Jessica Chastain is getting Oscar buzz for her role in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Handout )
For the second consecutive year, Jessica Chastain could be nominated for an Oscar.
Last year, her touching performance as Southern sexpot Celia Foote in "The Help" earned her a best supporting actress nod. She's now a favorite to land a best actress nomination for her gritty performance as a young CIA agent in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."
The film, which is based on actual events leading up to the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden, is considered a strong contender in several categories when the nominees are announced Thursday.
Awards season, according to the Julliard-trained actress, is akin to dancing non-stop for three months. But Chastain, who is now appearing on Broadway in "The Heiress" and will be seen in the upcoming horror flick "Mama," is just happy to be in the mix.
"I'm a crazy person," she told reporters during a roundtable discussion in New York recently. "I think my first film came out 1 1/2 years ago. I'm real lucky to do what I do but I'll tell you right now, it's a very strange thing to be talking about this film and be talking about Maya and go, 'OK, at 6:30 I'm going to start putting my nose on and putting my hair in pin curls and go on stage.' It's a great gift."
Chastain will have to miss a few Broadway performances once the awards ceremonies get underway--including this weekend's Golden Globe Awards, for which she is also a nominee.
The awards are high praise for playing a role based on a real CIA officer Chastain wasn't allowed to meet because she is still an active undercover agent.
"I did do a lot of research with (screenwriter) Mark Boal and it really, really helps you when your screenwriter is an investigative journalist," Chastain said. "I had to approach it like any other character I was playing, so any questions I could answer through the research, I did."
Chastain was actually surprised to learn that a woman was involved with planning the siege on bin Laden's Pakistan compound two years ago. "I was a little disgusted with myself that I was shocked," she said. "Why wouldn't a woman be involved?"
She learned that the real Maya was essentially recruited out of high school and quickly groomed to track terrorists. Chastain used her imagination to fill in the gaps.
"I was thinking about her as a computer who was really good with facts and details and putting the puzzle together," she said. "And what happens when that woman is put in a situation that is much bigger than she ever imagined that she'd be involved in--not only dealing with the terrorists but coming up against superiors who don't believe in the way you lead. ... What I love so much about the script is that we do see moments when she falters."
She also tried to find a little bit of Maya in herself.
"The character of Maya is very different from me because I am a very emotional girl, sensitive. I like to have a good time and I'm very smiley," she said. "But even though she's very different, there is something that is similar and that's being in love with work. I can understand that passion. Not to the extent that she does--I'm nowhere near the amazing woman Maya is, but I do understand that."
Chastain has been praised for delivering nuanced performances; it's one of the reasons Bigelow thought that she was right for "Zero Dark Thirty."
"The finely calibrated nuances of the emotions within a character that had to be so precise," Bigelow said. "That's something I don't think I've ever seen. It's certainly a testament to her."
Chastain credits Bigelow and Boal for pulling those emotions out of her.
"I'm playing a character who is trained to be unemotional and analytically precise," she said. "As an actor you spend your whole life trying to be emotional and keeping yourself emotionally open. To find the humanity within that and that arc was a great feat that would have been impossible without Kathyrn and Mark's leadership."
Miki Turner is a RedEye special contributor.