Jessica Chastain thinks Tammy Faye Bakker would have loved it: ‘Sounds like a kick’

When Jessica Chastain arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2011 for her first major press visit here, limping on crutches from a motorcycle accident, she was so unknown as an actress that she was nearly invisible.

His groundbreaking film, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning ethereal drama “The Tree of Life,” in which he played Brad Pitt’s wife, had yet to be released in theaters. Neither does the civil rights drama “The Help” or the sci-fi thriller “Take Shelter.” All three films would give Chastain a lot of attention and praise later that year.

A lot has happened to Chastain, 44, in the 10 years since that modest visit. She admits in a Zoom interview that “it’s really mind-blowing” to remember: two Oscar nominations (for “The Help” in 2012 and “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2013), dozens of major movie roles that have elevated her to A- listing status and the creation of Freckle Films, his own production company.

Chastain returns to town this weekend for the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, arriving a conquering hero. He has two major movies premiering worldwide on TIFF, Michael Showalter’s celebrity biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and John Michael McDonagh’s marital drama “The Forgiven.”

He will also receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award, a festival award that has proven to be something of an Oscar landmark. Previous winners have included the last two Best Actor Oscar winners, Anthony Hopkins and Joaquin Phoenix.

Chastain is delighted with TIFF’s honor: “It’s really sweet, I’ve brought so many movies to TIFF.”

But one thing she’s really happy about is that she’s no longer called “It Girl,” as newspaper and magazine headlines described her meteoric rise to fame a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, I was at the beginning of the moment,” she says, speaking somewhere outside during our conversation as the trees sway behind her.

“I remember one thing I hated was everyone saying, ‘The’ It Girl, ‘the new girl Jessica Chastain!’ And I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to be the’ It Girl ‘. Because next year there will be another ‘It Girl’! “

She laughs at the idea, she finds it easy to laugh, but the irony is that many festival goers will have trouble recognizing her behind the vast makeup and mascara for her role in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” the biopic she produced and stars in. . is attracting the most attention and awards at TIFF. Instead of calling her “It Girl,” viewers might wonder, “Who is that woman?”

Chastain plays the late televangelist and singer Tammy Faye Bakker who, along with her husband, Jim Bakker, abruptly went from fame to infamy in the late 1980s when Jim-related money and sex scandals torpedoed her empire of Christian broadcast PTL (Praise the Lord). Jim ended up in jail and so did Tammy’s second husband, Jim Messner. Both men were implicated in diverting millions of dollars in donations from parishioners toward such dubious expenses as a six-foot bronze giraffe and an air-conditioned doghouse.

Tammy escaped from the hit, but not from public embarrassment. The latter included a lot of teasing about Tammy Faye’s penchant for applying bronzer, foundation, and mascara, which Chastain had to prepare to endure. Applying her Tammy Faye makeup required four to seven hours before she was ready to appear on camera. Chastain has red hair, just like Tammy Faye, but that was the only physical similarity between the two women.

In the movie, Chastain really does look like Tammy Faye, who died in 2007, and whom I met and interviewed in 2000 when a documentary about her premiered at Sundance, also called “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” The doc forms the basis of this new drama. Then known as Tammy Faye Messner, she wore a black and yellow winter outfit and looked like an arctic bumblebee.

The strange thing is that the more Chastain delved into Tammy Faye’s life, previously explored in the 2000 paper, the more she felt for her subject, not just sympathy but also real empathy.

“Sadly, I never had a chance to meet her,” says Chastain. But whenever I talk to someone who has met her, they are like the best stories. It sounds like a kick. I would have loved her. “

Chastain respects the courage and love that Tammy Faye showed in the mid-1980s when she risked the ire of America’s gay-averse evangelical leaders by interviewing a gay Christian minister with AIDS on her television show “ Tammy’s House Party ”. The interview is recreated in the new film.

“That was such a punk rock thing for her in that time period,” says Chastain. “It was so, so incredible. And such a reminder, actually, of what Christianity is supposed to be about. For me, she was a force to be reckoned with at the time. “

Chastain is reluctant to join the popular gathering regarding Tammy Faye’s carefree spending, largely with donated money. She gets angry when I ask her if Tammy Faye was greedy, maybe naively.

“It depends on how you define ‘greedy,'” says Chastain. “Because I think she was a hard worker. And I think I should have paid him for all the work he did.

“He created three television networks, broadcast networks. He hosted a ton of television every day. He wrote books, recorded songs, worked constantly. So sometimes I feel uncomfortable when we talk about women being paid for their services as greedy, you know? Because the empire that she had created was very lucrative. “

Chastain also has something good to say about Tammy Faye’s notorious makeup, even though she was concerned about damaging her skin while wearing it. Was Tammy Faye hiding behind all that makeup?

“I see it as the opposite of hiding,” says Chastain. “Because it’s taking up more space, right? Her voice was so big, her bumblebee outfit that you dressed her in was so fabulous and so crazy. All his songs are out there. She is doing weird things all the time. So why would she be demure in her makeup? She had the bravery of a drag queen. He wanted to express himself … It was as if he was saying, ‘Look at me!’

Peter Howell is a film critic in Toronto. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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