Jessica Chastain has built a résumé of portraying strong-willed women, but playing Tammy Faye Bakker was the first time she felt “exposed.” Believe it or not, she’s been working on bringing The Eyes of Tammy Faye to life since her most recent Best Actress nomination in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty.
“It’s been 10 years since I haven’t acknowledged, and it was around that time I got the rights to Tammy Faye’s story, so it really feels like full circle,” she said after her Oscar nomination this morning.
Chastain told me that when she found out she was nominated, she had a bit of a celebration with the other Best Actress nominees. From the sounds of it on our call, she seemed genuinely in shock.
“I FaceTimed with Penelope Cruz, who I love, and we jumped up and down together,” Chastain said. “Then I called Olivia Colman and celebrated with her. I don’t have Nicole [Kidman] or Kristen (Stewart’s] phone numbers, or I would have called them too. But to be acknowledged by the Academy, especially this year, is shocking.”
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Tammy Faye, along with husband Jim Bakker, built a multimillion-dollar evangelical empire via The PTL Club, a televangelist program they co-founded in 1974. In 1978, the couple built Heritage USA, a Christian theme park. Tammy Faye garnered significant publicity when her husband was indicted, convicted and imprisoned on numerous counts of fraud and conspiracy in 1989, resulting in the dissolution of The PTL Club.
Asked how she first heard about Bakker, Chastain said: “I think the first time I ever heard of her wasn’t even her, I think it was Saturday Night Live, then I remember she was on Drew Carey and The Surreal Life, but honestly I only really knew of her from tabloid covers. This is the idea she represented when I was young. She was society’s punching bag.”
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The evangelical star, who died in 2007, certainly was the butt of jokes for many years. Everything from her makeup to her clothing style was scrutinized by the tabloids. However, this is part of the reason Chastain wanted to bring this story to life — to show another side to a woman the public knew little about.
“Everyone expected our film to eviscerate her, but we did the opposite,” the actress said. “There’s something about having chosen to celebrate this woman, who I felt like had been vilified by the media — it made me re-examine her life and her radical acts of love, especially in a time where cynicism is so celebrated.”
One of the most important aspects of Tammy Faye’s personality that Chastain wanted to put on display is those “radical acts of love.”
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“I knew she was a celebrated ally of the LGBTQ community, but when I watched the  documentary of the same name, it was her radical acts of love that touched me. I remember she was on a show and she brings on an openly gay minister with HIV/AIDS. She looks into a camera and she says, ‘Christians need to love through anything. And that’s the way with Jesus,’ and she reminds people that this is what it means to be Christian at the time. She turned her backs on the conservative evangelical community because she committed a radical act of love. No one talked about that. All people talked about was her runny mascara.”
At the end of the day, the actress realizes that playing someone who’s constantly misunderstood taught her to be open to showing emotions, even to strangers.
“She was just an open person who is openly emotional and earnest,” Chastain said. “I think that’s why so many people connected to her. I had to be careful not to be too emotional, but the reality is that does a disservice to society and interpersonal relationships. The more we have open earnest acts of kindness, I think we can build a healthier society. Maybe that’s what I learned from her — that it’s OK to wear your heart on your sleeve. That’s it’s OK to be vulnerable.
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