Jessica Chastain wants to show Tammy Faye Bakker was not the villain 'sexist culture' made her to be
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (directed by Michael Showalter) sees Chastain, 44, morph into the PTL Club televangelist who died in 2007 and is most remembered for her outlandish outfits and makeup. What she's less remembered for is compassion and derring-do, like her televised 1985 interview with Steve Pieters, a gay man with AIDS, which is re-created in the film. "That was so punk-rock of [Tammy] in the evangelical world," says Chastain. "The media wasn't really ready for how inclusive she was."
Bakker's legacy also tends to fixate on her guilt by association with husband Jim Bakker, who was convicted of fraud and accused of sexual misconduct. "I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true and I just couldn't find it," says Chastain. "I believe [this film] is righting a wrong of a sexist culture that she was vilified in."
Here's how Chastain — who describes herself as the "person hiding in a corner at parties" — transformed into the tiny spitfire from International Falls, Minn.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: While I was watching this, I had to keep reminding myself that it was you and not actually Tammy Faye Bakker.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: Oh wow. That's amazing to hear because she was such a character, an amazing character. But it was a big leap into the unknown for me, so that's really good to hear.
You and I are the same age, and I'm wondering, were you always fascinated by her?
You know, I remember around the time of Tammy Faye Bakker, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, cable news and salacious gossip tabloid time, with real life kind of playing out. And Tammy in some sense was the beginning of reality television because she brought the cameras into their home when they had their network. So it was like the beginning of like, The Real World, with Christian evangelists.
My memory of her was so different than what I discovered to be true, but it really made me realize...even a stupid thing of like mascara running down her face. Never happened. There's not one video of mascara running down her face. She even says in her book, "I wear waterproof mascara." People like to make fun of her and do that and I had a memory of her like that and then I realized that my memory was a sketch comedy show. You kind of go like, What do I actually know for a fact and what have I been fed? And that was so important to me also in understanding the media's participation in my memory of who Tammy Faye was.
That absolutely rings true to my experience, but I also remember her as a villainous character, that she and Jim Bakker had played the public for money. But in the doc and the feature, she's such a sympathetic character, and I'm wondering where that interest came for you. It feels like you almost knew that about her.
It started for me with the documentary. I saw the documentary and then I took time to study her. I read every book, I read about televangelism, I read everything I could get my hands on. And I came to the conclusion that Tammy Faye Bakker, in my mind, didn't do anything wrong. She was never tried in court for any crimes, she was never told she'd stolen any money. She made like 20 albums — she gave all the royalties for her music to the church. They did live a lavish lifestyle paid for by the church, but also the reality is that she got paid for all the books she wrote and the music she recorded — she would have lived a lavish lifestyle. And in the court of public opinion, she was vilified, but I think she was mostly vilified because of the crimes that her husband was guilty of and also the sex scandal that he was involved in. And because in our society, people like to judge a woman by how she looks: for what clothes she's wearing, how much makeup she's wearing. People were more interested in how much mascara she had on her face than actually the words that she said and what was important to her and how she was trying to shape Christianity and this world. That's why I think I felt so sympathetic toward her — I mean, I watched everything — I even watched The Surreal Life. She is so sweet, and she became friends with Ron Jeremy — and she was mothering and ministering to every single person in that house and they all loved her and worshipped her. I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true and I just couldn't find it. I wanted to kind of right a misconception that the media really played heavily into.
The moment in the doc and the film, when she speaks to Steve Pieters, a gay man with AIDS in 1985, is astounding.
The president of the United States [Ronald Reagan] wouldn't even say AIDS. He wouldn't even acknowledge it. You can find the entire video on YouTube, her entire exchange with Steve Pieters. And we filmed it almost in its entirety because it was the most important scene to me and of course it's been edited down, but it's the reason I wanted to make the movie. She's there saying we as Christians who are supposed to love everyone won't put our arms around an AIDS patient and tell him that we care? That was so punk-rock of her in the evangelical world, it was astounding. But I think also at the time, the media wasn't really ready for how inclusive she was. I think we're more ready for it now.
Did you talk to people who knew her?
I started with all of her books. I read her son's book, I read the books [by] people on the outside, I read books about the Jessica Hahn scandal, I read every article I could find, and I found quotes from Jessica Hahn that said, "Please just leave me alone. I don't want this to be in my life." I also found a quote where she said Tammy Faye called Jessica before she died and said, "Oh honey, I wish I could wrap my arms around you right now." Jessica Hahn had nothing but positive things to say about Tammy. So really, I did so much research. Everyone who met her loved her. Not certain people that were in different religious organizations, obviously, because there was a grasp for power. But every person that I talked to that had met her loved her. People in grocery stores and hair salons, they all loved her.
So I did all of that. Randy [Barbato] and Fenton [Bailey], who directed the documentary, were so kind to me and let me look at their footage and even footage that they hadn't used. Hours and hours just listening to her voice and watching things that weren't really out there. I talked to her children, that was also very important. Even things like, What perfume did she use? Her daughter said to me at one point, "Tammy's favorite colors were pink and leopard." All of that, and then, every Sunday, I'd pick up Andrew [Garfield, who plays Jim Bakker] with a coffee, a Starbucks, and we'd drive to Heritage USA, which is now Morningside Church, and we would go to the sermon. We'd go to the service. And one time we were there — it's still on the grounds of Heritage USA — and one time we looked over...we've found people who are in the documentary that worked for Jim and Tammy and we would approach them and say, Hey, always honest about who we were and what we were doing, and I found that people were really open and honest about their experience working with Tammy and Jim. So it was kind of like immersive research. We were very lucky
Is it harder to play a real person like Tammy than a fictional character?
This was much harder than anything else I've done. When you're creating a character that is fiction, you can do whatever you want. The rules are basically in the script and then you add whatever ingredients you like. But with someone like Tammy — I mean, I've played real characters before, but she's someone who is really easy to Google. That's a quick Google and you find her interviews, you find the Steve Pieters interview, you find her singing "The Sun Will Shine Again." I went through the entire song and wrote exactly what her hand movements were when she sang that live when the church was falling apart. For me it was much harder because everyone knows who I am and this is a huge opportunity — they know my mannerisms, they know my voice — this is a huge opportunity for me to fail.
That's not how I thought you were going to end that sentence. I thought you were going to say, "It was a huge opportunity for me to shine," or something like that.
It's not easy what we did, and Andrew too. Not only does she have the accent that is from International Falls, Minn. — most people assume she's Southern, but no, she's from Minnesota — her voice is much higher than mine and kind of squeaky. How do you make that sound without it being obnoxious, because actually her voice was sort of folksy and cute. The transformation, like, mannerisms, all of it, could have been...I could have been a laughingstock. People could have said, "Jessica just made a fool out of herself. She's singing." Everything about this character took me so far out of my comfort zone. It was a big leap, embarrassment was a possibility for sure.
For someone who is as accomplished as you are, I imagine it would be easy to stay away from roles like that. Is that what keeps the work exciting for you, to push yourself into situations like that?
Yes, but also you really have to push yourself and you have to have people who believe in you. I bought the rights for this way back in 2012 and when I bought the rights to the documentary, I called David Greenbaum who had just started at Searchlight — he and I had been friends for a long time — and I called him and said, "I got these rights," and he said, "Okay, well, call me when you have a script." And I called my friend [producer] Rachel Shane — we worked together on Lawless — and she said, "Okay, let's get a script together." And then once we had a script we went to Searchlight and we made it. But when we were about to shoot our pre-records, I was so scared. I had never sung, and I am such a shy person. Tammy was always at like a 12, and so the amount of putting myself out there…. I get shy when people sing me "Happy Birthday." It was a couple day before the pre-records and my deal wasn't done with Searchlight. My lawyer called me and said, "They're saying they're going to cancel the pre-records because your deal isn't finished," and I was like, "Okay, they can cancel it." I was so scared to do it and to show up, I was almost looking for a way for it to fall apart; maybe it's okay if it falls apart because it's not meant to be and I'm gonna look really stupid.
And then David Greenbaum said, "You know what? We're doing the pre-records. I know we'll get to a good place with the deal. Everything's fine." I think he saw that I was trying to sabotage myself because I was scared.
Are you able to look back now and feel proud of the work you did?
You know what makes me feel proud of the work that I did? Talking to her son; and Steve Pieters had written a letter that I read that someone forwarded to me; that makes me go, These are people who knew her and they have positive things to say, so that makes me happy. And also for me it's really important to me what I put out into the world, and I believe this is a positive thing that's righting a wrong of a sexist culture that she was vilified in. It really makes me proud of the work for sure.
Is there anything we didn't get to talk about that you'd like to?
Okay, there's something that I'll share with you, and there might be a video of it somewhere. When we first started talking to Michael Showalter, I knew because she was so different from me physically, she was always willing to embarrass herself — she's like the opposite of me. I'm always in the corner at a party. I said to Michael Showalter, maybe we could start the first day with a prayer. So when I showed up on set, I led everyone in a prayer as Tammy Faye. Before I did it, my whole body was like convulsing, I was shaking. I've been scared for theater; I get very nervous in front of a live audience. Usually now for film I don't get nervous. This for some reason I was ever like this, my whole body was completely shaking because I knew what I was going to do. I think starting to shoot in that way, where this is like so embarrassing, was the only way I could really play her.
I mean I guess that's what actors do, but you really could have avoided that if you wanted to!
The thing is, it's true. I realized she never did anything halfway, and anytime I thought maybe they were going to laugh at me, the reality is that every single day when she woke up she thought that. And they did, in many cases. But she changed people's lives because she heard the voice and she pushed through it. I had to have the same experience.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in theaters Sept. 17.
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