Jessica Chastain wanted to learn everything she could about Tammy Faye Bakker.
To transform into the fallen televangelist for the upcoming biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Chastain, 44, did almost 10 years of research including reading up about and watching interviews of Tammy, who died at age 65 in 2007 after colon cancer spread to her lungs. “I just was so blown away by her and her story,” Chastain tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The thing I loved the most about Tammy is her capacity to love. She knew what it felt like to not feel important, and she didn’t want anyone to experience that.”
Chastain was first moved by Tammy’s story after watching the documentary of the same name as the film and revisiting it in 2012. “It really touched me in that moment,” she says. The biopic, for which Chastain also serves as producer, tells the story of Tammy and her first husband Jim Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield), who grew their Christian news program, the PTL Club, into a multimillion dollar industry before it collapsed following a sex scandal involving Jim and Jessica Hahn.
“Here’s a woman that I had an idea of because of what I was fed about her,” adds Chastain of Tammy. “Even the thing about the mascara running down her face. There is not one picture of her with mascara running down her face in reality. But people were always making her into a clown and punishing her for the mistakes of her husband, which all throughout history women have been the victim of, atoning for the sins of men.”
The actress also felt compassion for Hahn. “I found an article where Jessica was interviewed and she basically said she was re-traumatized over and over again, by people talking about the incident and about her and that she wanted to be left alone,” Chastain says. “It really helped me understand. Also because Tammy and Jessica never met, it wasn’t appropriate to use her past as salacious gossip and to further victimize her.”
Chastain’s transformation into Tammy meant four hours a day in the makeup chair applying intense makeup, prosthetics and wigs. “Every moment, I had something on my face,” says the actress, who worked with her longtime makeup artists Linda Dowds and Stephanie Ingram as well as Justin Raleigh. “I have a dimple in my chin that she didn’t have, so we would seal that up. Her face was more round than mine, so I would have things on my cheeks. Their expertise just helped me so much with my confidence in playing her.”
As for Tammy, who married property developer Roe Messner in 1993, Chastain says she was most surprised watching her interview with Christian gay minister and AIDS patient Steve Pieters, which fueled Tammy’s later involvement and support of the LGBTQ movement. “That’s really why I wanted to make the movie,” Chastain allows. “Because in a time when people were even afraid to say AIDS, we had this female televangelist. And she was a minister too in her own right. She wasn’t just the preacher’s wife, the singer. The interview is phenomenal. It’s so beautiful and loving. And it’s such a huge turning point in terms of what people could associate God’s grace with, because I feel like she was filled with grace.”
Though Tammy and Hahn never met physically, the two women spoke once on the phone before Tammy died. According to Hahn, “Tammy said to her, ‘Oh, honey, if I was with you right now, I would just throw my arms around you,'” Chastain says. “I just want people to leave the theater feeling like she was there, and she did throw her arms around everyone.”
Chastain says it was most important to her that the end of the movie leave no doubt of Tammy’s unshakeable belief in love. “I found a video of her singing a song, and she turned to the camera and said, ‘God loves you just the way you are,'” says the actress. “Whatever God means to anyone. I’ve never been baptized. I didn’t grow up within a church, but I do believe in unconditional love. We are all part of this world, part of humanity and part of grace. No matter where you come from, you are perfect, and you are fully and unconditionally loved. And that’s what I hope people leave the theater knowing.”
The Eyes of Tammy Faye will hit theaters on Sept. 17.