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On the first day of production, right before cameras rolled on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain said a prayer.
By that point, she had spent nearly a decade trying to get the movie made, having bought the film rights to the 2000 documentary of the same name from directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato after watching it in 2012 during a night of insomnia while on the Zero Dark Thirty press tour. It had been long enough that in the intervening years, she was nominated for two Oscars (for Zero Dark Thirty and 2011’s The Help), worked with Ridley Scott (2015’s The Martian) and Aaron Sorkin (2017’s Molly’s Game), and started her own production company, Freckle Films. Long enough that when she first pitched it to exec David Greenbaum, there was still a “Fox” in front of Searchlight Pictures. Still, despite the lead time, on that mid-November morning in North Carolina, Chastain had one last hurdle to get over — her own fear. “I’m going to fail so spectacularly,” she remembers thinking of the part. “This will follow me for the rest of my career.”
The actress sees her role as Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) — the televangelist who became a tabloid regular once it was revealed that her husband, Jim Bakker, had used church donations for personal expenses, including hush money for Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary who accused him of rape — as her biggest swing to date. It’s one she was willing to take because of her dedication to play a woman whose story she desperately wanted to recast after it was relegated to mean-spirited — and what Chastain saw as largely misogynistic — late night joke fodder. “The media has done an injustice that it could be interesting to correct,” says Chastain of her desire to tackle the role. “People were more interested in how much mascara Tammy Faye Bakker was wearing than what she was actually saying.” And, with the movie set for a Sept. 12 Toronto Film Festival premiere and Chastain already generating early buzz for the type of deeply transformational role that can carry a campaign for the requisite six months, she is likely to be laughing all the way through awards season.
But the worry on that November morning on the North Carolina set was that she, like Messner, would wind up on the end of a punchline. This is when Chastain reached for the hands of her Tammy Faye cast and crew, including director Michael Showalter and co-stars Andrew Garfield and Cherry Jones, to lead them in a blessing — because it was what Messner would do. Says Chastain, “I kind of had to just shove myself off a cliff.”
It was only one month prior that the actress had been in London with her Freckle Films partner Kelly Carmichael, wrapping up production on a markedly different project: Universal’s splashy all-female spy thriller The 355. “Jess would shoot all day, she would get home and have dialect lessons, then we would interview [heads of departments], then we would review prosthetic molds and drawings,” explains Carmichael of the hectic schedule that had the duo doing prep for Tammy Faye while filming 355. Transforming into Messner involved perfecting her singular Minnesotan drawl and compiling a wardrobe with enough lamé and sequins to make Liberace blush.
The first time Chastain saw herself in the prosthetics and Messner’s signature makeup, she admits to having a “bit of a panic.” Notes Carmichael, “This was a very crucial piece that had to work. I think the prosthetics and the look of the actors was the thing that kept us all awake at night.”
To further prepare for the role, Chastain read Messner’s and Bakker’s memoirs, watched every clip available on YouTube and procured unseen footage from Messner’s children, Tammy Sue and Jay (Messner died of cancer in 2007). Chastain had called both while the project was still in development to explain the premise: “[Tammy Sue] said, ‘No one’s ever reached out to us. So many people have profited off of our family, and no one’s even asked us what we thought about anything.’ ”
The research continued into production, with Chastain and Garfield attending church services at the Bakkers’ former Fort Mill headquarters (and amusement park), Heritage USA. “We were very shy. Like, ‘Are people going to recognize us? Are they going to throw us out?’ We didn’t know what was going to happen,” says Chastain, who adds that they were welcomed, openly. They continued to attend services once a week during production.
For Chastain, the most important scene to get right was Messner’s 1985 interview with Christian AIDS patient Steve Pieters, notable for showcasing LGBTQ issues to her markedly conservative, Christian audience at PTL Network. Every day, to get into character and practice her accent, Chastain would rehearse the exchange. She notes that the movie’s re-creation is not a “carbon copy,” but one element was important for her to duplicate — a heart-shaped necklace like the one Messner wore in the original broadcast — because she saw it as an important outward manifestation of Messner’s message that “everyone is deserving of love.” And the day production filmed the interview scene, Tammy Sue happened to visit the set and was wearing her mother’s necklace. “They were on the monitor, and when I finished shooting I came to hug them, and I was like, ‘That’s the necklace!’ ” remembers the actress, who read the coincidence as a positive omen.
Chastain likens Messner’s story to Lorena Bobbitt’s and Tonya Harding’s, who have gotten their Hollywood recontextualization with Amazon’s Lorena and the Margot Robbie-fronted I, Tonya. With The Eyes of Tammy Faye readying for release, Chastain hopes that audiences revisit their own preconceptions. Either way, the actress no longer is plagued by the worry that “people will make fun of me.” Says Chastain: “Tammy Faye probably thought that and then she did it anyway.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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