Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain tells Jeremy Kay about shooting Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller - and her long road to fame.

It is the day after she picked up the best dramatic actress Golden Globe for Zero Dark Thirty and Jessica Chastain is sitting in the mezzanine lobby of the Arclight Hollywood cinema. “Oh yeah,” she grins when asked if winning the award was a surprise. “They showed me the footage and it was embarrassing because I was making these faces and I said ‘Oh my God’ about 16 times on the way to the stage.”

Most of her day has been taken up with interviews and onstage Q&As, yet Chastain remains alert and friendly. “Whenever someone says you’re going to get a nomination, I always think it’s not going to happen,” she says.

“Maybe it comes from too much self-doubt. Being in that room with Jodie Foster, George Clooney and Kathryn Bigelow, I felt this amazing support and I felt I could do anything.”

Nominations have come Chastain’s way before. Last season her turn as ditzy Celia Foote in The Help garnered Globes and Oscar attention. This time she has beguiled critics and voters with a very different character in the form of steely CIA operative Maya. Many believe the Academy Award is hers for the taking.

While Chastain is poised to become a household name, the road to fame was a long one.

“Everyone thinks it’s been this overnight thing but saying that really diminishes the work and the struggle,” she says. “I have worked for a very long time. I studied at Juilliard. I did a lot of theatre and moved to LA. It was difficult because after working so hard at school a lot of people I was meeting didn’t care about Juilliard or theatre and it felt like, ‘OK where do I go from here?’”

Chastain won occasional guest spots on TV shows and shot “many, many” pilots, but for the first four years could not land a single movie role.

The breakthrough came in 2006. “Al Pacino cast me in Salomé,” she says. “We did the play and when you’re an unknown with Al Pacino it helps a lot. Then he cast me in the movie version [Wilde Salomé].”

The work began to materialise. Terrence Malick cast her opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, she won the role of Celia in The Help, starred alongside Michael Shannon in Take Shelter and worked with John Madden on The Debt and Ralph Fiennes on Coriolanus.

“I was making movies,” says Chastain, “but then I got unlucky. [Wilde Salomé] is the first movie I made and it still hasn’t come out. The Tree of Life took three years to edit. The Debt was ready and then Miramax got sold. There were so many things that stalled.”

By happy coincidence all her movies bar Wilde Salomé were finally released in 2011 and the critical response was tremendous. “It was like this explosion,” she says. “The characters were so different. When I was auditioning, people didn’t have the baggage of having seen me in another performance. I know Hollywood tries to typecast you.”

Chastain wanted to keep things fresh. “After The Tree of Life came out, I immediately got all these scripts for the housewife and mother role. That’s why after that I signed to do Mama [the horror movie that opened in the US on Jan 18, topping the box office]. I thought, ‘OK Hollywood, I’m going to go from Malick to genre.’”

The next shot

By the time Bigelow approached Chastain in November 2011 to play Maya, the actress had earned plenty of awards season attention for The Help and was ubiquitous.

“It has been a dream come true,” she says of working with the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker. “The one thing about last year’s awards is it opens up doors, so people like Kathryn Bigelow ask you to be in a movie.”

Chastain felt an immediate kinship with the character of Maya, based on the real life of a CIA operative who met screenwriter and producer Mark Boal, and inspired him to write the part.

“Kathryn, like Maya, puts her work before her,” says Chastain. “She doesn’t talk about the glass ceiling in Hollywood, which is like Maya in her work. She doesn’t talk about difficulties. She says, ‘OK here’s my work’ and when the work is that good you cannot argue with it.”

Chastain had three months from being cast to start of production to immerse herself in the role. She had to keep quiet about Maya - whose role in tracking down Osama bin Laden was uncovered by Boal in a typically brazen piece of investigative journalism - and managed to do so for a year.

“It was painful because she is such an incredible woman. There was a rumour I was playing a Navy SEAL wife,” she says with a laugh.

In the run-up to the shoot in Jordan, India and the UK, Chastain consulted Boal, whom she dubbed “the professor”, on all matters CIA and counter intelligence. At his behest she read Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer winner The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and Michael Scheuer’s biography of the terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

The shoot in early 2012 was arduous, with reports of off-camera tears, which Chastain has attributed to the stress of the job. “The most difficult experience of my life,” is how she describes it. “[There was] the responsibility of the story we were telling, the secrecy we had to keep, the difficulty of the locations we were shooting in, and the guerilla-style shoot. It was very, very intense.”

She did not meet the woman on whom Maya is based and says only that the person is undercover, working somewhere in the world. Similarly she will not specify who, if anyone, she spoke to in the intelligence community.

“We live in a world,” she says, “where a CIA agent was jailed for three years for talking about waterboarding.” She pauses and smiles. “I really believe the story we told is the truth.”

Male expectations of female roles kicked in when Columbia Pictures released the film, which was financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. Chastain notes: “All the questions I was getting from journalists were, ‘Why didn’t the character have a boyfriend?’ I kept thinking, ‘Why is everyone freaking out about this?’ and I realised it’s because we’re not used to seeing women in films who are defined by their work and not their personal life.

“[Maya] rubs people the wrong way. I like it when heroes do things that sometimes are unlikeable. There was an article in The Washington Post where the writer researched the real Maya and was told how she had been passed over for promotion because she’s not an easy person.

“Maya stood on her own and was married to her job and Kathryn and Mark didn’t try to turn it into the Hollywood version.” She pauses and adds, “Kathryn is doing so much for women.”

Looking ahead, Chastain wants to keep mixing things up. “I love being able to play characters I’ve never played before that will teach me something. I was inspired by Vanessa Redgrave on Coriolanus. She has this childlike wonder. That’s what I want.”