NEW YORK - How on earth did it take this long for Jessica Chastain to come to Hollywood's attention?  She's spending the day talking about her role as Maya, a hard edged CIA analyst on the difficult hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" and her genuine charisma is beyond infectious. She practically glows when talking about the project. Of course, the truth is it didn't take Hollywood that long.  Chastain booked her first major movie role over three years ago and shot six other movies before "The Tree of Life" finally brought her to moviegoers attention in May, 2011.  Three months later "The Help" hit theaters and she went from relative unknown to finding herself recognized on the street.

In actuality, 2012 was a rather slow year for Chastain, besides "Zero Dark" she only had two other releases: "Madagascar 3" and "Lawless." The most anticipated of those pictures, however, was "Zero Dark." Not only because of its subject matter, but because it is Bigelow's follow up to the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker." When I ran into Chastain at a special awards season celebration for "The Help" a little over a year ago she could barely contain her enthusiasm over being cast in the role.

"At that moment i was talking to you I think I was more excited about the prospect of working with Kathryn Bieglow and to play this amazing character who is a real woman," Chastain recalls.  "There was three months of prep before I even arrived in Jordan and I had to start to work on the film. But I'm surprised I didn't spill the beans to you because I'm the worst at keeping a secret. And the second I was cast I wanted to just shout it from the rooftops. 'I'm playing this amazing woman!'"

Actually, Chastain did tell me she was doing Bigelow's new movie, but she also asked that we keep it off the record and so it remained.

While last year found the 32-year-old actress earning her first Academy Awards nomination in the best supporting actress category for "The Help" most expect her to return to the Dolby Theater next month as a frontrunner to win best actress.  She's already been lauded for her performance by the National Board of Review and Washington D.C. Critics and earned SAG Awards and Golden Globes nominations. And if the role isn't showy enough for you on screen, then you haven't seen enough of Chastain off.  She's clearly nothing like Maya.

"I'm not playing Jessica Chastain as a CIA agent. I'm far too emotional and a bunch of a hippie to be a CIA agent even though I would like be a spy," Chastain teases. "I needed to do as much research as possible, so I needed to have the script.  I would have daily sessions with Mark Boal and it was like going to school. What exactly are the different departments of the CIA. I read a lot of books and I talked to some people involved. I needed to do as much research on the woman as possible."

Maya is based on a real life analyst working in the CIA who worked on the Bin Laden case for almost a decade. Because she's still active within the agency Chastain never met her but she believes she knows why the agent became so obsessed with finding the notorious Al Qaeda mastermind.

"I believe she had a calling. She felt she was chosen," Chastain says. "In the scene with Edgar Ramirez's character she says 'A lot of my friends have died trying to do this and I believe I was chosen to finish the job.' That's exactly how she felt. If you see her at the beginning of the movie and see her at the end of the movie, you just took a screenshot of it and you see where she is it's like a different person. She shows up in the beginning in her best suit right out of school thinking,  'O.K., I'm gonna come and talk to terrorists and do some interrogation.'  And she is way out of her league. She did not know it was going to get this intense. We start to see her there and then over the 10 year journey, lose herself. So, finally at the end when they say, 'Where do you want to go?' She has no idea where she would go. Where does she belong? Who is she? And this is what I love for what Kathryn did with the film, 'Who are we as a country now?'"

You can find out more about Chastain's experiences making "Zero Dark Thirty" in our extended interview embedded at the top of this post.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is now playing in limited release. It opens nationwide on Jan. 11.