I thought I knew who Tammy Faye Bakker was, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye obliterated my presumptions thanks to Jessica Chastain’s vulnerable and emotionally open performance. There have been countless news stories about what went on behind the PTL Club, but Michael Showalter’s film looks beyond the famed eyelashes and the makeup. Thanks to Jessica Chastain’s portrayal, we can see Tammy Faye’s plea to love one another as they should be loved.
I was cynical when it came to watching this story–I can admit that. We think we know this story inside and out, but we don’t. In order to play a person like Tammy Faye, Chastain recognizes that we have to embrace the curiosity and earnestness that we are naturally born with. We are taught to be judgmental.
“In some sense, I knew that was inside me. This openness is something we all have. We all have this earnestness inside of us, but it’s taken out of us by the cruelness police. There is so much celebration of that cynicism. Random acts of love are sometimes seen as weakness, and, in reality, I see that as courageous and brave and beautiful. We are trained to make fun of that, so I had to connect to that part of myself and I didn’t have to worry about how people could make fun of me. I had to get over that, and it made me so much happier.”
I admitted to Chastain that I sometimes I have an aversion to devoutly religious people. Her performance changed my perception of who Tammy was, because I believed that her Tammy wanted to learn and grow from people. Tammy Faye wouldn’t judge me for who I am.
“That makes me so happy. And I hope, someday, that you get a chance to talk to the Reverend Steve Pieters. He’s been such an advocate for over thirty years. He’s an incredible human being, especially if you’ve felt disassociated from any type of religion. He knows that God loves the way that you love.”
Unlike depictions of other people with faith, this story shows how physical Tammy Faye was. There is a scene between Tammy Faye and Jim in the bathtub when they visit Tammy Faye’s parents (the editing of that sequence will tickle you), and a large rift in their marriage comes when Tammy Faye felt lonely. Chastain spoke to the truth that just because you are have faith doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of pleasure.
“I wasn’t even aware of it when I was doing it, but, as I was studying her, I found her to be a very sensual person in all aspects. I saw that in how she hugged strangers or how she tasted food. She loved to touch people, and she loved to be touched. I don’t mean that purely as a sexual thing, but she was sensual. I don’t think being a religious person means you have to be separated from sexuality. There is something about it that grounds us. Sometimes we look at religion and faith as depriving ourselves of earthly pleasures, and I think, for her, it was the opposite. Tammy grew up in a community that was Pentecostal, and there were so many restrictions. She talks in her book about how could God not love something that makes you feel beautiful and makes you feel loved and makes you feel joy. For her, God and faith didn’t equal deprivation. We all need to be touched. There have been studies about what happens to us when we aren’t touched. It can be dangerous. I was never baptized, and I wasn’t raised in a religious community, but the idea of celibacy isn’t something that I connect with. Separating yourself from your body and not being able to connect with others physically.”
When you see the final performance in the film, it is miles away from the ambitious girl who created a puppet friend to bring on stage. There is a confidence that Chastain exudes as Tammy Faye when she is on stage with Jim or when she steps out to sing. The creation of Susie Moppet helped Chastain find her voice for the entire role, but it also informed her about Tammy Faye’s confidence on stage.
“The puppets were monumental in helping me find her voice. I used to think that she had a Southern accent, and if you look at some comedy sketches, they perform her with that accent. She was from International Falls, Minnesota, and she definitely didn’t have a Southern accent. Her natural pitch is a lot higher than mine, and I saw these interviews where she talks about finding Susie Moppet. Susie was this six year old girl, and finding that voice helped me find Tammy’s voice. Susie could do anything. She could misbehave, and that’s why audiences at PTL really loved her. She could get away with anything she wants. Susie was really how I got into the voice, because I found her first.
If you can perform successfully in front of kids, you can do anything. When Chastain was going through footage of Tammy Faye, there was one moment she knew she wanted to include in the film.
“I love it so much. There was a moment where Tammy grabs her wig in the ’90s, and she uses it as a puppet. I can’t remember if it was in the documentary or archival footage, but she talks through it. I knew I had to do that, so we put it in the scene where she is scared to go on stage. When you have a puppet, you have someone to talk to. Tammy had God to talk to, but she also had a friend and a partner in the puppet. It gives you a freedom that you wouldn’t normally have.”
Anyone who plays a famous person would love the opportunity to talk to who they are playing, but, unfortunately, Tammy Faye passed away in 2007. When I asked Chastain if there was something she could tell Tammy Faye, I could hear in her voice how there was so much she wanted to thank her for.
“As I studied Tammy, I knew it was so important for her to connect with others. She felt very ostracized at a very young age, and she felt like the embodiment of shame from her broken home. There is that connection that she feels with the LGBTQ community, because she felt that those feelings of loneliness when she was very young. She would go to women’s prisons and just hold people. There was an unworthiness that she felt, and I think she understood that loneliness of feeling unloved. She was able to heal herself or try to heal herself by talking and connecting with others. If I were able to talk to her, I would really want her to know how loved and worthy she was. I would want her to know that she is enough and for her to know how beautiful she was. Her makeup was such an expression of how she felt on the inside, and she was shamed for it. I want to remind us–our community–that we need to tell each other these things before people leave. We take people for granted, and we don’t look beyond an obvious suggestion. We do not take the time to tell people how loved and worthy and valued they are while they are with us.”
If you were a fan of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, do yourself a favor and lose yourself in interviews with her on YouTube. There is plenty to dive into. Chastain was thrilled that people are seeing Tammy Faye’s gentle and sweet nature. It’s as if Tammy Faye is giving the redemption she deserves.
“It makes me so happy that people are finding her. If anybody watches our movie and then looks her up on YouTube, that would make me so happy. I studied her for seven years, and I watched everything I could find. She brings me so much joy. At the end of our film, I say something that I saw in a song where she says, “That grace that reached down and said, ‘Tammy Faye, I love you. And I love you just the way you are.'” I turn to the camera and I say, ‘God’s grace is sufficient enough for you today. And He loves you just the way you are.’ I saw that on YouTube, and that’s something everybody needs to hear.”
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently available to stream on HBOMax.