In a short period since blasting out of a cannon on the big screen in Terence Malick’s Oscar nominated and Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life in 2011, Jessica Chastain has quickly built a resume of playing strong willed women. Alas, some are Greek tragic heroes, who reach for the stars, only to fall short; Tammy Faye Bakker being one of them. She, along with her husband Jim Bakker, built PTL into a massive multi-million dollar earning evangelical television network, a solid amount he siphoned for personal use, ultimately serving close to five years in jail. Tammy Faye Bakker meant a lot of things to a lot of people: a soulful Christian singer, a sensitive preacher who reached across the aisle to recognize the plight of LGBT during the AIDS epidemic, as well as material for late-night talk show hosts in her ambitious fashion and make-up sense. Chastain yearned to get under her skin and tells us how she prepared for the role in the Searchlight movie and produced it.
DEADLINE: When did you get the desire to play Tammy Faye Bakker? Was it after seeing the documentary?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: It was definitely after the documentary, and I saw that around the time of Zero Dark Thirty press. I was jet-lagged somewhere, and I thought, wow. First of all, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been made before as a film. She’s such an incredible character, but I think it was also that I was disappointed with how the media had told her story. And that Steve Pieters interview for me was such a radical act of love.
She really went against what the conservative evangelicals were saying at that time, and in some sense, the fear and the homophobia that was really prevalent in society across the board. I mean, the U.S. government wasn’t even talking about AIDS. So, what she did was so rebellious, such a radical act of love, and I wanted to celebrate that, and also, I think as an actress, I don’t think there’s a scarier part to play, because really, you know, your ass is on the line. The voice, the pitch is different, the accent is different. The singing, which is so embarrassing for me. I learned her songs and learned how to sing, you know. And then, also, this wonderful, ridiculous, camp quality that she loved and embraced. I mean, there’s so much in there that is just terrifying, but really, there’s a lot to tackle with this role.
DEADLINE: Was the project hard to get off the ground? Were you met with a resistance where you would go into the room, and people would say, “No, we’re not making a Tammy Faye movie?”
CHASTAIN: Well, it’s funny, because in some sense, I just discovered recently, when I first got the rights to make the movie from [documentary filmmakers] Fenton (Bailey) and Randy (Barbato), they really were like, “I don’t know that she can play Tammy.” They doubted it, because of course, Zero Dark Thirty had just come out, which is so different. Meeting me, they’re trying to picture me playing Tammy Faye. But for the most part, the resistance, I didn’t see a lot, because also, I wasn’t in a hurry to play her. Every time I told someone I had the rights, they were like, “Oh my God,” what an incredible part that is. But if anything, I was trying to slow it down, because I was doing so much research.
I was working on her so much. By the time we were getting it done—and Searchlight [co-President] David Greenbaum, likes to laugh about this—I was the one trying to slow things down. I wanted more time to study her. I never really felt ready, and I was begging them. At the end of the day, they gave me three extra days before I got on camera.
DEADLINE: When did the project finally become a reality? When Michael Showalter came on board to direct?
CHASTAIN: It was actually when we did the pre-records, because I hadn’t done my contract yet, and listen, this was not a movie that we were all making a huge paycheck. We were really doing it for the love of the project. But Searchlight was paying a lot of money for the pre-records. David Cobb was producing the music, and we were about to go in, and I heard from my lawyer: Searchlight’s going to cancel them because your contract isn’t signed yet or is at the negotiator, or whatever. And normally, like, that’s the kind of bluff that works, because then the actor goes, “OK, let me sign my contract so they won’t cancel.” I was like, OK, they can cancel. And then David Greenbaum from Searchlight called me and said, “Listen, we’re not going to cancel the pre-record. We’re going to spend money on this.” It was his faith in the project and in me that really pushed it forward. And then, once those pre-records happened, I knew for sure the movie was happening. They would never waste that money.
When you’re making a movie with music, we recorded live on set, but for insurance purposes, you do pre-records as well. So, you go into a recording studio, and you make the tracks. You get the band; you get the choir. Just in case one day you show up on set, and you have laryngitis, or something happens, and you can’t speak, you’ve banked the pre-records. So, because Searchlight was going ahead with doing that, I knew that the movie was going to be made.
DEADLINE: With the protagonists you’ve played based on real people, like Molly Bloom, Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, how does Tammy fit into your canon?
CHASTAIN: This is so fascinating, you’re asking me this, and this is just coming to me right now as I’m talking. But if you look at one of the first films I ever did, The Tree of Life, which is such an important film in my life, for who I am, and in terms of my career, that film really was about the relationship between grace and nature. And I look at my characters, and usually, some of them are nature, and some of them are grace. And nature, for sure, is Miss Sloane, and Commander Lewis in The Martian. Even though she is a hero, in that she goes to save Matt (Damon)’s character, but there’s still something in there about survival of the fittest. Same with Molly’s theme. There is a competitive drive that is different than Tammy, because I actually never saw Tammy as being—and she would’ve been the first to say this—she was not a feminist. She was someone who believed that anything was possible, but she also was quite old-fashioned in her point of view. I think today she would probably define herself in a different way than she did back then, but her going to sit at the table with men wasn’t like she never looked at the world as, “I am being denied and I’m going to fight my way through it.” She just saw it as, “I’m a minister, and they’re ministers, and I want to listen to the interesting stuff. So, let’s do this.”
Even her interview with Steve Pieters, it wasn’t like she was, “I’m going to take people down” or “I’m going to really push against homophobia.” She’s not pushing against anything. She’s running toward something. She’s going toward love. She was a positive person, not a negative person. So, I would say she’s in the group of grace. She’s just like Celia Foote, I would also say, from The Help. She’s a person that leads by love. If a character leads by love, and humility, I see them in that compartment. So, I would put Tammy Faye in the same category as Celia Foote in The Help.
We’re all human, and so, there are many shades of color in all of us. We’re not just the archetype of one thing or the other. Tammy Faye was also a flawed human being. And so, she has complexity to her character, and that was what was so interesting to me.
DEADLINE: How did it come about getting Andrew Garfield on board?
CHASTAIN: Everyone, from the studio wanted Andrew. I think the pitch was to Andrew, honestly, because he grew up in England, and the whole televangelist thing was so foreign to him. He didn’t grow up with it. It was a lot of, talking to him about it, and talking about Jim; he wasn’t interested in playing a mustache-twirling villain, and the reason why he’s a great actor is because he needs to humanize everyone he plays. Even if a character has flaws, and makes mistakes, he’s still a human being. And so, Andrew was wanting to make sure that that’s the story we wanted to tell. We weren’t poking fun and vilifying anyone. He wanted to make sure we were telling a story about human beings. Also, both Andrew and I, we really worked well together, and so, we had a lot of conversations before he signed on, and it was very clear to me that we had a very similar way of working, and we were both kind of obsessive about research.
DEADLINE: Her morphing into a physical caricature over the years, was it because something was missing in her life? Was it Jim? Was it to get his attention or quite simply the fame and money of it all?
CHASTAIN: This is something that took me toward the end when we were shooting to actually understand. Because in the beginning, I just thought, OK, she puts a mask on, right? Like, that’s the easy thing to say, and that’s kind of, like, what the media was doing, all her make-up, she’s putting a mask on. And the more I studied her, I had seven years from when I got the rights to when we ended up on set. I had hundreds of hours of unused footage that the documentary filmmakers gave me that I could watch. It was the best gift I could ever get. She’s plastered all over YouTube. You can find everything there. But I really studied her, and the things that I got, most of all, there’s two things I think with the makeup. One, she felt prettier with it, and two, it’s like what, you know, RuPaul talks about drag, and he says, “Drag isn’t a mask, it’s a revealing.” So, it’s not that you’re covering up who you are. You’re revealing who you are, and your individuality, and your uniqueness, and it’s a creative process of showing the inner you, of how you feel. It’s not how you look. It’s, “I’m expressing how I feel through the artistry of what my makeup is. That’s what I’m projecting out there.” And I think that was Tammy. With the eyelashes, it became so strong for her. She wanted to look this certain way, and yes, she was raised in a church; the Pentecostal church doesn’t even allow makeup. So, that tells me something right there, right? When you’re being denied, everyone has to look the same.
DEADLINE: I was going to say, was this a rebellion against her mom?
CHASTAIN: I don’t think it was, again, I don’t think it’s a running from, I think it’s her embracing, rather than denying. I think she’s embracing who she was, the eccentricities of who she was. There’s a great interview that Roseanne Barr, with Tammy and Roseanne Barr, and Roseanne’s like, “Why do you do it? It’s too much, extreme.” And everyone approached her like that. I mean, there were the T-shirts they had of her, “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall” and it’s smeared makeup all over the thing.
What I love so much about our first scene is she talks about how her face is tattooed on, and the more I studied her, I saw so many people make fun of her for her makeup, make fun of her for how she chose to be, that I, in my mind, decided that she tattoos her face so no one can ever change who she is, or how she wants to be, or the uniqueness of her. People can ask her, can you take off your makeup, can you tone it down? There’s a lot of that. Makeup is connected to tone it down and once she’s tattooed, no one’s ever going to change who she is. She is authentically her, and to me, it goes right back to the RuPaul quote of drag is a revealing, not a mask.
DEADLINE: I have to imagine that this is the most demanding character you’ve played when it comes to components and costumes, significantly more than the prosthetic nose you wore onstage in The Heiress. It was 11 wigs and five hours in the makeup chair?
CHASTAIN: Yes, there is no question. I am absolutely grateful to the artistry of everyone who helped me, because, you know, when I did my prosthetic nose for The Heiress, it’s not easy. There’s a reason why these people are experts. I give them full credit for actually helping me find the character, because by having the obstacle of the prosthetics, and all the makeup, the only thing exposed for me were my eyes and my voice. So, when you’re playing Tammy Faye, she’s so open, how do I exhibit that openness through a wall, in some sense? And it helps me, because I had to pull up more energy than I thought was humanly possible. I had to free my voice in a way that I had never done before. I had to find the expression through my eyes and my gestures in a way that I hadn’t done before, in order to go through those prosthetics. So, yes, it absolutely was the most I’ve ever done, but at the same time, it was the biggest gift that I could’ve gotten, in playing her.