The 2022 Best Actress Oscar race is fierce, and many contenders got there by doing it for themselves. Given that the studios have a rotten track record for delivering juicy parts for women, smart actresses are taking a more active role in pursuing them. Their agents know they are willing to go independent in order to expand their range, if not their paychecks.
Juilliard graduate Jessica Chastain has been in demand since 2011, her “it-girl” year, when six radically different movies all came out at the same time. One of her first roles was in John Madden’s “The Debt,” playing a heroic ’60s Mossad agent who grows up to be Helen Mirren. Chastain starred in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” opposite Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, floated through Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” as Brad Pitt’s ethereal wife, and landed a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as a ditzy Southern belle in “The Help.”
Right out of the box, Chastain displayed the full range of what she can do. She always seeks out challenging roles that do not always paint her characters in a favorable light, and this year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” (Searchlight) is no exception. In fact, she picked up the rights to the Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato documentary a decade ago, before she had ever produced anything, and admitted in our video interview (above) that she had no idea what she was doing.
But with a few producing efforts under her belt (“Miss Sloane,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” “Ava,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife”), she picked up some skills. For “Tammy Faye” she brought on “Lawless” producer Rachel Shane, hired writer Abe Sylvia, and director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) before setting it up at Searchlight under her Freckle Films banner.
Chastain always seeks scripts with strong women. Famously, she scored her second Oscar nomination in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” as a single-minded CIA agent smarter than the men in the room, who was not defined by her relationships, but by her work. In Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” she played a brainy scientist in a role originally written for a man, and in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” she’s the captain who leaves her astronaut (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and then risks her life to get him back.
When a jet-lagged Chastain watched the “Eyes of Tammy Faye” documentary during the press tour for “Zero Dark Thirty,” she saw a different woman from the one portrayed in the media. “I was just blown away by this woman and filled with compassion and love,” she said. “And I realized that I didn’t know anything about the real Tammy. The only thing I knew was the drama, right? What the media sensationalized, the sketch comedy jokes, the tabloid fodder. The interview she had with Steve Peters was mind blowing at that time, when the US government isn’t even comfortable saying the word AIDS and communities are dying. It makes me emotional talking about it. She brought Steve Peters on her show, an openly gay minister with AIDS, and she told her audience, ‘we as Christians need to love everyone. And I want to put my arms around you.’ And I am convinced Steve Peters and Tammy Faye saved lives with that interview. I had to celebrate her true story for this new generation of people who may not know her.”
The actress had to calibrate just how to dress and make-up and sound as Tammy Faye — including singing — without turning her into a caricature. “There was more information about her mascara than telling Christians in the community that we need to love people and not ostracize those that are dying of AIDS,” she said. “That’s insane to me that we care more about how much makeup a woman is wearing than actually what she’s doing. And that’s the difficult thing, because a character who is larger than life, whose makeup is so wonderfully fabulously expressive, and clothing, and her voice, and her humor, and her camp — the whole penile pump is real, I watched the video, she did it on her show! How do you do all of that and not make it into a joke? How do you really show that a person can love camp and can love excess but still have a heart and be a living breathing human being that feels things? That was a real fine line to walk.”
At first Chastain was afraid of the weight of the makeup. “When we did the first test for Tammy, I had a bit of a freakout,” she said. “I was nervous, like how do you act through it? You walk into a room and it’s like, everyone was gonna see the makeup because it was so good. How does my energy go beyond the visual, because she was super present?” Eventually she came to realize “that using the prosthetics, makeup, hair, wigs, and costumes was giving me something to push against.”
And Chastain had to sing. While she had studied singing at Juilliard, “it was acting through song, not like singing,” she said. Singing coach Dave Cobb helped her by forcing her to raise the key. “Because you’re too comfortable in this music,” he told her, “and I need it to sound like you’re reaching to the heavens, I need you to really push like she did.” Chastain realized he was right. “If I ever felt laid back and easy, then that’s not the character, because she was always putting herself out there.”
Andrew Garfield’s performance as her righteous and cheating husband Reverend Jim Bakker also intimidated Chastain: “You always have to work with people who make you work harder. And that was him.”
Chastain has seen a “radical” change in the industry since she made “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2012. “It was like a front row seat of how female filmmakers were treated compared to how male filmmakers were treated. And I decided right then and there that it was absolutely unacceptable. And that if I followed within that system, in some sense, I’m also erasing any kind of career that I hope to have. We had to change it immediately.”
Chastain always works with one female filmmaker a year and is committed to using whatever platform she has to amplify the talents of others. “It’s extraordinary to see over the past five years this community of women really do that,” she said, “not just for women, but for people of color, for so many that have been denied their stories being told. In the beginning I saw the scripts that I was getting, and there were a lot of wives telling their husbands, ‘Please don’t go do that brave thing you’re about to go do.’ [I said,] ‘This is just not gonna be my life.'”