“There’s something about Tammy Faye that says what’s different about you is what’s special about you.”
Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) and Oscar nominated actress Jessica Chastain are generally not seen on the same breath. “I’m so obsessed with her. I studied her for 10 years.” This work resulted in Tammy Faye’s eyes (in theaters September 17), which Chastain also produced. “Every day I told myself that I could be laughed at,” but she finally realized that was exactly what Tammy Faye was feeling. “She thought, they’re going to laugh at me. I’ll do it anyway.” To get through some scenes, especially the live vocals, Chastain turned to liquid courage. “My assistant had a bag full of whiskey. I was so embarrassed to sing in front of people, but that’s what got me through it.” For Chastain, the ultimate conclusion she hopes people will take away from the film is how inclusive Tammy Faye was. “In a time when the government wouldn’t even say AIDS and communities were dying, here is this woman in this world ruled by white men. She says Christians are supposed to love everyone and yet we are so afraid of an AIDS patient? She was really out there and radical and cool and was really talking about what faith is meant to be. “
Tammy Faye is considered so over the top. How did you find the right balance?
I love that she lived larger than life in every aspect: her clothes, her voice and how stupid she was. It was all like, “I’ll take as much room as I can boys. So get ready.” I love it about her. But also I don’t want it to look like I’m laughing at her. Law? It would be terrible. Some things that I literally took straight from his mouth. Like when she says, “I’m not a junkie.” And then she says, “Well, I’m addicted to Diet Coke.” It literally comes from an interview she gave about not being a drug addict. It’s genius. And the Gary Paxton scene. As it was written, I was like, “This is crazy and silly.” And then I just thought it was a woman who hadn’t been seen by a man for a very long time and was told she was beautiful and special. So what happens when we tell him that? We kind of let that emotion of how it feels to be wanted take over. And then when silliness comes in, it balances things out because it’s based on something real.
How emotionally connected did you feel to Tammy Faye during the process?
I love it. I am so obsessed with her. I am so sad that I never met her. I studied it for 10 years. I have read all of his books. I read his son Jay Bakker’s book. I read every book, watched every movie and TV show I could find. I watched all the Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey stuff [executive producers] gave me that they did not use in the documentary. I watched Surreal life, it is paradise !
It was truly an amazing moment in pop culture.
I am obsessed. I think I’ve seen her make butterscotch on TV three times. [laughs]
Considering that this is definitely not a typical character for you, how did you first think you could play Tammy Faye?
I was on a press tour for Dark Zero 30 and I was jet lagged and the documentary was on TV. I had seen it before. I was like, “Wait a minute, that couldn’t be more different than what I just did.” Everyone sees me in a way. There is also the voice challenge. It’s so much higher than mine, the accent, the singing, the preaching, the physical, embarrassing me every day. There’s nothing about Tammy that she’s ever been cool. [laughs] This interview with Steve Pieters [an AIDS patient Tammy Faye interviewed on the PTL Network] for me was something. Like, it’s about time we as a society stopped talking about how much mascara she was wearing and started talking about what she actually did. At a time when the government wouldn’t even say AIDS and communities were dying, here’s this woman, a televangelist in this world ruled by white men and she brings Steve Pieters on her show. She says Christians are supposed to love everyone and yet we are so afraid of an AIDS patient that we won’t put our arms around them and tell them we care? To me, it was like this woman was punk rock. She was really out there and radical and cool and was really talking about what faith is meant to be.
Speaking of which, Tammy Faye touched the queer community in unexpected ways. Was this part of your research, and why do you think it was?
I know how special she is to the queer community. That’s why I put, at the end of the film, when she preaches in the middle of this song, these are her real words. She says she has faith that speaks of the grace of God and she says, “God leaned down and said, ‘Tammy Faye, I love you and I love you as you are. God’s grace is enough for you. today and he loves you the way you are. ‘”To me, there’s something about Tammy Faye that says what’s different about you is what’s special about you. Really go ahead love it and don’t apologize. She had the fearlessness of a drag queen, and I wish I had that. Every day I was like, I’m being made fun of but also I’m going to live to be who I am and I’m going to be expressive and I’m going to be creative, and I’m going to take up space in this world, and I’m going to love and I deserve these things. I wonder if this is why so many people have logged into her?
You’ve touched on something I’ve always believed in, Tammy Faye truly is a drag icon. Considering this, how did the drag influence your performance?
It was every day. For me, I am someone, unfortunately I am constantly embarrassed. I’m ashamed when people sing me happy birthday! I feel shy when people look at me. It’s strange that I chose this profession, but when I go on stage and do theater, I need someone to push me on the stage because I’m so nervous. And when I did that, that’s the only time it ever happened to me on a movie, but the very first day of filming I got on set and my whole body was in a convulsion. I was shaking. My voice was shaking. I’m like in my head, “Everyone is going to laugh at me. What have I done? I’m fighting for the fences here and they are going to laugh at me and they are going to laugh at me. ” And what I did – which is so crazy, because it’s not me at all – before the first take, I said, “Come on, let’s have a prayer. “And I asked everyone to hold hands. I prayed as Tammy Faye Bakker. I was like, I need to get into this. We don’t play here. I have to come to the point that yes people are going to laugh at me, but who cares? And I realized that was what she felt every day. She thought they were going to laugh at me. They will laugh at me. I will do it anyway. That’s why she’s so strong. And that’s why she was a joy to play.
How did you prepare to play the musical numbers with all these prostheses?
Dave Cobb worked on all the music. Dave Cobb! Who has A star is born with Lady Gaga. I was crazy! I was like, “Look, I’m not Lady Gaga. It’s so out of my comfort zone.” My assistant had a bag and it was filled with whiskey. I just drank whiskey. I was so embarrassed to sing in front of people, but that’s what got me through it.
Which era of Tammy Faye did you react the most to?
The 90s with the dark red hair and the leopard print with the red jacket, I loved it. I also love that crazy big curly wig she had. Do you remember
Oh yeah, he lives rent free in my mind. That of Christmas of the 80s!
I mean, she’s wearing this little Christmas outfit with these curls. These two were my favorites.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
What would make me super happy is for people to see the movie and then realize that they are worthy of love and compassion. It doesn’t matter where they come from, it doesn’t matter if they feel the darkness inside, if they feel pain inside. A lot of people feel like they are not worthy, and Tammy Faye really reached out and said, “You deserve grace, and no one is to be rejected.” This is a very important lesson for me. This idea that those who could have been brought up have the feeling of being alone, of knowing that they are not, that they are all in the grace of God, and that they are all bound by love.
Considering the level of glamor, hairstyle, and makeup, you’re basically ready to be a drag queen. Are you ready for RuPaul’s Drag Race?
If I drank whiskey the first day [of filming], can you imagine what my handbag would look like if i showed up on the Drag race? [laughs] I just have to say that one of my favorite things I have ever seen is Andrew Garfield on Drag race. Have you seen this? He does that kind of trick.
He does a track pose better than any straight man I’ve ever seen. But it could be you!
Honey, I need help. I really need to get Tammy Faye’s spirit back. Like I said, I’m very embarrassed even when people sing happy birthday to me. So, in order for me to do something like this, I would need a mentor.