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Jessica Chastain on Scents and the Stage

The actress — who is a new ambassador of Yves Saint Laurent’s latest women’s fragrance, Manifesto — has long had an emotional connection with the brand.

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PARIS — Jessica Chastain — the ambassador of Yves Saint Laurent’s newest women’s fragrance, Manifesto — has long had an emotional connection with the brand.

This story first appeared in the August 17, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

At the tender age of 12, a favored aunt who wore YSL’s Opium gave her a bottle containing just a smidgen of the scent, recalled the actress with eyes a-twinkle.

“When I was a young girl, I would look at her and think she is so glamorous,” said Chastain, sitting in a suite at the Royal Monceau hotel here. “Everyone else in school was wearing Electric Youth [by] Debbie Gibson, or something really youthful; they smelled like peaches. I came to school wearing Opium, which is so mature,” she laughed.

The spicy oriental scent allowed Chastain to channel her aunt’s womanly aura. “It made me feel glamorous; it made me feel grown-up,” she continued.

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Likewise, Chastain today wears a different fragrance for each role she takes on to help slip into character. Chastain adopted the practice after a waft of hair spray from a passerby triggered a flood of recollections one day.

“It was a hair spray that I used to wear in the fifth grade,” said Chastain. “And immediately, I felt everything I felt when I was in the fifth grade. You know, all these memories came back — everything about my bedroom just hit me at once. That moment was the first time I realized how powerful smell is, how emotional it is and [how] it is connected to our memories.

“Every woman, every person to me has their own smell,” continued Chastain, who sometimes discusses a role she’s playing with her friend Fabrice Penot, cofounder of Le Labo fragrance brand, who then suggests a scent that would best evoke the character in question. For her part as Mrs. O’Brien in the Terrence Malick-directed “The Tree of Life,” for instance, she wore Le Labo’s orange blossom fragrance.

Representing Manifesto has been a new challenge for Chastain, since for the first time it’s meant taking on the role of herself.

“For acting, even though I am in my characters, I don’t see it as me,” she explained. “Having Jessica Chastain be the ambassadress of the fragrance — it’s a very vulnerable thing. It’s not something I really thought that I would do before until, of course, Yves Saint Laurent called. If you’re going to do something like this, it’s a very big deal to do it for Yves Saint Laurent. But what it does is it makes you very vulnerable because you don’t have a character to hide behind.”

However, Chastain also got to play an artist in the Manifesto film advertisement, which was lensed by Nicolas Winding Refn. She liked the idea of connecting fragrance with art.

“Every person looks at a painting and has their own emotional reaction to it, their own interpretation,” said Chastain. “It’s the same with perfume. You smell something, you have your own emotional reaction. There are many layers to a painting, many ideas — and the same with a perfume.”

Chastain said playing an artist is like playing an actress, since both create and live lives in which inspiration consumes them.

On July 2, Chastain — who has recently starred in films such as John Hillcoat’s “Lawless” and has been nominated for prizes like best supporting actress at the Academy Awards — went back in front of the camera in New York, filming the movie “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” with James McAvoy. Two months later, she was to begin rehearsals for the Broadway production of “The Heiress,” which opens in early September.

“The stage is a great challenge,” said Chastain, who began her career in the theater. “You’re responsible for the energy in the room. When you cry, [the audience is] with you; they cry. There’s a shared experience. It’s a great sense of community. I feel the audience, what they’re giving me. It means that you also can feel when they’re bored, when they’re not having a good time, when they don’t like the play or your performance. So it puts you in a very vulnerable position in that way. I’m not very good at blocking things out. I’m always trying to be connected to everything and everyone. And that is a great challenge. It’s something that I’m very scared of [going] back to. But I feel the desire, as an actress, to always challenge myself that way. You know, if there’s something I’m scared to do, I don’t want to run away from it.”

Some parts Chastain would love to try include Lady Macbeth and Rosalind — Shakespeare’s women.

“I think they’re wonderful female roles,” she said. “I know a lot of theater roles that I’ve loved so much, but then I think I’d love to play a villain in a film maybe with like a great accent and a scar on my face — something really very strong. I’m usually drawn to things I’ve never done.”

When it comes to fashion, Chastain’s style is hard to pinpoint.

“I like trying new things, just like I like playing different characters,” she said.

“When I go to a couture show, it’s like I am going to a museum and looking at paintings and art. It’s high fashion; it’s moving fashion,” she explained. “When I have the opportunity to wear a dress, I feel like I’m being given the gift of participating in the story that the designer has created. And it’s the same thing for me when I’m acting with costumes. I am very influenced by what I’m wearing — be it perfume, makeup, clothing.

Among Chastain’s favorite looks have been the Sarah Burton-created dress worn to the Oscars and a vintage YSL dress she sported at the Toronto Film Festival.

“It’s one of my favorites because it was so chic,” said Chastain, adding the fashion component is one more reason she’s happy to have signed on with the brand. “Now, I have an in at YSL to wear the clothes.”

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