Jessica Chastain and Judith Ivey bond backstage

Associated Press
This Sept. 13, 2012  photo shows Jessica Chastain, left, and Judith Ivey, co-stars of the play "The Heiress," posing for a portrait at the Empire Hotel in New York. "The Heiress," based on the Henry James novel "Washington Square," is the story of a plain woman who is forced to choose between her dismissive father and a charming suitor. (Photo by Dan Hallman/Invision/AP)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Jessica Chastain has been called many things. Time magazine declared her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Vanity Fair said she is among the Best Dressed. And she is the current holder of Victoria's Secret's "Sexiest Smile."

Chastain has her own title — Hopeless Theater Nerd.

"I used to watch the Tonys every year and I'd record it on my VHS and then throughout the year I'd watch the dance numbers over and over. It was the closest I could get to seeing a Broadway show," she says. "I know. Such a nerd."

A nerd with a smile these days: Chastain has captured another label — Broadway Leading Lady. She's playing the title role in "The Heiress," based on the Henry James novel "Washington Square."

It's the story of a plain woman — the stunning Chastain has to use all her Juilliard training on that — who is forced to choose between her dismissive father played by David Strathairn and a charming suitor, played by Dan Stevens.

Her big debut is especially sweet because she gets to share it with Judith Ivey, a two-time Tony Award winner and one-time cast member of "Designing Women" who was an idol for the younger actress when she was growing up in California.

Chastain, who was president of her drama club and played Auntie Mame in high school, recalls collecting anthologies of Broadway shows and distinctly remembers seeing Ivey in a photo from "Hurlyburly," the 1984 show that earned Ivey her second Tony.

"I was superexcited to work with Judy," Chastain says.

THE BATON IS PASSED

For her part, 61-year-old Ivey has grown very fond of her 35-year-old co-star.

"Through the weeks we've been working together, every time I want to go and tell her what a great job she was doing, I would always burst into tears. And I would think, 'What is wrong with me?'" says Ivey, who plays an aunt to Chastain's character.

"I finally figured it out: It's watching a young actress so beautifully succeed," she says. "It's like the baton being handed over, in a way. Although I was thinking that my baton is pretty beat up. I think she's got a nice shiny one."

Ivey has one advantage over Chastain as they embark on the play — stage experience. This is Ivey's 10th Broadway show. "It feels very familiar and comforting," the older actress says. "I like being in these old theaters and that curtain going up."

Although Chastain is no stranger to the stage — she played the title role of Salome opposite Al Pacino in Los Angeles — this is her Broadway debut and she isn't taking it lightly.

"It's a very high-profile thing. You're kind of showing up holding a target, do you know?" says Chastain, who earned an Academy Award nomination for "The Help" and who next stars in "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

"I remember being at Juilliard and going out to see all the plays and I would get so sick of movie stars. I was just like, 'Oh, why do they always cast movie stars in these roles?'"

BONDING OVER HURT

Chastain and Ivey first met, appropriately enough, in a theater. They both had signed on to do "The Heiress" and happened to be seeing a production of "Uncle Vanya" at the SoHo Rep when Chastain spotted Ivey.

"I knew she was going to do it but we hadn't met. So I went over to her and I was like, 'Hello. I'd like to introduce myself to you,'" says Chastain, sitting beside her new friend in Ivey's dressing room at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

"Like she needed to," says Ivey, laughing.

Since then, the two have found lots to bond over. Chastain says that one recent morning on her day off she watched the entire second season of "Game of Thrones," and Ivey laughs that she did the same thing for "The Killing."

"I got so sucked into that. I was like, 'All right, I'll just watch one more," Ivey says.

"I know! And then you're up all night. 'I just need to see how it ends,'" says Chastain.

It also turns out they both worked with William Hurt — he was with Ivey in "Hurlyburly" and Chastain just recently played his daughter in the upcoming movie "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby." They both conclude he is amazing.

And both actresses just happen to be moving into new apartments — Ivey to the Upper West Side and Chastain a few blocks from Washington Square, where their new play is set.

That prompts Ivey to joke about her new friend: "She's a Method actor."

And then they both burst out laughing.

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Online:

http://www.theheiressonbroadway.com

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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