Jessica Chastain Reflects on Tackling a Country Icon for ‘George & Tammy’
January 24, 2023
Jessica Chastain‘s been a household name for little more than a decade with critically acclaimed performances in buzzy films like Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s been nearly as long as her latest project George & Tammy was in the works.
Debuting in December 2022 and concluding in January 2023, it was roughly a ten-year journey to the small screen for the flawless limited series led by Chastain (who has already been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and SAG Award) and costar Michael Shannon who together portrays one of country music’s most famous couples — George Jones and Tammy Wynette. The Oscar-winner who has had awards luck in the past for playing another famous Tammy in The Eyes of Tammy Faye has been preparing for this big country break since the idea was floated by her at another awards show by executive producer Josh Brolin.
Below, she opens up about the process of honoring Wynette through her preparation, collaborating with costars Shannon and Steve Zahn, as well as what it was like to work alongside George and Tammy’s real-life daughter Georgette Jones. Plus, learn more about the story behind the show’s creation, along with Chastain’s approach to recreating the country icon’s performances.
Congratulations on your recent nominations for the Golden Globes and most recently the SAG Awards.
Jessica Chastain: Thank you. It’s very surprising. Most of the shows being recognized came out in the spring [and] we came out December 4th. So, we’re really surprised, and hopefully, it’ll encourage more people to watch it.
This series has been in the works for some time. Is it gratifying to have all of that hard work recognized in this way?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, Josh Brolin actually approached me at the Golden Globes over 10 years ago and was the one who told me I should play Tammy Wynette. I didn’t really know much about her. It was the first year that I was at an award ceremony, and the first year of my career, so to have a movie star push me and tell me I should play a character. I was like, “Yes, I’ll do it.” So it really has been a long time coming and it’s been a lot of work. It’s a bit bittersweet because so much of the show is a two-hander between, [Michael Shannon] and I. And I just hope more people watch the show and recognize the once-in-a-lifetime performance that he gives in this series.
You worked together previously on the 2011 movie Take Shelter. Was that helpful in building George & Tammy’s onscreen chemistry?
Yeah. We’ve been looking for another project to make together and when this popped up, I know that Mike’s a singer and he plays in a band, and I just figured he’s never really had the opportunity to show that passion [onscreen]. So it seemed like such a great fit. Of course, you never know what it’s gonna be like that, especially in terms of like chemistry, but I’ve found surprisingly enough, the best chemistry male or female is when it’s someone that I know.
You’ve had quite a bit of success playing Tammys recently between George & Tammy and as Tammy Faye in The Eyes of Tammy Faye for which you won the Best Actress Oscar. Will you ever turn down a Tammy role moving forward?
[Laughs] No. It’s so funny because I signed onto this way before Tammy Faye and before there was even a script for Tammy Faye. And I don’t know, I’m going after whatever’s a great part. I’m not really thinking about their first name, especially because they’re such different characters.
How much training did you have to do in order to sing as Tammy and what was it like stepping up to the microphone the first time?
I find that when I do work, it’s more interesting to me if I feel almost embarrassed. If I feel like I’m embarrassed doing something, it probably means I’ve never done it before. For George & Tammy, so much of this series was completely out of my comfort zone. Because I signed on over 10 years ago. I started just really familiarizing myself with [Tammy Wynette]. But then once I met Ron Browning, who’s a vocal coach out of Nashville, he just helped me so much, and Liz Stein helped me with her voice. Cause her voice is so different than mine and her laugh and all of that stuff.
I had done a little singing at Julliard when I was a student there, but there’s a different feel in country [music]. The way that the production was set up was that all the singing is live. So there was not one take where we lip-synced. People were so generous with us because even playing a normal scene, you’re gonna try things that aren’t gonna work, and it doesn’t see the light of day. It’s the same thing with singing. Like, I’m singing “Stand by Your Man” for ten hours, but it doesn’t mean I’m gonna hit that note every time. So every part of it was out of my comfort zone.
How did the makeup and wardrobe help you disappear into the role?
Stephanie Ingram and Linda Dowds, who I’ve worked with on every project are my hair makeup team. It’s the perfect work relationship. Mitchell Travers, who did costumes, I’ve worked with him multiple times. And I asked production, I said, “can we please do Episode 6 at the end?” Because I knew she died when she was 55 and looked much older and she stopped eating. So I knew that I was gonna have to do a weight loss and I wouldn’t be able to do it if the scenes from that episode were scattered throughout the shoot.
When I was getting to that point, I talked to Mitchell, like, “okay, let’s start getting the costumes that’ll make sense.” And I just worked with Stephanie and Linda on how to age me. And then I just stopped eating in a healthy way. I like drank green juices and had veggie broth with some kale. But I just stopped because I wanted to honor her. And the only way I could really show [that meant] I had to change my body.
Was it tough knowing that she ends up where she does or is that part of the exciting challenge of a role like this?
I mean, it’s always the challenge because you have to start with so much hope and so much love that everything’s gonna work out. It’s almost like you have to have amnesia to the end of the script that you read. It’s such an exercise in being in the moment, especially my scenes with Steve [Zahn]. I think he’s brilliant in this because he doesn’t show anything that’s going to happen. He’s always apologizing for his behavior, he’s not this mustache-twirling character. He really dug deep in to find out why this person could behave that way and the relationship between the two of them.
It was very difficult learning about her drug use and what had happened to her body. She had three dozen surgeries in her lifetime, on her womb, and on her stomach area. And you just think, what does that say? Even as a woman, you know? I was thinking about that a lot, about the idea of pain, about how much pain she had in her body, where she held it, how it came out when she sang, and how she tried to numb herself to the physical pain, and then eventually the emotional pain.
And despite Tammy’s rise to fame, she is repeatedly treated like the runner-up to George Jones. Was that an intentional depiction of misogyny?
In society, people talk about George and Tammy, but Tammy [doesn’t get] the respect that she deserves. What I love so much about the way that we end the series with the scroll that describes her success as an artist and people underestimate that. There are a lot of people out there and a lot of men out there who’ve made careers, writing books and doing podcasts and whatnot about George and Tammy who minimalize her accomplishment and what she’s done. And they say she ended up with George because she wanted success, she was overly ambitious. But you know what? I don’t care. People used the fact that she was ambitious, but she didn’t end up with George because she wasn’t a success.
She was very successful without George when they met. And the reality is he was losing his success when they met. She worked really hard. She showed up in Nashville, a divorced woman with three kids on her hip, determined to make a name for herself, and she did in 1960s Nashville, which is unheard of. This woman was a force of nature. For anyone to minimalize her voice, her accomplishments, her artistry… It’s a misogynistic thing and they just don’t want to acknowledge what she’s done separate from George.
Georgette Jones was involved in the project as well and she even appears in one of the episodes. Was it helpful having her present to answer questions?
Oh, yeah. [There were] a lot of questions. There’s a lot in our series that nobody wrote about. There are people that went on tour with them, hair, and makeup artists, especially on the final tour. We were told from multiple sources George and Tammy were finding moments to have a romantic rendezvous while they were on tour together. By having like access to Georgette Jones, their daughter, [she] was so generous with us by having access to the [friends] who were on tour with them.
They told us a lot of secrets. It felt like a great gift and a responsibility. And at the same time, singing “Golden Ring” with Georgette Jones on stage next to me, that was intimidating. I’m not gonna sound like Tammy Wynette. No one sounds like Tammy Wynette. You could be the most successful country artist in the world and not sound like Tammy Wynette. So the only thing I just kept trying to hold onto is I’m gonna train as much as I can and tell the story through the song. And having Georgette there supporting me through that was confidence-building.