Jessica Chastain The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Jessica Chastain interview about The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jessica Chastain about The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jessica Michelle Chastain is an American actress and film producer. She is known for her roles in films with feminist themes, has received more than 60 prizes, including two Satellite Awards and a Golden Globe Award, in addition to nominations for three Academy Awards and two British Academy Film Awards. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012. Jessica Chastain delivers a truly meaningful performance in the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye which she also produced. She plays Tammy Faye Bakker, who together with her televangelist husband Jim Bakker, transformed the religious broadcasting landscape in the '70s and '80s. This interview is about the real Tammy Faye, strong role models for women, and her own priorities in life. 

What intrigued you about Tammy Faye and her husband Jim Bakker?

I grew up in the '80s, when everything in the United States was very much about greed and money and 'all that glitters'. I didn't know much about their show, but I remember seeing them in the tabloids and on Saturday Night Live which was making fun of them. I saw the stereotypes and caricatures of Tammy Faye.

Then in 2012 I saw the documentary 'The eyes of Tammy Faye' that RuPaul narrated and I just thought; 'what an incredible woman, why has no one really explored who she really was and made a film about her?' It was obvious to me that she was so much more than the stereotypical image, so I bought the rights to the documentary.

What struck you specifically about her?

A big theme of Tammy Faye's life and what she stands for is the idea that everyone is deserving of love without judgement.

I really relate to that even though I did not grow up religious myself. A lot of my friends did grow up as Christians though, and the code of Christianity at its core is this: 'Do unto others as you would have done unto you'. And that is what Tammy Faye was all about. She was so inclusive on TV and in life.

In what way exactly?

She really fought for the underdog and she wanted everyone to understand how worthy people were and how much she loved them.

She loved people no matter who they were. Tammy Faye lived her life without judging others and I found that to be a beautiful message, especially for the time that we're living in right now, where there are so many divisions that separate us from each other. I think it is wonderful that Tammy Faye was all about creating intimacy with strangers. Tammy Faye was also smart, an ordained minister in her own right. She was not just Jim Bakker's wife, she went to Bible college.

How would you describe the relationship between Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker?

She was the first one to say she loved being married. At times, she has said that she felt like a little girl and that she liked knowing that someone was going to take care of her. There was something very childlike about Tammy in that way.

Tammy Faye and Jim's relationship together is fascinating to me because I believe what we saw on their TV show was really the beginning of reality television and has led to where we are right now in the genre. Before any of the reality TV shows we are all used to now, on Praise the Lord Network, we had Jim and Tammy Faye inviting the cameras into their home and watching their children grow up. They talked about their marriage issues on their show.

Did they had a lot of issues?

They did, there were difficulties in the marriage. They separated for a time and got back together and they talked about that on the show. They had marriage counseling sessions and lived all of it in the public eye. That was a very interesting time in America because it really was the beginning of a shift in the culture.

I think it was difficult because Jim had relationships outside of his marriage. I think for Tammy Faye, that was all very difficult, because she needed to be loved, she was a very real person.

What is it like working with Andrew?

Working with Andrew has been a dream. He is a great actor and an incredible partner. We work in similar ways in that we do so much research. Anytime I read something interesting about the couple, I'd show it to him, or he would find an interview.

It was a constant back and forth with little treasures that we're finding. And within the scenes we would do a lot of improv. We felt so 'in the skin' of the characters that it felt very easy to work with him.

We've spent a lot of time together. Every Sunday morning during filming, he and I would go to Heritage USA, where Praise the Lord Network was. We would go to church and hang out with people who were working with Tammy and Jim. It was such a great way for the two of us to start our week.

Can you talk about the look of Tammy Faye, with the makeup, and your physical transformation?

It's an incredibly intense process, but Linda, Stephanie and Justin did an outstanding job helping me get into Tammy. At one point, I would be in the chair for 7 hours so it's also an uncomfortable process. And all the suits that I wear for Tammy's later looks in the '80s and '90s are also incredibly uncomfortable.

So what I would do is to say to myself; 'Tammy was very uncomfortable in her own skin'. That helps, because as an actor, you have to figure out; 'this is what I'm feeling right now, how can I use it for the character?'

Do you think she lacked confidence in her appearance?

Yes, I do because reading her books and learning about her, I discovered she was so insecure about the way she looked. I believe she had body dysmorphia. That's my opinion. I think she was always trying to be worthy of love. Perhaps one reason she was so warm. Always reaching out to strangers to make sure that they felt loved, was because she didn't believe she was pretty enough, talented enough or funny enough to be loved herself.

So I just try to use everything for the role, all my own discomfort with the makeup and costumes. As uncomfortable as I am, I get to take it all off at the end of the day. I really feel Tammy Faye was always trying to do whatever she could to appease others, and to make herself worthy of love. I thought she was beautiful, but she didn't.

Can you discuss working with your director, Michael Showalter?

It was great. We were going to do another film together that was not up and running yet, and then we talked about this film and I am so happy we got to make it together. I love his previous films; 'Hello, My Name Is Doris', which is beautiful and touching, and also charming is The Big Sick. Michael has a sense of charm that I love. It is great because, Andrew and I can 'go dark' and Michael inspires us to be playful, which is such a gift.

Jessica Chastain singing as Tammy Faye

It works so well because at the end of the day, there is a sense in which Jim and Tammy were like kids in a candy store having fun with their show and their lives together. Michael has been the perfect match in terms of someone who could really listen to the story and tell it in a very special way.

Tammy Faye was totally inclusive at the time when it came to people with HIV and AIDS during the '80s. So was Princess Diana...

Yes, that is true. And unusual at the time because she was a public figure. My impression of Princess Diana was that she was very real and compassionate. She would hug sick children and she did not have a wall separating her from others.

Tammy Faye was like that too. In 1985, she brought Steven Pieters, a gay Christian minister with AIDS, onto her show. It was revolutionary! It is a beautiful interview, which you can see on YouTube in its entirety. It is interesting because that was also a time when no one was really talking about homosexuality.

During the AIDS crisis, we had a President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who wouldn't even mention AIDS. Tammy Faye was asking all these questions that no one else was brave enough to ask: 'What does it mean to be gay? What do you feel like?'

Do you think she influenced many people in a positive way to discuss this topic?

I do, because she was asking these questions that were accessible and people's grandmas would probably be sitting at home and interested in that kind of question.

It was such a sweet interview. Steven Pieters was undergoing chemotherapy so he couldn't appear live on the show and Tammy Faye said over and over again through her tears, 'If we had the opportunity to have you here with us, I would just want to wrap my arms around you and tell you that you're loved'. Then at one point she looks at the camera and says: 'We Christians are supposed to be the salt of the Earth, why are we so afraid to put our arms around an AIDS patient and tell them that we care?' She really was revolutionary.

Tammy Faye had different skills compared to her husband, didn't she?

Yes, she was intelligent, but not in the way Jim was clever. Jim was very much like a chess player, maybe not a great one. I'm joking, but he was always looking ahead at the next moves. I believe Tammy Faye was fully in the moment. There's something almost childlike about her, something almost pure, because she just did what she felt like doing and she said what she felt like saying.

Is this the first time you've done so much singing in a movie? We know you did a lot of singing and dancing as a child...

Yes, and I did as a child and also at Julliard, the performing arts conservatory in New York. I've never been featured singing in a movie. I sang a lullaby in 'Crimson Peek' and I sang a little bit in 'The Tree of Life', but it's full on singing for this film.

I did some pre-records with Dave Cobb. He is the Grammy winning record producer who worked on the soundtrack of A Star is born. We were singing on set and it was very stressful! We started out and for the first two days it felt easy and fine and I could tell Dave wasn't quite happy. Then I came in again and he said, 'we're going to raise all the songs by three keys'. So he raised it super high. I said, 'okay, but I'm not going to be able to hit that, it's crazy!' And we did it and I hit it!

What I realized was that when Tammy was singing, she was always at a 10. She was belting it out from the first note. So, by him raising the keys to all the songs, it really forced me to bring it all out in a way that was very uncomfortable. Let me put it this way; 'singing doesn't come naturally to me...

This is a film about a woman who was deeply religious. Do you have a spiritual perspective yourself?

My mother grew up in Kansas as a Second Baptist and she never wanted me and my siblings to grow up the way she did. So I didn't grow up in a religion that was restrictive. But I actually seek out spirituality nowadays. I've always been drawn to spirituality, the idea of loving others. Sometimes I'll walk into a church, it doesn't matter what the denomination is.

"I've always been drawn to spirituality, the idea of loving others."

I love being around people who are talking about the importance of loving others. I think that's a beautiful message. I guess the closest I ever felt like I was really living a religious lifestyle, was when I was working on 'The Tree of Life' with Terrence Malick. He is a great scholar and a great teacher of mine, in terms of philosophy and religion.

Why do you think Tammy Faye's story is relevant and will resonate with people?

It is such a relevant theme. Everyone, ourselves included, are deserving of love without judgement. It's not about conditional love; 'I love you only if you say this, or do this or vote this way'. Sometimes the most difficult thing is to love ourselves and to forgive ourselves for our judgments of other people. That still resonates.

Can you mention any other strong themes?

Yes, the other thing that fascinates me is the idea of fame and what it is like to be seen. It poses interesting questions. What does it mean when you're seen by a multitude of people, if you're taking a selfie and putting it on Instagram, or you've got your own reality show? If people are looking into your life, does that mean that you are more worthy of being alive, and that you are more worthy of love than others? That's fame and those ideas that are prevalent in our culture are really interesting to examine.

Another interesting theme is materialism, stuff, money. What really matters..? It feels like a resurgence of the '80s at the moment, where it's kind of an 'each person for themself mentality'. I don’t believe in that and I don't live that way. At the end of the day when we're all lying on our deathbeds, we're not going to think about our 'stuff'. We're not going to think about gold toilets! We're going to think about the relationships we have and the people we've touched and loved over the course of our life.

So, it all comes back to love?

Exactly. It is this idea that love is the thing that transcends time and space. It's the most valuable commodity that we have and the more you give, the more you receive.

You are a great role model for women, with your production company and your commitment to giving back. How important is that to you?

Well yes, it's very important to me. I grew up in a different time when people were told that women were there to serve a man's story. And now it's different and it's important for me to tell the stories of really inspiring women. Hopefully this story will touch some girls or women sitting in the audience and they can understand how important they are and how they're making such a difference in this world by just existing!

Photos: Disney 2022 © Trailer: Searchlight Pictures