In the nearly 10 years it took Jessica Chastain to make a movie about Christian televangelist Tammy Faye Messner, she’s researched a lot of the stuff you’d expect – Hours of TV footage, Fenton’s 2000 documentary Bailey and Randy Barbato. But one of the most telling sources was a largely forgotten WB reality show from 2002.
By then, Messner had fallen from the heights of his televangelist fame after scandals brought down the multi-million dollar ministry she and her longtime husband Jim Bakker built with the PTL network ( “Praise the Lord”). So she was there in “The Surreal Life” alongside D-List celebrities like Vanilla Ice and adult movie star Ron Jeremy living in a Hollywood Hills mansion for two weeks.
“You think: what is it? I know they put it in there because they thought it would create a lot of drama. But it was a beautiful thing to watch, ”says Chastain. “You saw her constantly being who she was, judging no one, but dealing with them. ”
For Chastain, what stood out was the firmness of Messner’s faith. As much as the heavily-haired, heavily-made-up televangelist’s appearance has fluctuated over the years, Messner – whose best moment may have been a 1985 show talking about HIV to gay minister and AIDS activist Steve Pieters – preached the love of God to everyone. Even the vanilla ice cream. He then wrote a song about her.
“She loved everyone, and she loved without judgment and she believed everyone deserved God’s grace,” Chastain said in a recent interview. “Now I was not baptized. But I think that’s supposed to be the goal of Christianity.
In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” directed by Michael Showalter, which Searchlight Pictures hits theaters on Friday, Chastain gives perhaps the most ambitious performance of his career to date. For the widely admired actor of “The Tree of Life,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “The Help,” this is the first time she’s tackled a decades-long biopic with all the transformational traps – the makeup, prostheses, It’s a big swing, a Chastain was hungry.
“There were a number of reasons I wanted to do it,” says Chastain, who acquired the rights to adapt the documentary in 2012. “But number one was that it was the scariest because it’s is the most ambitious. “
It was during the 2012 “Zero Dark Thirty” press tour that Chastain first filmed the documentary narrated by RuPaul on television. At the time, that seemed to be the furthest thing from her CIA agent in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie. The documentary, while reveling in the kitsch of the Bakkers, sought to celebrate the much parodied Messner, who died in 2007 at the age of 65.
At its most popular, “The PTL Club”, their flagship program, reached up to 13 million homes. The constant pleas for donations from viewers have helped swell their ministries, including Heritage USA, a theme park and Disney-style resort in South Carolina.
But the sex and financial scandal toppled their empire. Bakker (played by Andrew Garfield in the film) used ministry funds to pay a woman who said Bakker sexually assaulted her. (Bakker denied.) He was convicted in 1989 of making pledges with bogus pledges while getting millions to pay for the couple’s lavish lifestyle.
Messner, who filed for divorce while Bakker was in jail, has never been charged. But she took more pieces in public opinion. She was mocked on “Saturday Night Live”. Chastain recognized a complicated woman who was treated unfairly.
“I knew it was important to me in terms of gender, in terms of fixing a wrong that I felt the media had done to her,” Chastain says. “We all had a collective memory that was not accurate, including myself.”
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the most dramatic film to date for Showalter, the “The State” comedian who has developed a second career as a filmmaker. But his films – “Wet Hot American Summer,” “My Name Is Doris,“ The Big Sick ”- have also often mixed surreal and painfully real.
“I really like characters out of step with the world,” Showalter says. “I think Tammy Faye is really convincing that way. She was that kind of laughing stock but time was really generous to her. We were able to look back and realize that there was a much more authentic person there than we thought. “
The film spans three decades and very drastic fluctuations in period style. This made it a particular challenge for Linda Dowds, head of the makeup department, not only to chart Messner’s physical evolution, but also to keep the extravagant looks from being too overdone.
“We were looking for subtleties and less is more, although there is a lot more,” says Dowds.
“Some characters use makeup as a mask,” adds Dowds. “For Tammy, she said you don’t have to be a moron to be a Christian. She never really understood why people laughed at her look. She said, ‘It’s me. C ‘that’s what makes me happy. Every time I feel a little down, I put more on.’ “
The performance, flamboyant and empathetic, immediately put Chastain in the Oscar conversation. She has already been nominated twice but has never won. But it also extended a spiritual journey for Chastain, which included Terence Malick’s existential cosmic wonder “The Tree of Life”. The religious passages, the Madonna and Bach paintings that Malick nurtured her, she sees as “a spiritual and faith-based course on love that I really never had in my life.”
And it’s clear that Chastain feels a special protective bond with Messner, a relentlessly optimistic and ultimately benevolent woman who has made her way into a grossly male-controlled and grossly commercial media world. Part naïve dupe, part unworthy victim, part guilty accomplice of his fall.
What Chastain perhaps most admires and connects with about Messner is her seriousness – she is who she is. This attitude is similar to how Chastain, who grew up humbly in Sacramento, Calif., Tried to navigate the movie industry. She has been a strong advocate for women, including directing the upcoming “The 355”, a female-directed spy thriller. Chastain helped do it when she noticed the lack of an action movie like this. Like with “Tammy Faye”, she’s a producer on it.
“Tammy Faye kind of tackled it all with: Let’s have a good time. I think maybe that’s how I try to approach things too. I mean, look, I’m always ready to go. beat, “says Chastain, laughing. “I just know anything is possible. Maybe we are looking at it from a wrong angle. This may not be possible with an old formula or an old set of rules. So let’s do something else and make it possible. I never see a wall or a door. “
Follow AP Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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