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Why televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker was the hardest role of Jessica Chastain’s career

Jessica Chastain’s whole body was shaking. She’d never been this nervous on a film set — not with the kind of anxiety that gave her trouble breathing.

What am I so afraid of? The thought reverberated in her head. She’d played a superhero so powerful she could rearrange the structure of matter. The ringleader of a high-stakes underground Hollywood poker game. A CIA analyst who took down Osama bin Laden.

But this was Tammy Faye Bakker, the infamous televangelist recognized more for her heavy makeup than the fact that her husband, Jim, stole millions from his own parishioners. To play her, Chastain would put on gobs of mascara and lip liner, adopt a thick Minnesotan accent and belt out songs about loving Jesus.

“I was scared the people were going to make fun of me,” the actor recalled of her on-set jitters. “And there’s going to be a lot to make fun of if I fail because it’s so out there. I’m swinging for the fences here.”

But that was the reality Bakker — who died in 2007 after a long bout with cancer — faced every day. Remembering the ridicule Bakker endured — and ultimately ignored — allowed Chastain to quell her panic: “You have to let go of your ego and wanting to look cool. This is connecting you to her.”

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” out Sept. 17, will mark the culmination of Chastain’s near-decade-long journey to bring Bakker’s story to the big screen. In 2012, while on the press tour for “Zero Dark Thirty,” she was switching through the TV channels in her hotel room when she stumbled across a documentary on Bakker. Chastain had seen the film — directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey in 2000 —- before, but on this night she connected with it on a different level.

So she secured the rights to the doc, which had the same name as the eventual feature film. She had yet to establish her production company, Freckle Films, but still found a home for the project at Fox Searchlight. The studio will debut the film next month at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the 44-year-old Chastain will receive the event’s Tribute Actor Award.

She has another movie playing at the festival — “The Forgiven,” a drama co-starring Ralph Fiennes — and also will appear in an HBO limited-series remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” beginning Sept. 12.

From her home in the countryside of New York, where only birdsong interrupted her speech, Chastain spoke to The Times about playing Bakker.


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