See Jessica Chastain -- Before She Was Famous (EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS)

Long before "Zero Dark Thirty," the Oscar nominee showed off her star potential in a stage production of "Romeo and Juliet."

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On Sunday evening, Zero Dark Thirty star Jessica Chastain will compete against Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, Naomi Watts and Quvenzhane Wallis for the biggest accolade in Hollywood: the Academy Award for Best Actress.

But back in 1998, such accolades were just a dream for the then-20-year-old as she appeared in a San Francisco Bay area production of Romeo and Juliet.

“Jessica was a really talented actress in our production of Romeo and Juliet, and I had a feeling she would go on to have an amazing career even back then," Theatreworks director Robert Kelley told Celebuzz.

Chastain played Juliet in the production opposite another aspiring young actor, Travis Engle. Set in war-torn Londonderry, Northern Ireland, the production of the Shakespearean classic mixed boisterous brawls and soaring Celtic music as the young couple tried to find love amid the city’s Catholic and Protestant divide.

And now, as tension builds ahead of the Oscars, Kelley is lifting the lid on what it was like working with his former protege.

“With her flaming red hair, Jessica was perfect for the part, and she was really excellent in the production. Her facial expressions and delivery were perfect, and she really got the Irish accent down too," he said.

“Jessica was great with the other actors, and she was a real leader of the company. We could all see the beginnings of a wonderful actress. We wrote up a recommendation for her for Juilliard School in New York, and it is to her testament that she has gone on to have both a successful career both on Broadway and in film too.”

The Sacramento-born actress is seen as a favorite to mine Oscar gold on Sunday -- she already won the Golden Globe for her performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty thriller about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is up for a total of five awards including Best Picture, but Kelley and the rest of his team will be most interested in the Best Actress category.

And he hopes that his protégé will one day return to work at the theater company that helped launch her to superstar status.

“We will all be absolutely be rooting for Jessica at the Oscars, and I think her nomination is very deserving," he said. “Hopefully, she can win the award and can come back to work with us once again at Theatreworks.”

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