Jessica Chastain (‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’) on facing ‘abject terror every day’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Jessica Chastain transformed into flamboyant televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in the new film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” for which she just earned an Oscar nomination. It is the actress’s third bid at the Oscars, with previous nominations for “The Help” (2011) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012).

Chastain spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Denton Davidson last month about what drew her to playing Bakker, working alongside actors like Andrew Garfield and Cherry Jones and her memories of her first Oscars experience. Watch the full interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jessica, you’ve been nominated for a Critics Choice Award, the accolades are piling on for this performance, and I think that’s just because you really went for it with this portrayal of an over-the-top, complicated, fascinating human being. And this could have so easily gone off the rails and looked like a sketch comedy or mockery, but it doesn’t, and you’re able to bring so much depth and empathy to this controversial icon. So my first question is what gave you the courage to go for this story? 

Jessica Chastain: What gave me the courage? I actually don’t know if I ever really had the courage to go for it because, I mean, I loved her, and her family and her kids. I wanted to acknowledge her for the incredible things she did. I loved the documentary, but I never felt like, “Oh yeah, I got this,” even right before we started shooting, even during we were shooting. I mean, there was one moment I felt comfortable when we were improvising and I was like, “Oh wow.” I found my groove. But for the most part, I was in abject terror every day (laughs). It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I just really felt in some sense, it’s easier doing full nudity because there was something so exposing about this in terms of the voice and the silliness and the camp, but also the pathos. I just felt really exposed. And the singing. 

GD: What did you see in Tammy Faye Bakker that made you so dedicated to tell her story? Because you not only star in it, you produce it. So, how long has this been in the works and what made you want to bring this to the screen? 

JC: I was on the press tour for “Zero Dark Thirty” and I was jet-lagged in a hotel room somewhere and the documentary came on and I was like, “Why hasn’t anyone made this movie? This is such a great story.” And I remember being a kid when she was on the cover of tabloids and just kind of knowing her as being this ridiculous figure and people making fun of her for her makeup and her voice, and she loved camp and she really played into it. So, she was made fun of for that, I think. And then the documentary showed the incredible things she did, especially the Steve Pieters interview in 1985 at a time where I remember being a kid during the AIDS epidemic and there was so much homophobia in the United States and so much judgment and fear, so to have her do that was just a radical act of love, especially when politicians in the United States wouldn’t even talk about AIDS, wouldn’t even talk about the fact people were dying. And so I just wanted to tell the story. I wanted to celebrate her for that. 

GD: So then what is that prep work like for you? Because it’s different to play a public figure that there’s so much footage of. So as an actor, how do you balance creative freedom with accuracy? 

JC: Well, honestly, the reality is, I wanted to tell the story just the ‘90s. For me, that was the story. I wanted to just explore her after the fall. That was my initial impulse, I guess. But working with a team of people and collaborators, it just shifts in the story that you’re telling. Also, once Andrew Garfield came on, it was clear like, “OK, we gotta show him, because he’s a great actor and his Jim Bakker is amazing, so we need more.” We actually created more scenes between Jim and Tammy when Andrew came on because it was an exciting prospect, having that collaboration. So I think the seven years of getting it from when the rights were bought to getting to set, it was in constant development. And as a producer, that’s exciting, because you’re going through different phases. I mean, there was a time when I thought, “Oh, we’re going to look at the scandal,” but then the more research I did, Jessica Hahn was in articles like, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to be known for this. I don’t want to talk about this.” So I was like, “Well, wait a minute, I don’t want to create more trauma. I don’t want to, especially someone who’s been victimized in some sense, I don’t want to profit off of further victimization. So how can we tell the story responsibly also and focus on what’s important?” And I really loved Tammy’s idea that everyone is deserving of love. I felt like that was something that needed to be addressed, I guess in any time you’re in. 

GD: And what were some of her tics that you notice? Because you got the shoulder shrug and the giggle. What are some of the things about her that you wanted to make sure you brought into this character? 

JC: It kind of just happened by osmosis. I mean, the voice to me was the big thing. I’m talking a little higher now because I’m nervous having an interview, but my normal speaking voice, it’s a much lower voice and a lower register. She is so high in speaking (laughs). The pitch of her voice, it was kind of developing that, because I knew her voice was a big key for me. I watched hundreds of hours of unused footage that the documentary filmmakers gave me, so it really was just studying everything about her. It was reading about her. I kind of felt like, when we were shooting, I could have told you what she did from each day. I knew what perfume she wore from this year to this year, and then this year to this year, and I wore that. I knew what her favorite songs to listen to were when she wasn’t singing, like “Disco Jesus.” I knew so much about her and then also filling in the blanks and talking to the kids and talking to security that had worked with her and people that knew her. I just felt like at one point it kind of just became this overlap, where, unbeknownst to me, I was making the gesture she was making. And even when we stopped filming and even to this day now, every once in a while I’ll be like, (in Tammy’s accent) “Oh, yeah!” That was Tammy! I think because I studied her for so long and I was so enmeshed in who she was, I don’t know that I’ll ever really say goodbye to her. 

GD: And the hair and makeup are so critical. I had the opportunity to speak with Linda Dowds and Stephanie Ingram, who are the heads of hair and makeup, and they gave me some insight on the process. But what was it like for you to go through a physical transformation and what does that change for you as an actor? 

JC: It helps me. It’s complicated because if you look at a lot of the characters I play, I love any kind of physical transformation and I find that sometimes with actresses, it’s not as welcomed, necessarily, as with actors, because so much with actresses, it’s like the currency is the way we look in some sense, right? And so, to change that, especially drastically, can be a shocking thing. There’s so many times I’ve come onto a set and a studio has been like, “Can we just keep your hair red?” There’s been a lot of conversations about the fear of me looking different than I do, than the audience is used to seeing me. But I’ve worked with Linda and Stephanie for over a decade. I trust them implicitly. If you look at “Molly’s Game,” if you look at “X-Men,” if you look at “Miss Sloane,” all of these characters, or “Crimson Peak,” it’s all Linda and Stephanie and I find that if I look like me when I’m playing a character, it’s so much more difficult to find the truth of who I’m playing. I want to play people different than me. And so, to have Linda and Stephanie and Justin [Raleigh] help me so much with “Tammy,” I just don’t know how it would be possible otherwise. I sat with Searchlight and after the first test, which honestly was not a great day (laughs), I’m just going to be honest and it’s normal, it’s like a first rehearsal of anything, it’s a tough day and I was panicked, and David Greenbaum was like, “We could do it without?” And we did one day where we just kind of tried to do some makeup and we were like, “No.” There’s so much about Tammy and how she presented herself, she was so aware of how she walked into the world. I needed to go through that. And by accepting it and understanding the obstacle, it actually helped me because it created more energy than I thought was possible, and that’s Tammy in a nutshell. 

GD: Wow. And she was so into makeup that she had some tattooed on her face. So what do you think that represented to her? People made fun of her for it. Do you know or have any inside information about how she took that in herself? 

JC: Yeah. Well, I think with anything, when you’re studying something, usually on a film, you don’t get that much time to prep, and so you have to make a quick decision, unlike theater, where theater, you get more time to develop your character. Film, you make a quick decision and you live with it. In the beginning, I used to think about Tammy as a woman who wore a mask, and what was behind the mask? And then the more I studied her, I read her books and then also studied RuPaul, who narrated her documentary… Now, Ru says something about how drag isn’t a mask, it’s a revealing. And even in editing the film, we realized, actually, she’s not hiding behind a mask. She’s revealing what she feels inside, through how she’s expressing herself. It’s like a creative artistry for her, and so many people in her life were trying to change her. She started in a Protestant church. No makeup was allowed. There’s so many ideas of, you’re not allowed to be who you see yourself as, that I think she finally was like, “I’m going to tattoo it on my face,” and there is the scene in the documentary where the makeup artist is like, “Let me take your makeup off,” and she’s like, “No, I can’t. It’s tattooed on.” And in all of her books, and there’s an interview with Roseanne Barr on “The Roseanne Show,” Roseanne’s like, “Your makeup’s extreme.” So many people made fun of her for her makeup and tried to shame her with it that she finally got to the point of, “You know what? I’m going to talk to my face as a rebellious act of authenticity and individuality.” And that was exciting to me, to kind of go beyond the first impression of, “Oh, it’s a mask, what are you hiding,” to, “Well, wait a minute. What if it’s actually her expressing how she feels about who she is?”

GD: And we do get to see her childhood in International Falls, Minnesota, and that was new to me. I didn’t know much about her upbringing at all, so that’s important to the story to see where she came from because she’s the daughter of a divorced mother, who was shunned from the church, so she couldn’t attend for that, and her mother was only allowed in because she could play the piano. So how do you think that impacted Tammy Faye’s trajectory? 

JC: Oh, it’s huge, because in some sense, very early on, Tammy associated the spirit or grace with love and also being denied it as a young child. She was the embodiment of shame. She was the child of the first marriage. The father left the family. So every time she shows up, she’s a reminder of the shame of the broken home in that religious community. So she understands what it means to be on the outside, which I think is also why she worked so hard with any community that felt like they were forgotten or denied the grace of God. She worked so hard to make them feel included and loved because she knew what it felt like to not be. I think also, when you read her books, you discover she really had the moment in church where she spoke in tongues and it changed her life. I don’t know that it’s the grace of God or if it’s a child that’s so desperately in need of love. And when she does it, everyone in this community who thought she was unworthy and shameful now look at her with with love and as though she is now important. To me, that’s everything about our movie, because it really connects her to what is this obsessive connection she has with wanting to be seen in terms of being in front of the camera, in terms of why is she needing to connect to people? And I think it’s feeling unworthy of love. 

GD: And she ultimately ends up sort of in the same position as her mother, rejected by a faith community she was so desperate to be a part of. And I also want to just mention Cherry Jones, who plays the mother. So what was that, working with Cherry, and what sort of mother-daughter portrayal were you guys looking to show? 

JC: Well, first, I just have to because I’m obsessed with Cherry Jones, and I’ll tell you, I did “The Heiress” on Broadway, and I don’t know why I did. Cherry Jones did the best version of Catherine Sloper that could ever be on Broadway, and it was kind of like, “Wow, I got offered to do this play, great!” But without actually thinking, there’s already been the perfect performance. Like, why do it? And so I was already nervous about Cherry Jones and I was doing the show and then one day afterwards, it was like 2012, she came backstage and she had just seen it, and I was like, “Oh, god! This actress who I adore just saw me.” And she was so generous to me, and she had all these books that she handed me and she talked about acting as a sisterhood and about how when she had played Catherine Sloper, Julie Harris gave her those books, because Julie Harris had played Catherine. And it’s a passing down this kind of connection that we all have. And immediately, I mean, from then on, I truly believe that also. I believe the whole idea of ranking is such a strange thing when you’re kind of opening up your heart and your insecurities and your soul and your fear to strangers. To be like, “Oh, well, that person did a better job opening themselves up than that person,” it’s just strange to rank it. So she taught me so much in that moment, and I just needed to work with her. I’m obsessed with her. I find her to be an incredible human being. I find her to be one of the best parts of our film and every time she’s onscreen, it’s just like, “Oh, thank god.” But I find that I find that to be true about her and everything, in “Succession,” in that movie she did, “Signs.” I think whatever she shows up, she’s one of the best things there is. 

GD: And, of course, Andrew Garfield, who we mentioned earlier, plays Tammy’s husband, Jim Bakker. You two have great scenes together. I love the bedroom scene where the conflict is coming to a head and he just storms out. 

JC: The lotion scene. I call that the lotion scene ‘cause there was a lot of lotion on my body that day (laughs). 

GD: What was it like shooting with him? Was there improv in some of that? What was that like, working with Andrew? 

JC: Yeah, I mean, he’s an incredible actor. And how wonderful, too, he’s having such a great year with this and “tick, tick… BOOM!” He’s such a beautiful actor, and he’s someone who really throws himself in, in an obsessive way. So we have a very similar way of working, and for hours we would sit in the makeup trailer and share videos with each other and talk about the scenes. We knew so much about these characters that by the time we were on set, yes, we can improv. I mean, we were completely open to the other person and there’s a lot, like even in the trailer, our big fight scene, “I built you an empire,” “You built you an empire,” “A woman needs a man,” “You’re not a man, you’re a boy.” All that stuff is all improved. It’s just like having an actor who’s prepared, who takes it very seriously, isn’t making a joke out of something, that you’re free to… it sounds so cheesy. I’m listening to myself, I sound so cheesy, but you feel like you can let go of your mind and just kind of float with someone like that. And that’s Andrew. So I’m glad we had all those scenes that we created for him because it was probably the most rewarding part of making the film to me, was having that partner in him. 

GD: And we’re an awards website at Gold Derby and you’ve been nominated for a couple Oscars in the past for “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” I’m curious, what are your memories of being thrust into that spotlight and getting an Oscar nomination? Do you have a weird or funny memory of that first big awards show that you attended?

JC: Well, yeah, I brought my grandma. That was exciting. What’s shocking is it was 10 years ago because my movies came out in 2011 and my first ceremony was 2012. And, I mean, a lot’s happened in 10 years. I’ve really been very lucky because when I started in the industry, it was a time where women really had a shelf life and I was entering the industry… (laughs) it was like, “Hey, welcome to this new actress! By the way, she’s in her 30s!” It was really a scary time to enter the industry and I feel so fortunate and grateful to have had the career I’ve had in the last decade. And I’ll tell you, it was pretty intense because it was like being shot out of a canyon from the very beginning. With “The Help,” with all of those movies, “The Tree of Life” winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes, the costars I was getting to work with, having Gary Oldman walk up to me at the red carpet at the Palm Springs Film Festival and talking about my work, my life could not have been more different from one year to the next and so, I’m incredibly, incredibly grateful. 

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