acting opposite each other, so maybe I could audition?"
Chastain was accepted, and earned a scholarship paid for by Juilliard alumnus Robin Williams.
Jessica Chastain in movement class at Juilliard, 2000-2001.
Juilliard students Michael Urie and Jessica Chastain in "Sir Patient Fancy," February 2003.
Jessica Chastain prepares her makeup for a role in the play "The King Stag" by Carlo Gozzi, 2003.
Following graduation, Chastain made some appearances in TV series, including "E.R." (left), "Law & Order," "Veronica Mars," and "Close to Home."
"I had a great first year," Chastain told Smith, "but then after that, I couldn't get auditions for films or anything. I was getting typecast as, like, guest star victims on TV shows. Or the weird ones, the ones that are kind of neurotic or crazy.
"And also, it was kind of sad to me that a lot of people that I was meeting hadn't heard about Juilliard. I actually had some meetings with casting directors who didn't know the school. And you think, after you spend so much time working so hard, working on Shakespeare and Chekhov and the classics, which I think are the hardest things to hone in -- and the most beneficial things to hone your skills -- to then go auditioning for little tiny things on TV shows [and] no one believes in you, when you first walk in.
"I remember looking at a lot of people in L.A., when we'd all be sitting there waiting to go in, and we all kind of looked defeated before we would go in to audition. And there's something kind of sad about that."
In 2006, almost out of the blue, Al Pacino asked Chastain to audition for a production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," which he was turning into a film. He said of Chastain, "I was looking at Marlon Brando. She was a prodigy."
However, apart from festival screenings, the movie was years from being released.
Actors Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain attend the after-party for Oscar Wilde's "Salome" on April 27, 2006 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Based on an E.L. Doctorow story, "Jolene" starred Jessica Chastain as a 15-year-old runaway from a foster home whose hard-luck journey involves demeaning life lessons of the kind only unsavory older men and lesbian prison guards can provide. Even critics who sniffed at the film found the positives in Chastain's performance.
"The Tree of Life"
For the long-awaited return to the screen of director Terrence Malick ("Days of Heaven"), "The Tree of Life" was both a deeply personal film of a Texas family in the 1950s, and an expansive meditation on life, the universe, the miracle of birth and the tragedy of death.
Chastain played the mother of three boys and the wife of Brad Pitt, in both flashback scenes of the boys' childhood, and in the film's wrenching moments, years later, following one son's death.
"The Tree of Life"
Jessica Chastain with Brad Pitt, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler in "The Tree of Life."
Terrence Malick spent at least two years editing the film, which meant Chastain's work would go unseen until 2011. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, and opened in the U.S. shortly after.
It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Cannes Film Festival
Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt attend "The Tree Of Life" premiere during the 64th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 16, 2011 in Cannes, France.
In "The Debt," a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, Jessica Chastain and Martin Csokas play Mossad agents in the 1960s, tasked with kidnapping a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin to bring him to justice in Israel.
In "Take Shelter" (2011), Jessica Chastain plays an Ohio housewife whose husband (Michael Shannon) becomes obsessed with building an underground storm shelter after experiencing apocalyptic visions of destruction.
Jessica Chastain, as Virgilia, starred opposite Ralph Fiennes in "Coriolanus," an updating of William Shakespeare's tale of a brilliant but ruthless general seeking revenge upon a Rome that had exiled him as a traitor. With Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox.
Jessica Chastain as the sweet, vivacious and none-too-handy-in-the-kitchen Celia Foote, who hires Octavia Spencer as a maid and confidant, in the 2011 film, "The Help." Both received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and Spencer won the Academy Award.
I've got your pie right here: Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote in "The Help."
Actress Jessica Chastain arrives at the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.
"Texas Killing Fields"
Jessica Chastain reteamed with her "Debt" co-star, Sam Worthington, in "Texas Killing Fields" (2011), in which they play two detectives on the hunt for a serial killer.
Adapted from Matt Bondurant's novel "The Wettest County in the World" (based on his family's colorful history), "Lawless" (2012) starred Tom Hardy as Forrest Bondurant, a Prohibition-Era bootlegger. Jessica Chastain is a woman who moves to the backwater Virginia county looking for peace and quiet, and finding little of it there.
"Zero Dark Thirty"
For "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), Jessica Chastain received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Maya, a CIA analyst whose singular will and laser-focus pushes through the agency's bureaucracy and tunnel vision, pursuing leads that prove fruitful in the hunt for terror leader Osama bin Laden.
Jessica Chastain, an Oscar-nominee for "Zero Dark Thirty," arrives at the Academy Award ceremony at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California.
Jessica Chastain made her Broadway debut in a 2012 production of Ruth and Augustus Goetz's "The Heiress," based on Henry James’ "Washington Square," about a wealthy woman and the mysterious man who courts her. With David Strathairn and Dan Stevens (left).
Jessica Chastain poses for photographer Annie Leibovitz as Merida, the adventurous princess from Pixar's animated film, "Brave," for an advertising photo commissioned by Disney Parks, in Cold Spring, N.Y., Sept. 25, 2013.
Jessica Chastain went Goth in the 2013 supernatural horror film, "Mama," co-written and directed by Andrés Muschietti, and executive-produced by Guillermo del Toro.
In 2014 Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska filmed del Toro's latest horror film, "Crimson Peak," due in theatres in Fall 2015.
"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." Written and directed by Ned Benson, the story of a happy couple hit by a heart-rending tragedy was produced as two separate films: "Him," told from the male protagonist's point of view, and "Her," told from hers. After they debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, the combined three-hour-plus films were then re-edited into a third version, titled "Them." All three versions are opening up in theatres this Fall.
When asked to described the story, Chastain said, "It begs the question, can you love someone enough to let them go, and hope that they could come back, but know that they may not?"
Weixler and Chastain
Actresses Jess Weixler (left) and Jessica Chastain, who were students together at Juilliard, pose during a photocall for their film, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," at the 67th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 18, 2014.
Jessica Chastain stars in "Miss Julie," director Liv Ullman's film adaptation of the August Strindberg play, about a Count's daughter who enters into a romantic and self-destructive relationship with the Count's manservant (Colin Ferrell).
Jessica Chastain and Colin Ferrell in "Miss Julie."
Plot points have been held close to the chests of the filmmakers responsible for Christopher Nolan's science fiction film, "Interstellar" (2014), but we do know that Jessica Chastain is in it.
"A Most Violent Year"
In the upcoming crime drama "A Most Violent Year" (2014), directed by J.C. Chandor ("Margin Call," "All Is Lost"), Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play a married couple whose family business is threatened by underworld elements that will require some, shall we say, push-back.
"The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby"
Jessica Chastain attends a Q&A at the official Academy Members Screening of "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby," at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International on September 11, 2014 in New York City.