April 13, 2024
In a new interview, the Sacramento-reared Academy Award winner reveals how a scholarship started by the late comedy star, and an early role in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production, affected the course of her career.

Academy Award-winning Jessica Chastain recently acknowledged some game-changing moments in her life and career, including professional boosts she received from Robin Williams and from the Palo Alto-based TheaterWorks Silicon Valley.

Chastain, who was born and reared in Sacramento, talked on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast about one of her first professional roles, playing Juliet in a 1998 TheatreWorks production of Romeo and Juliet. For reasons explained below, that role in Shakespeare’s classic, in turn, led Chastain to study drama at the prestigious Julliard School in New York City, where she received the Robin Williams Scholarship.

These two events, involving one of the Bay Area’s most famous cultural figures and one of its cornerstone theater companies (albeit one that is undergoing a desperate fundraising campaign to keep from closing), helped affect the course of Chastain’s path to film stardom, as she explained in the interview, which was taped in June, before the SAG-AFTRA actors union went on strike. In Chastain’s telling, Al Pacino also plays a key role in her professional narrative.

FILE – This June 15, 2007 file photo shows actor and comedian Robin Williams posing for a photo in Santa Monica, Calif. Williams, whose free-form comedy and adept impressions dazzled audiences for decades, died Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in an apparent suicide. Williams was 63. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File) 

Before Williams’ death in 2014, the late “Mrs. Doubtfire” star established a scholarship at Juilliard, which he attended as a scholarship student in the early 1970s, though he didn’t graduate. The scholarship covers full tuition for a drama student. Chastain said the scholarship covered all her expenses, including housing, for her final two years at the elite arts school.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college,” she told Maron.

As Chastain explained,  the scholarship was make or break for her future, given that she came from an impoverished background in Sacramento. For much of her childhood, she said her mother raised her and her siblings on her own, working multiple jobs to provide basic necessities, such as food.

“It’s expensive to live in New York and go to school,” Chastain said to Maron. She also explained how she had been a high school dropout — not because she spent her time doing drugs or drinking but because she preferred spending her time reading Shakespeare. After high school, she said she worked as a waitress, while earning college credits at Sacramento City College and auditioning for productions at regional theaters in Sacramento and in the Bay Area.

Jessica Chastain accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a leading role for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) 

Chastain said she was “terrified” during her first year at Julliard because the program is highly competitive and known for shedding low-performing students.

“I had taken out so many loans,” Chaistain continued. “I had four younger siblings. It was pretty intense. I thought, if they cut me from this program, all this money is down the tubes.”

With the scholarship, Chastain was able to stay at Julliard and gain the experience and connections that helped her take her next step in her career: Moving to Los Angeles and getting small roles in television, while also working theater.

Chastain told Maron she wrote Williams a note every year to thank him for the scholarship but never got to meet him in person. However, she said she once had a chance to speak to him when she saw him at a Los Angeles restaurant — but backed out because she didn’t want to come across as “rude.”

This image released by Searhlight Pictures shows Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker, center, and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker in a scene from “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” (Searchlight Pictures via AP) 

As it happened, Chastain was eating lunch with someone who had just asked her about the Robin Williams Scholarship. That’s when Williams, who had won an Oscar in 1998 for “Good Will Hunting,” walked in and took a seat at a nearby table. As Williams began to eat, Chastain said that her lunch companion told her, “Oh my God, you have to go over and talk to him.”

Chastain said she told her companion, “OK, I will but I’ll wait until he finishes his meal.” Unfortunately, Chastain told Maron, Williams got up to leave his table before the server came to remove his dishes.

“He ran out. I think he must have been late for something,” Chastain told Maron. “I jumped up to kind of chase him out of the restaurant.” But she said she then thought, “No, that’s crazy. That feels inappropriate.”

Chastain now regrets not approaching the actor, who died by suicide in 2014 in his Marin County home after a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia.

“I have such a regret because that was the only chance I had to meet him,” Chastain told Maron. “I didn’t get a chance to thank him in person.” That experience, Chastain said, taught her to be open to strangers approaching her in public to talk to her.

“Now I tell people: If anyone ever sees me and they want to say ‘hi,’ do it! Maybe, like, wait until I’m done eating, but if I’m running out of a restaurant, you can run with me,” Chastain said.

Al Pacino attends the Premiere Of Amazon Prime Video’s “Hunters” at DGA Theater on February 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images) Getty Photos

Of course, Chastain may never have been in the position to have admirers run after her, if she didn’t go to Julliard and graduate in 2003. She also told Maron it never would have occurred to her to go to Julliard in the first place if she hadn’t landed the role of Juliet in the 1998 TheatreWorks production. In the role, which marked her professional debut, she played opposite an actor who had just been accepted into Julliard.

“I thought, he’s not that much better than me,” Chastain said. “Maybe I could go!”

Chastain told Maron she performed one of Juliet’s famous monologues for her audition for Julliiard, when the girl expresses her love for Romeo — as well as her sexual desire for him. Chastain she played up the sexual desire in her audition, which took place in San Francisco. Given that Chastain talked to Maron in June, their interview was taped before it became known earlier this month that TheatreWorks may have to close due to COVID-19-related financial difficulties.

Some three years after Chastain graduated from Julliard in 2003, she experienced another career-changing event, when she came to the attention of Al Pacino. The legendary star of “The Godfather” and “Scarface” was looking for an actress to star in his production of Oscar Wilde’s tragedy “Salome.” Chastain has said in previous interviews that the production, at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles, helped bring her to the attention of several casting directors.

With Maron, Chastain recalled reading for the role and saying she could hear Pacino in the audience. Imitating the actor’s distinctively delivery, she said she could hear him saying, “Wow, she’s amazing!’” Chastain said Pacino was “the first person to really take me seriously.” She added, “He started my whole career.”