The daughter of a fireman father and a vegan chef mother, Chastain grows up one of five children in Northern California. Her grandmother takes her to see a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, in which a girl close to her age stars as the narrator, inspiring her to act. "I was the kid who would always say, 'Oh, I'm going to be an actor!' And the adults would look at me and go, 'Hmm, sure you will!'" she tells U.K. newspaper The Telegraph. "I was always having to convince my family." After graduating from high school, Chastain enrolls at Juilliard.
Prior to graduating in 2003, Chastain signs a one-year holding deal with producer John Wells, the creator of ER and The West Wing. She makes her small-screen debut on a 2004 episode of the medical drama and appears several times on Law & Order from 2005 to 2006, but fails to make a major impact in Hollywood. "When I first moved to Los Angeles, I don't think anyone knew what to do with me," she says. "There's something about me that's … different, not modern. I was auditioning a lot for the crazy characters or the victim, someone who'd been attacked. Which is great, because usually those are the best acting roles."
Chastain scores a major break when Al Pacino helps cast her in a Los Angeles stage production of Oscar Wilde's Salome, and later directs her in his film adaptation, Wilde Salomé. "Besides Juilliard, Al is my other great teacher," she tells The New York Times. The legendary actor also recommends Chastain to director Terrence Malick, who at the time is beginning to cast his newest film.
Beating out bigger-name actresses for the role, Chastain stars as Brad Pitt's wife in The Tree of Life, Malick's experimental exploration about the meaning of life. "I tend to just be brave and throw myself into a situation, and if I'm scared, it's probably going to be the best work," she says of her audition, which involves running lines with Malick at his Texas home. The film premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on May 11, 2011, and takes home the top prize, the Palme d'Or.
Chastain gets her first taste of blockbuster success with her role as Celia Foote in the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, The Help. The film sits atop the box office for four weeks, grossing more than $160 million, and scores the star her first Oscar nomination, as well as nods for costars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who eventually wins).
Appearing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara and Mia Wasikowska, Chastain graces the cover of Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue, and dishes on still being starstruck by the A-list. "I do it all the time, every time I meet a famous person," she says, sharing an anecdote about running into Meryl Streep after performing in a play. "I was so shocked by it, all I did was I held her hands and went, 'Thank you, thank you. It means so much to me that you came,'" she says.
The actress returns to the stage, making her Broadway debut as Catherine Sloper in a revival of the 1947 play The Heiress, opposite David Strathairn and Dan Stevens. "I always look for a great arc," she tells The New York Times. "It's very rare for a woman to get an arc. Catherine absolutely has that. She finds her voice, which is a wonderful thing to play."
Chastain takes on the real-life role of a CIA agent spearheading the manhunt for Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. "I wanted to get it right. It was because I felt so much responsibility towards this woman," she tells The Telegraph of the intense role. The controversial film claims the top spot at the box office in January 2013, after receiving Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for best picture, as well as best actress nods for Chastain.
The actress takes home the Golden Globe for best dramatic actress, and pays tribute to director Bigelow in her emotional acceptance speech. "You've said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles, but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you've done more for women in cinema than you take credit for," Chastain says, adding that her win is "an absolute dream come true."
Making her first public appearance with her boyfriend, Chastain steps out on the arm of Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo at the Women in Film 6th annual Pre-Oscar Cocktail Party. "He's in the fashion industry," the actress tells Katie Couric of her beau. "I have a rule I don't date actors, so he's not in the business, at all."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Yearbook Library; Alan Markfield/Getty; Everett; Dreamworks; Joan Marcus/AP; Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures; Kevin Winter/Getty; Bauer-Griffin