Dan Steinberg / Associated Press file

Jessica Chastain in December attends the Los Angeles premiere of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Leading up to Oscar night: How Jessica Chastain emerged

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10AANDE
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 - 10:23 am

Jessica Chastain, vying for the lead-actress Oscar at tonight's Academy Awards for her performance in "Zero Dark Thirty," seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011, appearing in several high-profile films, including "The Help," for which she received her first Academy Award nomination.

But she didn't come out of nowhere. She came out of prestigious New York acting school Juilliard, and before that, Sacramento. Before Chastain, 35, was busy making movies, she appeared on local stages and worked in area restaurants. She also attended El Camino High School and Sacramento City College.

Here's a look at the evolution of the most successful actor with Sacramento ties since Tom Hanks:

• Chastain had key roles in an astonishing 12 films in the past two years – or about twice as many as Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook"), front-runner in the lead-actress category.

• She won great notices as the long-suffering wife in "Tree of Life" and as an Israeli secret agent in "The Debt," both from 2011. But her truly standout role that year was the one for which she was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar – a sweet 1960s housewife who does not fit in with her judgmental neighbors in "The Help."

• Chastain recently completed a three-month Broadway revival of "The Heiress," playing a monied, vulnerable young lady opposite Dan Stevens as the woman's possibly shady suitor. Stevens spent three years playing Matthew on "Downton Abbey." So you know that even if Chastain loses tonight, her Sunday night will be better than Stevens' was last Sunday.

• In the mid- to late- 1990s, Chastain appeared in several Sacramento productions, including "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival. "She was probably around 19, but she just got it," her "Ado" co-star John Lamb, now a regular at Sacramento's B Street Theatre, told The Bee in 2012. "She was just one of those actors who was very intuitive."

• Like a lot of aspiring actors, Chastain waited tables to make ends meet. In 1997, she worked at the Downtown Plaza's River City Brewing Co. with Adam Pechal, now co-owner and chef at Sacramento's Tuli Bistro.

"It was ages ago, and we didn't work together for very long, maybe six months, but she made a strong impression," Pechal emailed about Chastain. "As a restaurateur in the making, I always appreciated the talents of my co-workers and she certainly was good at her job."

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