Why Jessica Chastain Prefers ‘Sadness and Pain’ to Feminine Perfection

TheWrap magazine: “I love playing women who make mistakes, who do complicated things,” she says of playing Tammy Wynette in “George & Tammy”

Jessica Chastain - George & Tammy

This story about Jessica Chastain and “George & Tammy” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. This interview took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.

An Oscar winner in 2022 for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”and a Tony nominee in 2023 for “A Doll’s House,” Jessica Chastain completed that acting trifecta this year with her first Emmy nomination. It came for “George & Tammy,”the Showtime limited series that she exec-produced and in which she and fellow first-time nominee Michael Shannon play Tammy Wynette and George Jones, the country music legends who chronicled their stormy on-and-off relationship through decades of hit songs — which Chastain and Shannon sing themselves rather than lip-syncing to the original recordings.

I get the feeling that you were as excited about Michael Shannon’s nomination as you were about your own.
I’m possibly even more excited, in some weird way. I mean, he’s had an amazing career in television and he’s never been recognized. You know what it is? He’s someone that the industry and the world perhaps has typecast as, like, the bad guy. They look at his physicality and they go, “OK, he’s the intense villain guy.” This is way out of his comfort zone. He’s so fragile and vulnerable and romantic in this and that is a scary thing.

And when I reached out to him [about doing this role], he kept saying, “I don’t look anything like George Jones.” [Laughs] And I was like, “It’s not about physicality. It’s about the story and I really think you can play it.” I know that was a scary thing for him to do, so I always felt really protective of him. And to see him recognized for it when there was a fear of, “Is he gonna be ridiculed for it?” means a lot to me.

When you’re playing a couple this intense and volatile, do you need an actor that you know and trust? I think of you and your old Juilliard friend Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year” and “Scenes From a Marriage.”
I’d like to think I could do it with someone I hadn’t met, but I’d much rather do it with a really strong partner who’s going to show up with the intensity that I’m going to show up with. Because I’m obsessive in my work. And Mike was absolutely right for it. I thought we were going to lip-sync, and he was the one who, when he came on, said, “We’re not lip-syncing. That’s gonna be phony. It has to be authentic.” That was a terrifying thing to me, but he was adamant.

You’re trying to achieve something pretty nuanced in those songs — you have to convey something genuine of Tammy without really trying to sound like her.
Yeah. For us, the focus was on storytelling. If the focus was that “I have to sound like Tammy Wynette and he has to sound like George Jones,” we would’ve lip-synced to Tammy Wynette and George Jones, because no one sounds like them. So instead, the focus was on the storytelling. That’s what I latched onto: What is the story? I can tell a story.

As you say, nobody sounds like George and Tammy. Did you worry that maybe if you take those voices out of the show, you’re missing something crucial?
I don’t think so. I mean, we have their albums. The one thing we don’t have is what they were thinking when they were performing the songs. What were they trying to communicate? That kind of look under the hood is something we could not have done if we were lip-syncing to them.

Like, when I did the songwriting scene for “Stand by Your Man,” there’s a line, “and if you love him, you’ll forgive him.” Because we were playing everything honestly, I didn’t feel like singing “you’ll forgive him.” So I just kind of blanked out and looked off, and then I picked the song back up. That wasn’t written in the script. That’s just one of those things that happened in a scene. And that’s the take they used.

There’s so much subtext in those songs. They’re not just entertainment — they take you deeper into that relationship.
Yeah. Into depression and, like, “I need a cigarette, and gimme some more bourbon.” [Laughs] When he sings “The Door” at a concert, it’s like the end of the relationship. It’s devastating. When he sings “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” it’s not like, “Oh, this is one of the most famous country songs in the world, isn’t it great to sing it?” He is destroyed. When Tammy sings “I’ll just keep on falling in love ‘til I get it right,” she’s off her mind on drugs, you know? It was never just about the song. It was always about what was happening.

Apart from the music, what were the biggest challenges for you?
Well, the music stuff was insane. But also, the sadness and the pain. I thought about that a lot. She left her first husband, they took her kids away, they gave her electroshock therapy when she was pregnant.

But also, this idea of her womanhood. She had three dozen surgeries on her womb to cut out scar tissue. So where does the pain live in her body? The pain of her father dying, the pain of when she was a baby and never quite reaching him. The pain of George Jones, the pain of [fifth husband] George Richey. The physical pain. What does it feel like when she doesn’t have her painkillers? Even in the joyous stuff, there’s a sense with Tammy that nothing is easy and nothing is free. It’s always gonna cost something. That’s a tough thing to live in for a long time.

You said you felt protective of Mike. Did you feel protective of Tammy as you were playing her?
Oh, really protective. Tammy made a lot of mistakes. I find sometimes that our society is more strict with women than with men when they make those mistakes. You know, it’s not cool what she did to her friend Sheila [who was married to Richey when he and Wynette began their relationship]. But also, she was a drug addict who was being given drugs by Sheila’s husband. She had been used a lot by the people around her. So I was trying to show her not as a victim. I wanted to bring understanding to her experiences, hopefully to an audience so they didn’t blame her in a typical way that they would blame a woman for not choosing the hero man of the story or for turning her back on her best friend or becoming a drug addict.

There’s a fine line when you’re being protective of her but also wanting to tell an honest story in which she does make big mistakes.
Oh, yeah. I kinda feel like that’s my specialty. [Laughs] That’s my lane. I love playing women who make mistakes, who do complicated things. But I absolutely support them and understand them because they’re human beings and men do the same things. I never want to play a character who’s just this idea of feminine perfection, because it doesn’t exist except in mythology and in sexist societies where women aren’t really allowed to be human beings. So that’s my specialty.

Lately, your specialty has also been playing famous women named Tammy. Do you have any Tammys left to play?
[Laughs] We’ve got to find a Tammy in theater. I’ve done a film, I’ve done television. Now I’ve gotta find a Tammy in the live theater world.

Read more from the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue here.

Illustration by Becki Gill for TheWrap