Jessica Chastain knew she wanted to make a movie about Tammy Faye Bakker’s life when she was watching the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and saw the late televangelist’s 1985 interview on “The PTL Club” with Steve Pieters, a gay minister who was diagnosed with HIV.
“I was just like, whoa, we were in a time in this nation where the government isn’t acknowledging the AIDS epidemic and here is this Christian woman in a community, a very conservative televangelist [community], and she is being rebellious,” Chastain tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “And she’s bringing Steve Pieters on. He’s an openly gay minister. And not only is she talking to him about his experience of coming out to his family but she looks at the audience and says, ‘We as mom and dads need to love through anything, and that’s the way with Jesus.’ And not only did she say that, but she also said, ‘As Christians, we have to put our arms around everyone and tell them that we care.’”
Chastain admits she never knew about this side of Bakker. “I grew up where the only thing I really knew about Tammy Faye was like what comedy sketches and impersonations told me, covers of magazines and tabloids. I really thought, Oh, she must be a terrible person because that’s what I was being fed,” she says.
The Oscar-nominated Chastain stars in the Michael Showalter-directed scripted feature “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” as Tammy with Andrew Garfield as her first husband Jim Bakker. The couple’s religious empire crumbled when Jim was sent prison for mail and wire fraud and conspiracy.
Tammy struggled with addiction and remarried before she died in 2007 at the age of 65 after an 11-year battle with cancer. The film marks Chastain’s big screen singing debut. “She loved being alive and taking up space and singing loudly and wearing makeup that everyone could see,” the actor says, adding, “Everything about her was so large.”
Chastain recalls being in full makeup and wardrobe and sending video messages from set to friends Sebastian Stan and Daniel Brühl. “I would send little videograms to my friends and they were like, ‘What are you doing?’” she says, laughing.
Chastain approached the Bakkers’ children, Jim and Tammy Sue, long before filming began. “We talked many times on the phone and texted. It took them a few times, I think, before they felt safe with me,” Chastain says. “I would like to think they feel safe with me now.” Tammy Sue is heard singing her mother’s song “Don’t Give Up (On the Brink of a Miracle)” during the film’s end credits.
“I knew when we were making the film, I didn’t want to do anything that created trauma and retraumatized people,” Chastain says, adding, “I wanted to let them know what my intentions were. … I wasn’t hoping to profit off of pain.” In fact, she adds, “If the kids, after those conversations, were like, ‘Please, please do not do this,’ I wouldn’t do it.”
You can listen to the full interview with Chastain above. “Just for Variety” is also available at Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.