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Jessica Chastain on playing Tammy Faye Bakker: "She just sounds like such a kick"

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

When Jessica Chastain arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2011 for her first major press visit here, hobbling on crutches from a motorcycle accident, she was so unknown as an actor she was almost invisible.

Her breakthrough film, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning ethereal drama “The Tree of Life,” in which she played Brad Pitt’s wife, hadn’t yet opened in theatres. Neither had the civil rights drama “The Help” or the sci-fi thriller “Take Shelter.” All three films would garner Chastain much notice and acclaim later that year.

A lot has happened to Chastain, 44, in the 10 years since that unassuming visit. She admits over a Zoom interview that “it’s really mind-blowing” to recall: two Oscar nominations (for “The Help” in 2012 and “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2013), dozens of major film roles that have lifted her to A-list status and the creation of Freckle Films, her own production company.

Chastain returns to town this weekend for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, arriving as something of a conquering hero. She has two major films world premiering at TIFF, Michael Showalter’s celebrity biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and John Michael McDonagh’s marital drama “The Forgiven.”

She’s also going to be receiving the TIFF Tribute Actor Award, a festival prize that has proven to be something of an Oscar bellwether. Previous recipients have included the past two Best Actor Oscar winners, Anthony Hopkins and Joaquin Phoenix.

Chastain is delighted with the TIFF honour: “It’s really sweet — I’ve brought so many movies to TIFF.”

But one thing she’s really happy about is that she’s no longer being called the “It Girl,” as newspaper and magazine headlines described her meteoric rise to fame a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, I was at the beginning of the moment,” she says, speaking somewhere outdoors during our conversation as trees swayed behind her.

“I remember one thing that I hated was everyone saying, ‘the “It Girl,” the new girl Jessica Chastain!’ And I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to be the ‘It Girl.’ Because next year there’s gonna be another ‘It Girl’!”

She laughs at the thought — laughter comes easily to her — but the ironic thing is many festivalgoers will have trouble recognizing her behind the vast makeup and mascara for her role in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the biopic she produced and stars in that is bringing her the most attention and awards buzz at TIFF. Instead of calling her the “It Girl,” filmgoers might be asking, “Who’s that woman?”

Chastain plays the late televangelist and singer Tammy Faye Bakker who, along with her husband, Jim Bakker, abruptly went from fame to infamy in the late 1980s when sex and money scandals connected to Jim torpedoed their Christian broadcast empire PTL (Praise the Lord). Jim ended up in jail and so did Tammy’s second husband, Jim Messner. Both men were implicated in the diverting of millions of dollars of parishioners’ donations toward such dubious expenditures as a seven-foot bronze giraffe and an air-conditioned doghouse.

Tammy escaped the slammer, but not public shaming. The latter included much mocking for Tammy Faye’s penchant for slathering on bronzer, foundation and mascara, which Chastain had to steel herself to endure. Application of her Tammy Faye makeup required from four to seven hours before she was ready to appear before the cameras. Chastain has red hair, just like Tammy Faye, but that was about the only physical similarity between the two women.

In the film, Chastain really does look like Tammy Faye, who died in 2007, and whom I met and interviewed in 2000 when a doc about her premiered at Sundance, also called “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The doc forms the basis of this new drama. Then known as Tammy Faye Messner, she was dressed in black-and-yellow winter attire and looked like an arctic bumblebee.

The strange thing is, the more Chastain delved into Tammy Faye’s life, previously explored in the 2000 doc, the more she felt for her subject — not just sympathy but also real empathy.

“I never had the chance to meet her, sadly,” Chastain says. “But whenever I talk to someone who’s met her, it’s like the best stories. She just sounds like such a kick. I would have loved her.”

Chastain respects the bravery and love Tammy Faye displayed in the mid-1980s when she risked the wrath of America’s gay-averse evangelical leadership by interviewing a gay Christian minister with AIDS on her “Tammy’s House Party” TV show. The interview is recreated in the new movie.

“That was such a punk rock thing for her to do in that time period,” Chastain says. “It was so, so incredible. And such a reminder, actually, what Christianity is supposed to be about. For me, she was a force to be reckoned with in that time.”

Chastain is reluctant to join the popular pile-on regarding Tammy Faye’s freewheeling spending, much of it with donated money. She bristles when I ask if Tammy Faye was greedy, perhaps naively so.

“It depends on what you define ‘greedy’ as,” Chastain says. “Because I do think she was hardworking. And I do think that she should have been paid for all of the work she did.

“She created three television networks, broadcasting networks. She hosted a ton of television every single day. She wrote books, she recorded songs, she was constantly working. So I get uncomfortable sometimes when we talk about women being paid for their services as greedy, you know? Because the empire that she had created was so lucrative.”

Chastain also has something good to say about Tammy Faye’s notorious makeup, even though she worried about damaging her skin while wearing it herself. Was Tammy Faye hiding behind all that makeup?

“I see it as the opposite of hiding,” Chastain says. “Because it’s taking up more space, right? Her voice was so big, her bumblebee outfit that you saw her in was so fabulous and so crazy. Her songs are all out there. She’s doing kooky things all the time. So why would she be demure in her makeup? She had the fearlessness of a drag queen. She wanted to express herself … It was her being like, ‘Look at me!’" 🌗

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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