Jessica Chastain found the model for the high-pitched Southern accent she uses as blonde bombshell and social outcast Celia Foote in “The Help” only one week before shooting started.
“I auditioned with the voice I used in (2008 pic) ‘Jolene’ but it wasn’t right,” Chastain says.
Then at a fundraiser, a woman chatting with Chastain turned out to be the mother of Kathryn Stockett, the author of the bestselling novel on which the movie is based. Chastain asked permission to record her voice, and then learned it for the role.
It was the final step in a long preparation.
“I’m obsessive. I work for months before I even show up on set,” says the Juilliard-trained California native.
She reread “The Help,” highlighting anything about Celia. The character was compared to Marilyn Monroe, but Chastain drew inspiration from the star’s early life as Norma Jean. Chastain watched all of Monroe’s movies, because it’s something Celia would have done, gained weight, and went blonde. She explored Celia’s psyche, asking herself questions like, “Why couldn’t she have children? Was she sexually abused?”
Her four-month preparation was just as specific for Mrs. O’Brien in “Tree of Life.” She studied paintings of Madonnas, read about cultivating grace and gratitude and not only learned about meditation but did so every day before coming to set.
“I was playing something bigger than human. I made her real through her relationship with her children but I was playing the embodiment of grace. One crossover from Celia to Mrs. O’Brien is both lived with open hearts.”
She credits both films’ directors — Tate Taylor and Terrence Malick — with bringing out her best performance. “They’re my guides. I try to take a film where my director is my teacher. It’s a master class,” says Chastain.
Without “Help” helmer Taylor in her corner, Chastain says she wouldn’t have been cast.
“He trusted that an actor can transform, that I would gain weight, change physically and my energy would become more sexual,” she says.
From her first reading with “Help” co-star Octavia Spencer, who plays Minny, the maid with whom Celia develops a deep friendship that changes both their lives, she knew they had to work together.
“There was something in our chemistry that would never be repeated,” Chastain says. “It made me fight even more to get the role. I wanted to tell that story of those two women.”