Jessica Chastain, Michael Shannon reveal 'George & Tammy' tragic love: 'Romeo and Juliet story'

SANTA MONICA, Calif.  – Jessica Chastain did all the heavy lifting in one weighty scene for Showtime's "George & Tammy."

As country legend Tammy Wynette, Chastain literally carried her 6-foot-3 co-star Michael Shannon – playing Wynette's passed-out husband, fellow country music legend George Jones – up a flight of stairs.

Two other actresses tried to help in the scene, each hoisting one of Shannon's feet in the constrained stairwell. But Shannon remained unmoved until Chastain repositioned and pulled his limp body onto her back to complete the stair climb – and the scene.

"Aren't you impressed?" Chastain triumphantly asks Shannon, as both are seated on a couch at Hotel Casa Del Mar. "Aren't you like, 'Man, she's 5-foot-4 and she carried my 6-foot-whatever (butt) up those stairs?'"

"My, God, she basically carried me herself," Shannon acknowledges. "And I had eaten a lot of barbecue that night too."

Solo heroics aside, it took the combined powers of Oscar-winning Chastain, 45, and two-time Oscar nominee Shannon, 48, to tell all the dramatic highs and lows of the president and first lady of country music in the six-part "George & Tammy" series (premiering Sunday, 9 EST/PST on both Showtime and Paramount Network).

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The two actors have chemistry and history, starring in the 2011 apocalyptic drama "Take Shelter," released the same year Chastain signed on for the movie version of the country superstars' story. As "George and Tammy" morphed over a decade and Josh Brolin dropped out of the Jones role, executive producer Chastain called up her "great collaborator" Shannon for an epic TV adventure – examining the famed couple with more than 30 No. 1 country hits between them.

"It could have easily been 10 episodes," says Chastain.

"There's still so much we couldn't get in," says Shannon. "But there's a reason why it's called 'George & Tammy.' We focused on what happened between these two, which is really like a Romeo and Juliet story."

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(L-R): Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette and Michael Shannon as George Jones in "George & Tammy."
(L-R): Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette and Michael Shannon as George Jones in "George & Tammy."

Married in 1969, for the third time each, Wynette and Jones packed a magnetic love and often-disturbing drama into their stormy six-year union – which included allegations that Jones chased his wife through the house with a rifle (a charge he denied in his autobiography), Jones' well-documented alcohol abuse, a divorce filing, and one reconciliation before their divorce was finalized in 1975.

The love and musical collaboration between the two continued even as they married new partners, right up until Wynette died at 55 in 1998 after health battles worsened by a debilitating addiction to painkillers. "They just couldn't quit each other. Ever," says Chastain.

Based on the 2011 memoir "The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George" by the couple's daughter Georgette Jones (who appears as a background singer), the series delves into their mutually destructive behavior and complicated lives.

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Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon star in “George & Tammy” a limited series about Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon star in “George & Tammy” a limited series about Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

"To me, 100%, they were equals," says Chastain. "And that's not normal in these relationships. Usually, it's one person who screws up while the other person is a savior, in some sense. But these people were equal in their talent and their self-destructiveness."

Chastain's performance counters the perception that Wynette, best known for her 1968 hit "Stand By Your Man," set back women with her songs and public persona.

"Everyone looks at Tammy Wynette and goes, 'She's singing this anti-woman song with lyrics all about needing a man,'" says Chastain of the one-time beautician who pursued her impossible singing dreams. "In reality, there was something quite punk rock about her. She showed up in Nashville unmarried with three kids, determined to be a singer. The only way she could do that in that time was to play the role of a woman incomplete without a man taking care of her."

Michael Shannon (center) as George Jones and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy."
Michael Shannon (center) as George Jones and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy."

Jones' infamous self-destructive behavior was intertwined with his tortured-icon persona before he got sober for good in 1999. He died in 2013 at 81. The tales of flushing $100 bills down toilets and hijacking a riding lawn mower to buy booze play out in "George & Tammy."

Shannon acted a little too effectively in one drunken lawnmower scene. "When I come home on the tractor and I got off, the lawnmower started rolling down the hill behind me," he says. "That was not supposed to happen. But I'm proudest of that scene."

The entire story is told through the couple's songs. After intensive training with music supervisor Rachael Moore, both actors sang live on set each day in vocal tribute to the iconic voices, rather than trying to impersonate them.

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Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy."
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in "George & Tammy."

"The singing didn't bother me too much," says Shannon, who performs in an alt-rock band. "But the notion that anyone could replicate these voices is ridiculous. George Jones had such incredible range; he could have been an opera singer."

Chastain ultimately performed a solo of Wynette's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" at Nashville, Tennessee's, historic Ryman Auditorium, on the anniversary of the singer's death.

"It was hard. There were so many extras there, and I had to explain why sometimes I wouldn't be able to sing because I would just start crying. It was very emotional," says Chastain. "But in the end, that was probably my favorite solo song to sing. It was incredible."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'George & Tammy': Jessica Chastain, Michael Shannon reveal love story