Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon as Country Music’s King and Queen in George & Tammy
October 6, 2022
The pair play George Jones and Tammy Wynette in Paramount’s upcoming miniseries: “It’s a tragic story, but it’s also a very romantic one.”
Jessica Chastain didn’t know much about Tammy Wynette—other than the fact that she sang the iconic 1968 hit “Stand by Your Man”—when the script for a biopic based on the country star first came across her desk.
But after doing some research, she was intrigued by both Wynette’s professional accomplishments and her tumultuous love life. “It was fascinating to me that someone like Tammy Wynette, who sang all these songs like ‘Stand by Your Man,’ also was married five times,” she tells Vanity Fair. “I was excited about this woman who was married and divorced multiple times and struggling in Nashville and really made a name for herself on her own. She charted multiple times before she met George Jones.”
The relationship with fellow country icon Jones—the pair married in 1969; it was both of their third marriages—is at the center of Paramount Network’s new miniseries George & Tammy. As seen in these exclusive first-look images, the series follows the musicians as they write some of their greatest hits, but also navigate the highs and lows of their volatile relationship. To play the country icons, Chastain and Michael Shannon, who have been friends since costarring in 2011’s Take Shelter, braved singing some of the pair’s most iconic songs for the series, as well as exploring the deep personal ties that bound the duo together.
“I was really moved by the love story between them—I started to listen to the music and understood that they were always singing to each other,” Chastain says. “They were both a huge part of each other’s lives.”
Chastain signed onto the project back in 2011, when it was conceived by creator Abe Sylvia as a film. More recently, the project changed directions to become a limited series, and Chastain, who is also a producer through her production company, Freckle Films, recruited Shannon to play Jones.
“Frankly, I wasn’t that familiar with George Jones,” Shannon tells Vanity Fair of signing onto the project. “I’m not a huge country music fan—I’m more of a jazz guy, really—but when she brought it to my attention, I got pretty seduced by the whole thing. It’s a tragic story, but it’s also a very romantic one.”
Chastain knew that Shannon has a deep appreciation for music and is a musician himself (he’s been playing with the indie rock band Corporal since 2002). “He’s a great singer and musician, and I’d seen him perform with his band in Brooklyn,” she says, adding that having an experienced musician as her costar was a benefit when the actors began practicing for the musical aspects of the show.
Though he’s a musician himself, Shannon was still intimidated by the live singing that would be required of him on the show. “George Jones is, to my ear, one of the finest singers I’ve ever heard in my life,” he says. “It’s obviously a fool’s errand to try to completely emulate that—that’s one of the reasons he’s legendary, is that there will never be another one like him.”
For the six-episode series, which also stars Steve Zahn, Kelly McCormack, Katy Mixon, and Walton Goggins, Chastain and Shannon trained with Nashville-based vocal coach Ron Browning for several months, rehearsing many of Jones and Wynette’s biggest hits. “These songs, they’re pretty deep and they’ve got some dark corners in them, and we spent a lot of time with them,” says Shannon. “In addition to learning how to sing them, I think they also kind of taught us about who the people were and the story we were telling.”
Among the songs they sing are Wynette’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Jones’s “The Race Is On.” The show will also capture the genesis of Wynette’s biggest hit, “Stand by Your Man.” Chastain calls singing live in front of a theater full of extras “the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” but the Oscar-winning actor also went through a physical transformation, losing a significant amount of weight to play Wynette toward the end of her life, when the musician suffered from health problems and an addiction to painkillers. “I don’t really like to look at scales, but I stopped eating,” says Chastain. “I was drinking juices and I kept doing it until I looked sick.”
Up until Wynette’s death in 1998 at age 55, Wynette and Jones remained in contact and were still a significant part of each other’s lives, despite divorcing decades before. Called “Mr. & Mrs. Country Music” in the 1970s, Jones and Wynette created hit songs while together like “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Let’s Build a World Together,” “Near You,” and “Golden Ring,” but also often found themselves at odds in their relationship, due in part to Jones’s problems with alcohol. Wynette first filed for divorce in 1973, but the pair reconciled and released their duet “We’re Gonna Hold On.” But as problems in their relationship continued, Wynette again filed for divorce, which was finalized in 1975.
George & Tammy, which is directed by John Hillcoat and will premiere later in 2022, also touches on how music tied into some of the trauma the artists had experienced in the past, and how it impacted their relationship. “George had a pretty difficult time growing up,” says Shannon. “For him, singing was a very complicated thing because when he started out singing, he would sing for his father who he had a kind of tormented relationship with. So I think for him, singing was the thing that he was best at, but it also kind of tormented him.”
George & Tammy taught both Shannon and Chastain a great deal about two music icons they knew very little about, and they hope it does the same for audiences. “I think the bottom line is they were both tough people,” adds Shannon. “They overcame some pretty insurmountable situations to get to the limelight.”