Jessica Chastain can thank another blonde character she's played for her latest role, portraying country music legend Tammy Wynette in the Showtime limited series George & Tammy.
"When I was doing press for The Help, I think maybe there's something about my character that they thought, 'Oh, she could be Tammy,'" Chastain — who won an Oscar earlier this for playing another Tammy, Tammy Faye Bakker — says with a laugh while sitting in a Santa Monica hotel on a recent Sunday.
But Chastain, who's also a producer of the series, wasn't even familiar with the singer/songwriter, who died at just 55 years old in April 1998 (her daughter's engaged in a long investigation into their mother's death). "I grew up more in an Elvis household than a country music household," explains the actress, who was born and raised in Northern California.
The suggestion that she could play the singer, though, got her curious. "It was in that moment — really kind of at the beginning of my career — that I started to research her and listen to them," she says. "And I have a whole new appreciation for that songwriting 'cause it feels like diary entries. It feels so exposed and vulnerable."
Which translates to the new series, which debuted this past weekend and became the most-watched Showtime original series in history. Michael Shannon (who, incidentally, played Elvis in 2016's Elvis & Nixon) co-stars opposite Chastain as country icon George Jones. The two were married in 1969 and had a turbulent relationship, partly due to Jones' substance abuse (they divorced in 1975). But Chastain had a trusted partner in navigating the intense chemistry between the couple, thanks to their own work history as husband and wife in the psychological thriller Take Shelter.
Below, Chastain and Shannon take the stage to break down their approach to becoming Jones and Wynette, the boot camp that helped prepare them for performing live every day, and more.
Dana Hawley/SHOWTIME Michael Shannon as George Jones and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in 'George & Tammy'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you're playing real characters, there's a responsibility to the people who lived these lives. With fictional or original characters you have freedom to add your own touches, make up some things along the way — but I assume you don't really get that with a real person. Is there any relief in getting to focus on something more specific or contained? Or do you still get to play around a bit?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Well, I think it might be a bit of a mistake to assume that there's simply one version of the events of these people's lives. 'Cause when I was doing research, the story was different depending on whose point of view I was hearing it from or reading it from — you read George's book, it says one thing; you read Tammy's book, it says something else; you read Georgette's book, it says something else. It's fascinating. You can spend a lot of time researching somebody and still feel like there's so much you don't know about what actually happened so you, in a way are still kind of telling a story at the end of the day. So we wound up telling the story that [creator/writer] Abe Sylvia wanted to tell, and he based his story on years and years and years of research and interviews. I had confidence that he knew what he was talking about. But there's so much you have to explore no matter how much research you do and it comes in the more mundane moments — you never hear George and Tammy just talk about what it was like to just be together, sitting on a couch having a cup of coffee or something. That we still have to come up with between the two of us.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: I had a lot of time to watch her videos and read all the books and talk to people who knew her and pitch my voice down — 'cause her voice was so low — and work on the music and all of these things. And I love that about playing a real character, I love research. I love having the tools to bring me into a person separate from who I am into another experience, another life. But then in some sense, you forget all about it. So it's the same as when you're playing a character that isn't based on a real person's life. The second I got to set, I stopped thinking of her as something else and just started thinking of her as me. And then I stopped planning things out. That's my favorite thing about acting — doing all the work to get you to the start of the race, but then you really don't know what the course is gonna be. And I found that to be particularly that way with this story.
As you watched videos of George and Tammy, what were the important quirks and mannerisms you wanted to get in there so that you weren't so much impersonating but embodying them?
CHASTAIN: Her laugh for me was super important. Super important. And that's something you have to work on so much that I noticed, even when we stopped filming, when I would laugh I kept laughing like her. Mike is such an interesting person to work with 'cause there's so many surprises. So, you're not gonna plan out when you're gonna laugh — it just has to be second nature. So I worked on her laugh a lot so it would become second nature to me.
Dana Hawley/SHOWTIME Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette in 'George & Tammy'
SHANNON: And you mentioned this a lot, Jessica, how different Tammy's demeanor is singing by herself as opposed to when she's singing with George. Just watching endless videos of them performing together over the years and just watching them sing basically the same songs originally as newlyweds — goo-goo-ga-ga love, stars in the eyes — and then going all the way through to the Wembley performance where George is out of his mind on coke and they're divorced and she's having her own difficulties. And you can tell he's just really struggling and he still really loves her. That's one of the most powerful things I've ever seen, really, that performance. How they kind of get stuck inside these songs, you know? Like "Golden Ring" — it really is a ring and they're stuck in it. Sometimes they sing the song, and they just love singing the song, and sometimes it's like a nightmare. That always just fascinated me.
Those physical things aside, you talked about how there are multiple versions of the truth because each of them have their own experience and perspective — so, in your research, what was something you latched onto for the truth of what you were specifically portraying here?
SHANNON: George had a deep desire to — I mean, I know this might sound confusing considering the life he led — but he had a deep desire to have a normal life, and you see that in the show, that he did want to get off the circuit and he did want to not be such a mess all the time. Eventually, he accomplished that. Unfortunately, for George and Tammy, it was after she was gone. But he got it eventually. The crux of it really — at least as it pertains to George, but also I think as it pertains to Tammy — is that they were really tough people. There were three things about 'em: They were really sensitive people, but they were also extraordinarily strong, and they both were their own worst enemy. But they had a desire to try and overcome that. And Tammy, even though she had a much shorter life, it seems like she was able to have a period of relative...
CHASTAIN: [shakes head]
CHASTAIN: Period of relative what? Were you gonna say peace?
SHANNON: Not peace. I don't know. Well, there was a period where George was like a house on fire and she seemed less...
CHASTAIN: Yeah, but she also was someone who really defined herself in terms of her relation to men.
SHANNON: Yeah, yeah.
CHASTAIN: So much of Tammy was the need to be desired by men, to be accepted by men. She was an incredible cook. That was something that all the men she dated always talked about — she really knew how to feed someone. But she also enjoyed sex. I remember Georgette telling me there were mirrors above the bed. She was a very sensual woman, and she loved men. She loved everything about men. I wish she loved herself as much as she loved the men around her.
You two obviously have worked together before — Take Shelter is such a fantastic film. How did that experience lend itself to this one?
SHANNON: Well it's probably the main reason I'm in George & Tammy, 'cause [Jessica] asked me to do it, which you probably wouldn't have done if we hadn't done Take Shelter.
CHASTAIN: Well, I wouldn't have known you in a way — of course, our friendship brought me to go see him play in his band, and I know how much Mike loves music. Doing something like this is so terrifying for me that I couldn't imagine not having a partner that I could really trust and link arms with to do this. We really went into it together and it was so scary for both of us. [Laughs]
Scary in what way?
CHASTAIN: I mean, we're completely out of our depth. [Laughs] You say that, but then obviously when you're out of your depth you have to meet it. Right? Which also is what I like so much about the work he does is, it's never the same. And I just knew we were always gonna be there for each other and to take care of the other, and I felt really safe. I felt very scared about a lot of things on this show, but I never felt scared about showing up on set with Mike.
Dana Hawley/SHOWTIME Michael Shannon as George Jones in 'George & Tammy'
You brought up the music a bit and maybe that's something you're a little more comfortable with, Michael, but tell me a bit about the behind-the-scenes work that went into that.
SHANNON: There's this fellow named Ron Browning — he's in Nashville and he's a vocal coach for a lot of people there. He started working with us in March 2021. Well, we had to start then on Zoom 'cause of COVID, but eventually he came to New York and then we did his bootcamp for a couple of months where we'd go in Monday through Friday. We'd each have a solo session, then we'd work on the duets. He's just an incredible teacher — very patient and very kind. And then we went to Nashville and recorded some vocals, 'cause you always do that, I guess, if you have a show with music in it. You pre-record some of the vocals, just in case you can't sing them when you're shooting.
CHASTAIN: If you get like laryngitis or something, so you don't lose a shoot day.
SHANNON: Then we start shooting and you show up to do a song and they have the instrumental [playing] in an earwig and listen to that, and then you sing a capella in front of extras, and that's how they get the vocals.
So you sang live as much as possible for the entire shoot?
CHASTAIN: All day, yeah. So we worked with Ron Browning and T-Bone Burnett up to the pre-records — T-Bone introduced us to Ron, as well as Rachel Moore, who is a huge find. She was the one who was on set with us recording all the vocals, every day. Ron was as well, so Ron would get us ready and she would be there every single day to adjust the stuff in our ear, to make sure we had the right microphones for recording. She'd come in if there was ever an issue. It's a big deal for her, and I'm excited that our show is really highlighting her because she's worked for a long time, I think behind the scenes and in other people's shadows. Especially for a female producer, it's an incredible thing to have the show give her this kind of platform.
During those early rehearsals on Zoom, had you already finished filming The Eyes of Tammy Faye? Or were you going back and forth between the Tammys?
CHASTAIN: I already finished filming Tammy Faye, but it's funny, when we went to Nashville the very first time for the pre-record — Nashville was the first time I ever sang with a live band, which was so scary — we had a screening of The Eyes of Tammy Faye that Mike came to. So it was kind of like the beginning of that movie being released and then working on this.
Are there any other famous Tammys you could play?
CHASTAIN: [Laughs] I know, but the reality is, if I had a nickel for every time I played Tammy I'd have 10 cents. It's not a lot. [Laughs]
You're a producer on this — your production company is behind this — and you've also done The 355 and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. What kind of fulfillment do you get as a producer that you don't get as a performer?
CHASTAIN: It's more stressful, that's for sure. But I guess what really excites me is helping to focus the story. We used Abe Sylvia's film script as a template, and there was a moment that it was gonna veer somewhere else. When I read the outline, and it wasn't Abe who wrote it, but when I read the outline for episode 1 I felt disturbed. Kelly Carmichael, my incredible producing partner, and I talked a lot to other women involved and we discussed that it felt like Tammy had no say in what was going on around her — like she didn't get a choice, ever. You notice in the development side how [often] everyone talks about how the female character might be so passive and submissive, and it's probably because women aren't really involved in the development of it. That's my favorite part of being on that side of it, is really giving the female characters a fair shake. And it was our immediate involvement in saying, "No, no, no, no, this is not the direction that we want this to go," that now makes me feel like Tammy Wynette and our version is very active and absolutely has a say in every decision she's a part of.
You mentioned episode 1, and I'd love to break that down because I was fascinated by — and maybe it's been expedited for the purposes of storytelling — how much of a whirlwind romance that was and how quickly things happened.
CHASTAIN: The reality is they knew each other longer. I imagine that they had been romantic — they were touring together; it was more than just a one-night performance. It's hard to do that in one episode. It was really important for us to show that immediately they had a connection. I mean, she was connected to him before they ever even met. She had that book that she wrote down every lyric of his song. In our series, when he talks about her voice, it's something that connects them, that goes beyond time. It's like being seen, being truly seen, by another human being. I don't think there's anything more profound in this life: To feel like I'm accepted, I'm seen, and I'm understood. And that's perhaps why it feels fast.
George & Tammy airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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