The Eyes of Jessica Chastain

January 22, 2022
Almost ten years in the making, Jessica Chastain goes behind the mascara and lip gloss of vilified American televangelist Tammy Faye Baker, to discover the woman within.

Co-produced by Chastain’s own Freckle Films, The Eyes of Tammy Faye sees her team with Andrew Garfield to portray Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the self-styled Christian TV personalities who did more than anyone else to mould televangelism into a game-changing, culture-shaping, multi-million dollar racket.

Monetising their faith by preaching to the masses via the small screen, the Bakkers created the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and Christian theme park.

If few people had sympathy for the Bakkers when Jim Bakker was convicted and imprisoned on numerous counts of fraud and conspiracy in 1989, then The Eyes of Tammy Faye takes a sympathetic and intimate look behind the extraordinary rise, fall and redemption of Tammy Faye.

Renowned for her message of love, acceptance and prosperity, Tammy Faye became inseparable from her mascara-clogged eyelashes, idiosyncratic singing, and an eagerness to welcome people from all walks of life – embracing AIDS sufferers, even when the church denounced them.

Chastain, 44, tells FilmInk how she found her inner Tammy.

What inspired you to portray TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker?

“I was on the press tour for Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 and saw the documentary, jet-lagged in some hotel room. What was so beautiful was seeing this perspective of her that was really strange to me because I had grown up seeing her on the cover of tabloid magazines or sketch comedy satires and I had this view of her – about her make-up and mascara and how she was obscene and vulgar in the way she presented herself – and that was really all I knew about her. And then, when I saw the documentary, I felt a bit sad because I realised there was a whole person there that did incredible things that hadn’t been acknowledged and I called my agent and manager and asked how I could get the rights. This was 2012 and I didn’t know anything about making a movie, and then that started this seven year journey to shooting.”

Tammy Faye became a punchline, but your film really changes the narrative. How did you humanise her and alter the negative public assumptions about her?

“That was a challenge because when you see footage of her, she just seems like such a caricature. She loved camp and everything that was larger than life, so I was like, ‘How do I find the woman behind all that spectacle?’ I guess the seven years really helped! I knew that I was going to play her, but I just didn’t know when, so I had time to really focus and read all the books and also, I had to learn how to sing like her and the documentary filmmakers gave me hundreds of hours of unused footage which was really instrumental; just hanging out with her and really talking to her. Watching all that made me feel like I had an opportunity to hang out with her too. I studied everything I could. I talked to her kids and with people who worked with her. I also worked with dialect coaches, not just for the accent, but also the pitch of her voice which is much higher than mine.

“I did all of these things to find out who she was, and one thing I discovered that helped me move away from caricature, is that I just saw some loneliness in her. Even when she laughs – she’s quick to laugh or cry – and I kinda felt like a lot of comedians are also really sad. They feel quite lonely and have a sense that maybe they are not seen, so I really wanted to understand where her sadness and her loneliness came from, but still keep the camp. So, perhaps that helped balance it.”

Tammy Faye died in 2007. Did her two adult children, Tammy Sue and Jay, give you their blessing to make this movie?

“If I had called them and they had said, ‘Please don’t make this film’, then I wouldn’t have made the film. I wanted to make something that felt healing and felt like a positive thing. I always think about what I am putting out in the world. With every project I do, I ask myself, what am I contributing? I just want to leave a positive impact in some way, even if I’m playing a villain or whatever in Crimson Peak! Am I contributing to something positive?

“I called them, which was a scary thing to do because these are kids who really grew up on TV, so when the Jim Bakker sex scandal happened, they were also vilified in some sense. Tammy’s daughter Tammy Sue lost her recording contract; she was following in her mom’s footsteps and was going to be a singer. A lot of things happened to them, and I made it very clear to them that I wasn’t interested in being gossipy or tabloidy. I feel like that story has already been done, like, we’re re-treading water if we make this a cynical ‘let’s make fun of Christians’ movie. That wasn’t what I was interested in, and I feel like that would have been the easy choice; that’s the world we live in where we celebrate cynicism and being cool and aloof and not being earnest or sincere and loving and accepting of everyone. So, I expressed all of that to them and it took them a while to trust me but, once they did, it was great.

“Tammy Sue sings the song at the end credits, ‘Don’t Give Up on the Brink of a Miracle’, which was her mom’s song. Jay (Jamie “Jay” Bakker) was at the premiere and so was Steve Pieters who was the openly gay minister with AIDS that Tammy invited on her show in 1985 which, back then, even politicians wouldn’t even talk about AIDS but she brought him on her show and looked into the camera and reminded Christians what it means to be Christian and that God loves everyone. So, he’s still alive and came to the premiere, so it definitely felt like a healing experience.”

Your films are always very diverse, spanning different genres. What drives you?

“I’ve come to realise that I’m constantly wanting to put myself in a place where I’m not comfortable and you’re usually not comfortable when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. When you start to feel like ‘Oh I’ve got this,’ then you’re probably treading on old ground, and you know how it’s going to turn out. But when you’re willing to fail spectacularly, that’s a scary thing to do, so I trained for a while. I’m not going to lie – some bourbon came into play! And I like that the voice is shaky at the beginning and that it doesn’t sound like a computer has fixed everything. To me, it sounds like a real person up there, contending with whether or not they’re gonna be made fun of, because the reality is, that’s how I felt at the time, and that’s what she felt too. I love how, at the end of the film, you see Tammy’s version of what America is and you also see another version – which also might be what America really is. I love this sense that it’s not too late to change but maybe she has an influence on all of us, especially after that last scene.”

Tammy becomes more independent as the film progresses, especially after the fall of their empire, but the musical number at the end of the film was heart-wrenching. How was that for you?

“It was one of the scariest scenes. For me, there were two scenes that I knew I had to get right or else the character and the film wouldn’t work. Firstly, it was the Steve Pieters interview, which was why I wanted to make the movie, and then the last scene with the musical number. The singing was terrifying for me.”

Talk about working with Andrew Garfield, who portrays Tammy’s husband Jim Bakker. I hear you both even visited church while preparing?

“Well, that’s how we started every week! We shot in North Carolina, right where everything happened for them. That’s where Jim and Tammy lived, so every Sunday, I’d pick Andrew up and we’d drive to Heritage USA (the Bakkers’ former church) which is now owned by Morningside church. And that’s a scary thing because I thought people would show up and be like, ‘Hollywood elitists!’ I was nervous that we would get this aggression, or they’d be upset that we were there. But we went and were very respectful and then we recognised somebody from the documentary who had worked with Tammy and Jim and we went up and said hi and said we were making this movie and asked if it would be OK to speak to him. He said, ‘Follow me’. He didn’t say hi or anything, so we followed him into this back room and thought, ‘We’re in trouble. They’re gonna be upset at us for making this movie’, and then he’s whispering with this security guard and then he looks at Andrew and goes, ‘Are you Spider-Man?’ And then we knew we were in! We are in the holy mecca right now!

“We went every Sunday to that church, and there were many times during the service where I started crying because it was beautiful, the music and the congregation, and we spoke to all these people who knew Jim and Tammy and it was such a loving experience.”

How long did it take to finally feel comfortable that you had captured the true essence of Tammy?

“It was a hard thing because on Day 1 of filming, I was visibly shaking. I got to set and was in make-up and my voice was shaking and I was so scared. That’s only ever happened to me in theatre. But I just had to get over it because the reality is that she was always scared, and she knew people were making fun of her, but she did it anyway. So, I just had to do it.”

How does the hair, make-up and wardrobe inform your performance?

“I’m not really ever the person who rehearses in the baggy sweatshirt. Even for costume fittings, if I know my character is going to have black hair, I will show up in the black wig! For me, the look of the character is so much a part of creating the character. I work very emotionally, like, where is the hurt? Where did it start? Where is the love? What are the fears? All of that stuff is very strong but then it’s also: How did they present themselves in the world? Energetically? Where do they lead in their body? How do they want to appear? How much make-up do they wear? How do they laugh? How do they seduce? All of these things. So, to me, how a character presents themselves in the world tells so much story of the scene before I even open my mouth.”

Do you have a different empathy for a character when the role is based on a real person?

“I have the same empathy for Tammy Faye as I do for Madeline Elizabeth Sloane (Miss Sloane). Like, when you walk in another person’s shoes, the person feels real, no matter what. And this definitely felt like I’d met Tammy Faye even though I never got that experience of meeting her

“It’s not empathy, it’s responsibility. When it’s a real person you’re playing, you have a responsibility and I ask myself – because sometimes I’ve been asked to do films that feel a little bit like a hit piece – and I just wonder, what’s it for? If it’s for a greater good or contributing or popping open a story, then OK. But, I definitely feel a responsibility to humankind, to treat everyone as though they are valuable and worthy and, no matter how many faults they have, they are still deserving of love. I know that sounds like a Pollyanna thing to say but I strongly believe that.”

What is the one thing you hope audiences take away about Tammy?

“I hope it encourages people to look beyond the facade that they’re seeing and also look beyond a story that’s being fed to them, that maybe there’s another point of view. So, behind the mascara of who she was, what did she actually accomplish? I found something in one of her performances where she says, ‘God came down and said, I love you Tammy Faye and I love you just the way you are’. I’m not a religious person, although I’m spiritual, but that spoke to me and this idea that everyone is deserving of grace and that we are all welcoming it… I was very moved by that.”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in cinemas January 27, 2022

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