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Jessica Chastain on Her Career Turning Points and Commitment to Female Filmmakers

Expect modesty from Jessica Chastain, as the petite screen powerhouse prepares to follow in the footprints of Marilyn Monroe and Rosalind Russell, two of her big-screen idols. The pair knelt down by wet cement following their hit 1953 musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

“I’d seen the pictures of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe together,” says Chastain, a Sonoma, Calif., native who first visited Hollywood when she was 19. “That was meaningful to me. That was the big one I remember. It’s a special one. I put my hands in the handprints and dreamed of someday being an actress.”

On Nov. 3, Chastain’s hands and feet will also be imprinted at the TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt, an event coinciding with her latest, “Miss Sloane,” which follows a Washington lobbyist shooting down the gun lobby. EuropaCorp opens the John Madden-directed film Nov. 25.

“[I’m] blown away,” says Chastain. “When I was invited [for the imprint ceremony], I didn’t feel like I’ve been acting that long in the industry. I, thought, ‘No! Are you serious?’”

The two-time Oscar nominee, for her performances in “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” credits two turning points for her career success. The first was playing “Salome” opposite Al Pacino at L.A.’s Wadsworth Theatre in 2006.

“That production opened professional doors,” says Chastain. “Al Pacino was my acting teacher for a year. He’s one of the world’s greatest living film actors.”

Next, Terrence Malick cast her in 2011’s “The Tree of Life.”

“I was a complete unknown opposite Brad Pitt at height of his career,” she says. “Of the films I’ve been in, it’s probably my favorite emotionally and personally.”

Like CIA agent Maya in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” in her latest role, she is Elizabeth Sloane, an unconventional female lead, a type that Chastain relishes to play.

“What I love about Elizabeth Sloane is how messy she is,” says Chastain. “We see men play messy characters like this from their sex lives to their personal lives and it’s not a big deal. I really like that she’s a female character behaving the way leading men do.”

But playing Elizabeth Sloane differs from Maya “because that character has this one quest: finding Osama bin Laden. When she achieves that, she doesn’t know what she’s doing in her life. In contrast, Sloane is an addict whose addiction is winning. Everything is for the win and for that high. She’ll sacrifice anything and everyone to win.”

Off-screen, Chastain commits herself wholeheartedly to gender equality in Hollywood. She launched Freckle Films to develop female-driven material. The production company optioned Greer Macallister’s novel “The Magician’s Lie” about a female illusionist accused of her husband’s murder. The actress will also appear in Niki Caro’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife” on March 31, and just wrapped Susannah White’s “Woman Walks Ahead.”

“A few years ago I took stock,” says Chastain. “I spend a majority of my life on film sets. What am I contributing to the world? How am I helping: am I asking questions about how our society runs and who we value and who we listen to and who we ignore? I’ve always worked with female directors. I’m looking to work with a female filmmaker every year. That’s my goal. They’re not given the same opportunities so if I have any influence in choosing a film or a script or finding a director I’m absolutely going to make a difference. That doesn’t mean I’m excluding men — it means I need some balance in my life.”

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