A screening of the “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” starring Jessica Chastain was the Saturday night main event for Arkansas Cinema Society’s Filmland festival. The new film is biography of a televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who rose to fame beside her husband Jim Bakker as hosts of cable’s “The PTL [Praise the Lord] Club.” In the 1980s, the Bakkers sat on top of a Christian empire — thanks, in no small part, to a round-the-clock cable channel that would, at its peak, haul in 20 million viewers. The empire would eventually fall in a gaudy, made-in-tabloid-heaven crash with an aftermath that saw Jim in jail for financial improprieties and Tammy Faye and her trademark overly made-up face the subject of national ridicule. Chastain came to Filmland to promote “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which she produced, and which is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. And, however overblown the hype may be surrounding the Oscars, Chastain’s performance as Tammy Faye is so engrossing and all-encompassing that you have to believe that come award season, she’ll at least be in the conversation.
Once you decided to take on the role of Tammy Faye, what was your major concern about playing this specific role?
I didn’t want to tell a cynical story that makes fun of people or that creates more trauma. There was so much trauma around this family and around the kids of Tammy. I saw an interview with Jessica Hahn [the then church secretary who accused Jim Bakker of rape] and she said she didn’t want to talk about this anymore and wanted to be left alone. I thought it was irresponsible to talk about her, as she didn’t have anything to do with Tammy Faye’s story. The easy choice for this film is the cynical choice and that is not the choice I wanted to make.
But isn’t there this constant strain between deeply religious people and Hollywood?
Exactly. I did a movie [called] “Tree of Life” with Terrence Malik and he taught me so much about faith and religion. I looked at art and music and my character is the epitome of grace in the film. I find that movies that have an earnest belief in or sincerity about faith tend to get made fun of by Hollywood and by critics. I learned that with that film and with “Interstellar” also, with Chris Nolan, because he says, “Love is the thing that transcends time and space.” People who want something cold and cynical, it’s not an interesting choice. It’s been done before. Let’s make something inclusive. In a time of so much division, let’s make something different. Why aren’t we trying to remind people what it is like to be in a community and part of humankind?
The choice of Michael Showalter as director, who comes from a comedy sketch background with “The State,” is an interesting one.
I know, but it was his take on [Faye]. There is a moment at the end of the movie that I have to give him complete credit for. There is a moment in the end where there are two realities — what Tammy sees is one reality and what the world sees is something different. Her reality has been with her the whole time. What we see is not cynical, but it’s sincere. And that’s Mike. I knew where he comes from is this satirical world but that wasn’t his take.
Do you feel like you are going to have to fight through that idea in promoting this film? That people are going to expect the comedy sketch instead of what you are talking about?
Yeah, but that is exciting to me. I like making movies where people go, “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this, because it’s not what I expected.” It’s the same way the media made me think Tammy was a clown and a criminal. That is not true. Tammy wasn’t tried or convicted of anything. What are we being fed and what are we actually thinking on our own? I like to make films that challenge people instead of the comfort of sleepwalking.
Do you have any memories of “The PTL Club”? Did you have any memories to draw on for this performance?
The only thing I knew was “SNL” — you know, the Church Lady and all that stuff. I didn’t grow up in a religious household so I never watched [“The PTL Club”]. It wasn’t until I watched the documentary [“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”] that I was surprised, especially the Steve Pieters interview. In 1985 [Faye] brings Steve Pieters, an openly gay minister with AIDS, on her show. This was the time when the country was battling homophobia and fears of AIDS and the Reagan administration isn’t talking about the AIDS epidemic. She looks at the camera and tells 20 million viewers that we need Christians to love through anything and love like Jesus. It’s so rebellious. It’s so radical and so Christian. I wanted to celebrate that.
Is that the moment you said, “This is what I want to do”?
I think so. Jerry Falwell was saying homosexuality was a cancer eating America. Tammy was an ordained minister in her own right. The fact that she did that on her own and the fact that conservative evangelicals were saying the opposite is exciting. She was so open about everyone deserving of love. She preached that until she died. Her son, Jay Baker, started Revolution Church and officiates gay weddings. The legacy lives on in her children.
In terms of you playing the role, was there a line or a costume, was there something where you hit the point that you go, “Now I am comfortable doing this”?
I never felt like I was comfortable. She is so different from me. Her voice is much higher and she has the Minnesota accent and the singing, which I am very uncomfortable doing. Every day felt like abject terror.
But you embraced that.
Yes, I know, again, that I am not sleepwalking. I don’t want to be comfortable. I want to have questions and grow.
Was this a movie where you rehearsed?
I worked a lot of rehearsal on my own. I knew I was going to play her for seven years. I felt like I had seen everything about her by the time I got on set.
When might we see this George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] project you are working on?
I think the end of next year. We start shooting in December. But it’s a miniseries with six episodes. Mike Shannon plays George and he’s a terrific singer. It’s an amazing story. They could never say goodbye to each other.
Are we gonna get to see George Jones on a lawnmower getting liquor?
Because [Tammy] hid the keys? Oh yeah. It could get cut, but I don’t imagine that they will cut that.