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Jessica Chastain Finds Out Tammy Faye Bakker Was More Than A Punchline

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tammy Faye Bakker was a lot of things to a lot of different people. In the 1970s and '80s, she was a televangelist with a massive audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAMMY FAYE BAKKER: And the Lord spoke to me. And he said, Tammy, I'm doing this little miracle for you just to let you know that I'm working on the big one (laughter).

MARTIN: She was the wife of the disgraced Jim Bakker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Bakker went on trial today, charged with fraud and conspiracy.

MARTIN: And there were the scandals over her husband's infidelity and her prescription drug addiction. And because of all of those things, to many people Tammy Faye Bakker was a punchline.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: My earliest memory of Tammy Faye Bakker would probably be, like, an SNL comedy sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

DANA CARVEY: (As Church Lady) Tammy, we have a bit of goop on our face.

(LAUGHTER)

CARVEY: (As Church Lady) Oh, I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

JAN HOOKS: (As Tammy Faye Bakker) I'm sorry.

CARVEY: (As Church Lady) That's mascara. Excuse me. I'm sorry.

HOOKS: (As Tammy Faye Bakker) I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

CARVEY: (As Church Lady) Well, apparently, Tammy, Mr. Mouth is moving. But we have no idea what we're saying, do we?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The actress Jessica Chastain knew all the jokes about the over-the-top makeup, the squeaky voice, the reality TV religion. But after seeing a documentary called "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye," Chastain wanted to tell a deeper story.

CHASTAIN: I was just kind of blown away by who she was and that she was so filled with compassion and love. And I realized I didn't know anything about Tammy except for, you know, the drama.

MARTIN: The new film is also called, "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye." And Jessica Chastain plays the title role. She told me part of her character's allure was her ambition, which, in the conservative culture Tammy grew up in, was not something a young Christian wife was supposed to have.

CHASTAIN: We're used to ministers and the minister's wife. Tammy, she's a minister in her own right. She was definitely led by this passion she had. And she was never one to just be there to support her husband. She absolutely felt she had a calling.

MARTIN: There's a great scene in the film. She and Jim are at this fancy party at Pat Robertson's house, Jim's mentor and one of the founding fathers of modern white evangelicalism. And there's another bigwig there, Jerry Falwell, who sort of makes or breaks up-and-coming pastors. And the wives are all sitting separately. And she pulls up to the table and sits right down with the men.

CHASTAIN: Yes. And I think also what's so interesting about Tammy, because she has a childlike wonder about her - I guess some might say naivete - she never saw it as, like, I have to fight for my place at the table. She just thought, I want to go listen to all this interesting stuff. I'm a minister, you know? I do what you guys do. We're all the same here, you know? So let's talk about what we do. And let's talk about doing the Lord's work.

MARTIN: What did you come to understand about Tammy Faye Bakker's own personal faith? I mean, it's hard to separate it from the performance of who she was and what she was trying to do to connect with audiences. But it was very authentic to her.

CHASTAIN: Oh, absolutely - the father left the family when she was a little girl. And the mother remarried. Tammy Faye then is physically the embodiment of the shame of that marriage. And so when she finally feels this connection to this grace, for her it was everything because it felt like to be connected to God is to be loved.

MARTIN: Shame's an interesting word. It follows her in different ways. And we see it especially near the end of the film around Jim's arrest for defrauding his parishioners of millions of dollars. She feels shame over that and her placement in the evangelical church, right?

CHASTAIN: In playing her, I really connected to this thought of her being exiled. What does it mean to be exiled of love as a child? And when that's the case, how do you get back in? And how do you feel worthy - worthy to be alive, worthy to be loved?

And so anything, especially with Jim Bakker, you know, if he wasn't showing her love or even being affection with her, I think she felt it very deeply. And she felt the shame of, why might he not love me? Why am I being ignored? Why am I not being looked at? Am I attractive enough? That was something very important to her. And she always talked about how she felt so beautiful in her makeup. But I think she was always trying to show that she was worthy and she was good enough. And that's why she gave so much.

MARTIN: She gave to her audience. But she also challenged them. One scene in the movie recreates an interview Tammy did with Steve Pieters. He was a gay pastor and activist who had AIDS. It was 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE")

CHASTAIN: (As Tammy Faye Bakker) And have you found it to be true that people want to stay away and that they're afraid to be in the same room as you and breathe the same air that you breathe?

RANDY HAVENS: (As Steve Pieters) Yes, Tammy.

CHASTAIN: (As Tammy Faye Bakker, crying) And how sad is that, that we as Christians who are supposed to love everyone are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient?

Tammy, she literally looks at her audience and she says, we who are Christians are supposed to love everyone. And she's very specific about that. She's not like, oh, we're only supposed to love those (laughter) who follow these rules. No, no, no. We're supposed to love everyone. And not only does she do that for those that are suffering with AIDS; she talks to Steve Pieters about coming out to his family, about being openly gay. And she asked them, what did your parents say? And he said, they told me they loved me no matter what. And very emotionally, she looks at her audience and she says, good because we as mommy and daddies need to love through anything; and that's the way with Jesus.

MARTIN: Her faith is really all she has at the end of the film, when we see Tammy alone. Her husband Jim is in jail. She's been shunned by the white evangelical world. And then something happens. She's invited to sing at Oral Roberts University. And we see this moment of redemption through her eyes.

Just the power of that moment is just so moving. And did you feel that in the moment when you were singing that last song?

CHASTAIN: I definitely felt it when we were filming it. We see two versions in that final scene. And we see the way Tammy feels when she's loving and when she's being loved. I mean, I grew up thinking the message of Tammy Faye was she wore too much makeup, and, you know, she was too loud. Or she sang too loud; she was a clown. And I wanted to leave this film with the audiences understanding that Tammy Faye's message is you are loved just the way you are.

MARTIN: Jessica Chastain - the film is called "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye." Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHASTAIN: Thank you very, very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE LIFTED ME")

CHASTAIN: (As Tammy Faye Bakker, singing) How love lifted me. I said love... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.