Why televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker was the hardest role of Jessica Chastain's career

By Amy Kaufman

Jessica Chastain's whole body was shaking. She'd never been this nervous on a film set — not with the kind of anxiety that gave her trouble breathing.

What am I so afraid of? The thought reverberated in her head. She'd played a superhero so powerful she could rearrange the structure of matter. The ringleader of a high-stakes underground Hollywood poker game. A CIA analyst who took down Osama bin Laden.

But this was Tammy Faye Bakker, the infamous televangelist recognized more for her heavy makeup than the fact that her husband, Jim, stole millions from his own parishioners. To play her, Chastain would put on gobs of mascara and lip liner, adopt a thick Minnesotan accent and belt out songs about loving Jesus.

"I was scared the people were going to make fun of me," the actor recalled of her on-set jitters. "And there's going to be a lot to make fun of if I fail because it's so out there. I'm swinging for the fences here."

But that was the reality Bakker — who died in 2007 after a long bout with cancer — faced every day. Remembering the ridicule Bakker endured — and ultimately ignored — allowed Chastain to quell her panic: "You have to let go of your ego and wanting to look cool. This is connecting you to her."

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye," out Sept. 17, will mark the culmination of Chastain's near-decade-long journey to bring Bakker's story to the big screen. In 2012, while on the press tour for "Zero Dark Thirty," she was switching through the TV channels in her hotel room when she stumbled across a documentary on Bakker. Chastain had seen the film — directed by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey in 2000 — before, but on this night she connected with it on a different level.

So she secured the rights to the doc, which had the same name as the eventual feature film. She had yet to establish her production company, Freckle Films, but still found a home for the project at Fox Searchlight. The studio will debut the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the 44-year-old Chastain will receive the event's Tribute Actor Award.

She has another movie playing at the festival — "The Forgiven," a drama co-starring Ralph Fiennes — and also will appear in an HBO limited-series remake of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" beginning Sept. 12.

From her home in the countryside of New York, where only birdsong interrupted her speech, Chastain spoke to the Los Angeles Times about playing Bakker.

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Q: What was your impression of Tammy Faye?

A: I had been fed that she was a terrible human being — a clown and a joke. The media taught me that she used people and stole their money. I had this judgment against her, and I realized it's so fascinating how the media can give everyone a collective memory that may not really be the truth. It's not right. I wanted to do something about it to honor her.

Q: Once you secured the rights to the documentary, did you always envision yourself playing her?

A: Yes, 100%. But also, there's shades of me in it. I love that Tammy Faye doesn't write anyone off. I love that she believes everyone is deserving of love without judgment. Even if someone thinks differently than me, I'm always trying to understand where it comes from. I find whenever there's anger or judgment or prejudice or bias, it's coming from some sadness. So I connected with her on that.

Q: What is your religious background?

A: I don't know. I don't have a religious background. I'm definitely someone who believes that everyone is deserving of love and you do unto others as you would have done unto you. I'm not connected to any organized religion, but I definitely am a faith-based person. I think working with Terrence Malick on "The Tree of Life" created that in me. There was so much he gave me to read and explore from different religions. And this idea that there's something collectively greater than the individual — I find that to be a beautiful thought. I'm super interested in exploring different forms of faith. And I have some disagreements with some of the things she thought.

Q: Like what?

A: Ummm — I mean, I don't want to go into it. (Laughs.) But I absolutely connect to this idea that God is love.

Q: How did you find all the archival footage of her?

A: I was very lucky to watch anything that the [documentary filmmakers] had. But also, there's so much on YouTube. I've seen so many versions of Tammy Faye making fudge. That is something this girl loved to do — make fudge.

Q: Have you tried it?

A: It's not vegan [so no]. It's definitely not a healthy fudge. She put marshmallow whip in it.

Q: What did you learn about Tammy Faye's relationship to makeup?

A: This was a conversation we had, all of us as a group, the studio and everything — up until the final moment: Do we need to explain why she wears so much makeup? And for me, no. It's nobody's business. It makes her feel pretty. That's enough. This is how she wants to present herself in the world. Why do we need to justify it? And instead of judging someone for wearing too many pantsuits — especially women — women get judged on our appearance, unlike men. We're wearing too much makeup. Not enough makeup. Too short of skirts. Our hair's too crazy. It's like, you know what? Everyone just needs to shut up about how a woman is presenting themselves in the world.

Q: What is your relationship to makeup?

A: I'm wearing some mascara because I'm very fair, so I do like mascara. I do find — maybe similar to her — that mascara really kind of centers the face. You see the eyes. But I love playing with makeup. Not when I'm alone at home, or even with my husband. But if I'm going out or if I have an event, I love a makeup artist just doing something incredible. I'm obsessed with a red lip. I think that's so fabulous.

Q: What was it like the first time you saw yourself made up as Tammy?

A: The very first test I did was difficult, honestly. I mean, we fixed it. But I was freaked out. I was like, "I don't know how to act like this." People think it's easier, but it's not. You have to reach through the makeup — you can't let the makeup be the performance. She was so emotional, and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to get emotional with all this stuff all over me. Am I going to be able to see people and feel free? I just had to get used to it. So much for me is I have to trick my mind.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Like going, "OK, let's make some lemonade here" — that was one of Tammy's songs — I am so lucky that I get these four hours to listen to Tammy before I go on set. I still have the AirPods that are covered with makeup.

Q: Four hours? Was it just coats and coats of makeup?

A: The longest was actually seven-and-a-half hours. And I got to set and I was so panicky. I started to have hot flashes because it's so heavy and hot. I was afraid. It was like going on a long-distance flight every day. Because if it takes seven-and-a-half hours to put on, it's going to take at least two hours to get off. It was concerning to me. I was worried about my circulation. By the time I got on set that first day that was seven-and-a-half hours, I was like, "I have no energy left." And she's supposed to show up with so much energy. That was the '90s look — the very end. That's the most prosthetics I've worn. Even the bronzer and the foundation are so much darker, the lashes are thicker. The makeup gets heavier as she gets older.

Q: How did you keep your skin from breaking out?

A: I think for sure I've done some permanent damage to my skin on this. Listen, I eat very pure and I take very good care of my skin and I stay out of the sun and all that stuff. But it's heavy. And when you're wearing it all day every day — the weight of it on your body, it stretches your skin out. I finally took it off and I was like, "I look 50 years old!" (Laughs.) No, I'm kidding. But it's fine. It's for my art.

Q: I know you spoke to Tammy Faye's children, Tammy Sue and Jay Bakker. How did they feel about this movie being made?

A: I think in the beginning, they were scared. These kids grew up in the public eye. Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker invented religious broadcasting before there was reality television, and Tammy invited the cameras into her home. So on Christmas, you're there with the kids in their house. So I was concerned for them. Would this be traumatizing? So I reached out to them immediately and I was told that other projects haven't reached out to them. They've always felt like, "This is our lives, and yet we're not being included." So they were very happy. It was a good risk that was taken. Because it's easier, in some sense, to not reach out. You don't want to have the call that's like, "Leave my family alone. Don't do this."

Q: What did you ask them about their mom?

A: What perfume did your mom wear? That, to me, is so important — I wanted to know what she smelled like because I never got to meet her. I would say to them, "What was your mom's favorite color?" And Tammy Sue said to me, "My mom had two favorite colors: pink and leopard." I asked what kind of music she listened to. She loved Patsy Cline and Ray Charles. I wanted to know sensorial things that weren't in my research.

Q: Their father, Jim Bakker, is still alive, back on TV preaching and peddling COVID-19 cures. Do you think that complicates the film's release?

A: I don't see it as a complication. I think it perhaps would be if we were telling the story of after he got out of prison. Listen, I have my own thoughts on everything. But when you're playing a character who does complicated, not-nice things, it's important to see them as a human being. But I do think that Andrew [Garfield] did an amazing job at humanizing Jim. He was very good about reading Jim's book that he wrote when he was in prison about everything that had happened. In fact, that was the gift that I got Andrew when he signed on. I bought an autographed copy for him.

Q: Do you believe Tammy was involved in — or knew about — her husband's crimes?

A: What matters to me is that she was never tried. There was never any evidence that said she knew. What matters to me is that society and the media found her guilty based on what? Based on her mascara?

Q: Do you think this is the most extreme role you've ever taken on?

A: Oh, for sure. For sure, for sure, for sure. It's the hardest. Also, singing. The day I went to do it, I tweeted something like: "I am living off of bourbon and Throat Coat." Because I was so scared. I actually drank Throat Coat tea with whiskey while I was doing the singing. I'm not hardcore like that! But I was like, there's no way that I can be this nervous, and that was my get-ya-through-it recipe.

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