Talks ‘George & Tammy’, Michael Shannon – IndieWire
July 31, 2023
(Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14, 2023.)
Jessica Chastain is not easily shaken. She faces her fears and whittles them down to something she can handle. And takes a shot of whiskey if need be. She landed an Oscar for daring to become the mascara-loving title character in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Actors understood that she had to love the outlandish TV evangelist, who was a joke in many quarters, in order to understand her.
And the same is true of Tammy Wynette. However, “George & Tammy” (Showtime) presented another order of high-diving-board difficulty. It was one thing to sing like Tammy Faye. It was another to take on live-performing, opposite musician-actor Michael Shannon as country icon George Jones, as an all-too-familiar country superstar.
That was never the plan. Chastain was first approached back in 2011 at the Golden Globes by Josh Brolin, who was developing the story of Jones and Wynette. “I had never been in a room of movie stars before,” said Chastain on Zoom. “Josh Brolin is a big movie star. ‘Have you ever thought about playing Tammy Wynette? You should.’ ‘I will!’”
Over the years the movie project went through different directors and studios. “The music was too expensive,” said Chastain. “Then it became a mini-series, ten years later.” Executive producer Chastain was so impressed with “George & Tammy” writer/showrunner Abe Silvia that she suggested him to write “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” And she was ready to reunite on “George & Tammy” with “Lawless” director John Hillcoat, a master of music videos. “He had so much experience with music,” she said. “He knows how to film songs and music and how to tell a story.”
Along the long road to production executive producer Brolin dropped out of playing Jones. Chastain’s suggestion for his replacement: her “Take Shelter” costar Michael Shannon. She adored his music: after work on the movie she’d drop the CD of his band in the jukebox of the local Grafton, Ohio dive bar and dance. She’s gone to his concerts ever since. “He started in music before acting,” she said.
In the beginning, Chastain did not imagine singing live. Most often on musical movies, people pre-record and on set they lip-sync to the pre-recording. These days music mixers use a computer to blend several voices so they sound like one voice. “The actor says they did the thing,” said Chastain, “when in reality a computer did the thing, it’s a computer-geared product. I take issue with that.”
Chastain and Shannon, much like “Les Miserables” and “A Star is Born,” took the frightening road of pursuing authenticity. Which means abandoning perfection. “The reason we sing live on set with an audience in front of us is because of Michael Shannon, the most authentic person I ever met,” said Chastain. “The moment we lip sync to ourselves, how we play the scenes, it will be phony. That’s how to make it perfect. We need to get away from the perfect idea. I don’t think perfect is emotional.”
It was a difficult bridge to cross. “It was uncomfortable singing with earwigs playing music with hundreds people in front of us,” said Chastain. “They could hear our voices without music. In reality, I had lot of whiskey and bourbon that helped me through it.”
Over the ten years getting the project made, Chastain watched Wynette performances on YouTube, and figured out that the great star wasn’t always on pitch live in concerts. “Back then it was pure voice, which I prefer,” she said. “The sound is s beautiful to me. if you look at reality, what music has been in the past is not perfect. I tell my daughter nothing is perfect. Beauty doesn’t lie in perfection. Tammy Faye belting it out to Jesus, there’s not a lot of technique or emotion levels with what she did.”
That was not true of Wynette, however. The feat Chastain and Shannon sought to pull off was moving the story emotionally through the songs. The most intimidating Wynette song for Chastain was “Stand By Your Man. “It’s an anthem of what a woman is in the South,” she said. “I’m responsible for singing that song, with political undertones, and how much it means to so many people.”
The most daunting performance of the song comes when Wynette has to perform solo for the first time in Las Vegas — without her rogue, drunk husband. She has to win over the crowd. “There were so many people out there,” said Chastain. “I got to that last note, going up an octave at the end, it’s tough, that was intimidating. On some takes I didn’t hit the note.” As Wynette keeps singing the song, in the middle she walks into the audience and starts sitting on men’s laps, giving them kisses, ruffling their hair. “It becomes more about her experience with the audience and bringing them into the song to try and gain confidence. I was feeling scared doing the song, and was able to put into the performance that she was terrified that day.”
Much like Chastain’s intimate 2021 “Scenes from a Marriage” with Oscar Isaac, “George & Tammy” is close-up portrait of the rise and fall of a romantic relationship — as well as coping with the depredations of Jones’ alcoholism. Based on the true story of these two icons, it’s the “A Star is Born” arc, as Jones loses his dominance over time as the surging stardom of his life partner passes him by.
The early romance is divine as you watch the pair fall for each other and let go of their other partners. Chastain felt protective of Shannon, who expresses heart-breaking vulnerability as Jones. “I’ve known him for a long time,” she said. “This actor is not who the world thinks he is. He is so vulnerable. He has a softness and sweetness. He led with his heart every time and allowed that fragility to lead the way. In the scene I’d see that, and it would make me love him even more. It’s such a difficult thing to do: sometimes you feel you have to protect yourself.”
Chastain’s favorite moment is in the final episode when the couple have a fully clothed love scene in the tour bus. “No hanky panky,” said Chastain. “It’s achingly romantic. That kind of intimacy — you have to earn it —comes from feeling safe with your scene partner. I really love him. Those later scenes are different, there’s a sense of ‘I love you and I hate you.’ I wanted to take care of Mike. It’s not the kind of role he normally plays. I don’t see him in these romances. I wanted him to feel safe and comfortable and protected and loved.”
Chastain doesn’t mince words about “George & Tammy.” “I’m going to dive off this cliff,” she said. “I felt this was a sweet collaboration, I couldn’t be happier. It’s probably my favorite partnership. I love Oscar, but this comes from the material. I felt so loving from day one toward this material and production. It’s by far my favorite love story I have ever worked on.”
As always, executive producer Chastain was looking out for the female perspective on this story. In one scene Wynette is shocked when Jones has purchased his idea of a dream house with their remaining cash. “That’s the idea of the man as the knight in shining armor, swooping in and saving the woman in peril,” said Chastain. “In reality, women want to be consulted and make decisions about life. They want to fall in love and be in a partnership, but that doesn’t mean that one man is making every decision about their life. They need to be consulted, talk to each other, make decisions together. They’re not talking to each other.”
As we talked, Hollywood was on the verge of simultaneous writers and actors strikes. “i am definitely pro union,” Chastain said. “There’s huge innovations in our industry, content has been incredible. Streaming and amazing technology have made huge steps and quickly. The difficult thing is the contracts haven’t kept up with the innovations that have been made. There’s huge inequality. People are not able to earn a fair wage and support their families. The industry has been so separated in terms of who is able to make a living and who isn’t.”