Jessica Chastain Once Got a 500% Salary Increase — for Her AND Her Costar
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When Jessica Chastain prepares for a role, she is meticulous about what her character wears, thinks, and even smells like — so she’s made a habit of choosing a signature fragrance for each part and wearing it until filming wraps.
As the charmingly aloof Celia Foote in The Help, the actress wore Chanel No. 5. As The Tree of Life’s ethereal matriarch Mrs. O’Brien, she spritzed on orange blossom. And when she was preparing to play a homicide detective in Texas Killing Fields, Chastain’s perfumer friend, familiar with her method, sent the two-time Oscar nominee a bespoke flacon labeled “Tough and Sexy Cop.” It wouldn’t be the last time she had an original scent commissioned to help bring a character to life. “I think about how they would define their personality in fragrance and wear that,” she says.
Today, Chastain likely leaves a scent trail of “Turkish rose florals juxtaposed with a more musky side, like cedarwood,” which is how the actress describes the notes of Woman by Ralph Lauren, for which she is a spokesperson. Framing womanhood in a way that is both sensual and powerful is at the heart of Ralph Lauren’s fragrance campaign #LeadLikeaWoman, for which Chastain has just starred in a video called Sisterhood of Leaders. The series trades the typical lusty perfume ad — the kind that features a concupiscent woman in a back-revealing gown, magnetically catapulted toward a desirous man — for mini-interviews with prominent Hollywood women in workwear talking about what it means to “lead like a woman” and, as Chastain puts it, challenge “the myth that women don’t support each other.”
The mission, she tells me, “is to open a dialogue about closing the leadership gap between women and men. It’s a groundbreaking moment right now, and women are stepping forward and changing the perception of what our sex is ‘supposed’ to be.’”
Chastain has been on this myth-busting mission since well before becoming its Ralph Lauren-anointed ambassador. “I guess The Help was the first time I was given the chance to work with an incredible group of women,” she says of the 2011 film, for which she received her first Academy Award nomination, the second being for Zero Dark Thirty. A conversation with her co-star Octavia Spencer later served as her wake-up call to the bleak reality that white women out-earn women of color across the workforce. The next time Chastain and Spencer worked on a film together, Chastain tied her to salary to Spencer's, demanding that they receive equal pay; in the end, as Time reported in January of this year, both women received five times the amount of their initial offer.
“With everything going on around our country, women speaking out about past abuses that they have suffered from, it’s important we remember that the power of a group is much stronger than the power of an individual,” she says. “When you’ve got someone who has your back, you can actually rest in between.”
Here, Chastain reveals the most important career advice she’s ever received, the actresses who’ve helped her through tough times, and what power smells like.
On support from fellow actresses… “I see it every day. For example, I don’t like speaking in public. I recently spoke at an event, and I didn’t know her very well, but Reese Witherspoon came over to my table and gave me a hug. Her eyes were kind of teary, and she said she was really moved by me, and she thanked me for sharing my voice. It was so moving to get that kind of immediate response when sharing yourself, and from someone with such a loving energy. That’s one thing I think about.”
On the biggest career lesson she’s learned… “As young girls, we for some reason have been programmed to apologize when an apology isn’t necessary. We’ve been taught to diffuse situations rather than to confront them head on. Very early on I was told when speaking up for something that I thought was right or something that I desired, to not undercut it with an apology, to be very straightforward — to be kind but to not laugh off my request in order to make it sound less forceful. It’s alright to be clear. It’s alright to be ambitious. It’s alright to make a request. That‘s something that was very beneficial to me.”
On an actor’s most valuable asset… “My girlfriends are really important to me, my colleagues are really important to me, and my relationships with women are really important to me in the industry, because that’s actually how you see more change.”
On the myth of cattiness… “I try to think of a time when I haven’t been supported and I can’t think of one. Ever since I started in this industry, I’ve only been around women who lift each other up. I love reality television when I want to turn my brain off, but sometimes it can be negative because what makes reality TV so addictive is watching people fight. You’re watching a Housewife and it feels exciting, but I don’t see that in real life.”
On her on-camera secret… “Sissy Spacek told me not to wear foundation. She didn’t wear foundation, and she told me that when we were doing The Help. Ever since then, it’s very, very rare. Usually in my filming work I don’t wear foundation unless it’s a character that needs to wear a lot of makeup. But in day-to-day life, it’s very rare that I wear it unless I’m on the red carpet.”
On the scent of power… “Woman is a scent that has two important things. We’re living in a time where femininity is evolving, so there is the white floral but also a more sensual, musky side, like sandalwood and cedarwood. I like that there’s two things going on at once — that’s what we’re understanding about what it’s like to be a woman today.”
On the power of scent… “Every time I smell Aqua Net it reminds me of being 12 years old and using way too much hairspray. I had the crazy, teased-up bangs you’d make flowers out of — I’d divide them into quarters, curl them up and curl them down and curl them side to side, and brush them out to create a big flower. It was not cute. If I smell cut grass, I remember summers of my childhood. Sometimes when I smell vanilla and a warm musk, it reminds me of my grandmother’s sweaters.”