Jessica Chastain spent years pursuing the opportunity to play Tammy Faye Messner, the indefatigable star of Christian broadcasting. Better known to an audience of millions as Tammy Faye Bakker, she and Jim Bakker, her husband at the time, presided over the popular PTL television ministry until they were brought down in the late 1980s by financial and sex scandals.
So when Chastain finally got that chance in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a new biopic co-starring Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker and directed by Michael Showalter, she was determined to look the part. As Chastain said of the woman behind her character: “She never really did anything halfway. She didn’t have an ounce of being cool or being aloof about her. So I just felt like I couldn’t dip my toe in or be cool and aloof in the performance. I had to jump in the most wild, extreme way. Because that’s how she lived every moment.”
Chastain had done her own research for the film, which Searchlight Pictures will release on Friday: she sought out magazine articles about Messner, who died in 2007, as well as old photographs and TV appearances. But making that transformation required a team of makeup, hair and wardrobe artists. Some of them had worked with Chastain before and they knew what they would be expected to deliver. “It’s basically what she says she wants,” said the hairstylist Stephanie Ingram, adding, “At that point you’ve just got to make it happen.”
Here, Chastain and several of the artists who worked on “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” talk about how they were able to fill the TV personality’s shoes (not to mention her wigs, sequins and acrylics).
Justin Raleigh, the film’s prosthetic makeup designer, and his team faced a twofold challenge. First, designing prosthetics (artificial skin appliances made of gel-filled silicone) that struck the right balance between character and performer: “Jessica wanted to be lost within the role and to really embody Tammy without completely obliterating Jessica as well,” Raleigh said. “We had a really careful dance of how much prosthetics we were going to use or not.” Second, creating consistent looks that would build up to Bakker in her most recognizable eras: “Working in reverse, once we established what we had to do for the 1980s and ’90s, the only way to make the rest of it work would be to add prosthetics to her younger look,” Raleigh explained. “We had to keep that level of continuity, anatomically speaking, throughout the entire film.”
During the 1960s and ’70s, Chastain wore prosthetics on her cheeks, an appliance on her chin (to cover a dimple) and tape to pull up the tip of her nose. In scenes set in the ’80s, she added a body suit, a full neck prosthetic and an appliance on her upper lip; for the ’90s she added eye bags. Throughout, Raleigh said, “The cheeks were the hallmark element that had to carry all the way through.”
For all the cosmetics that Messner wore — and as much as she was ridiculed for it — members of the makeup team said they wanted to avoid mockery. “It was just really making sure that nothing we did compromised the authenticity of who she was and that we never crossed a line into a caricature,” said the makeup artist Linda Dowds, who has worked with the actress on 15 movies, beginning with the 2013 horror film “Mama.”
Dowds, who headed the makeup department on “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” said there always had to be a “beauty element” in how the character used makeup: “She absolutely loved makeup and she loved looking the way she did in makeup. She just got bolder with it.”
Pink was a prominent color in her youthful palette, but over time, her coloring got darker and she tattooed her eyeliner, eyebrows and lip liner (recreated with marker on Chastain). “We also had a lot more lashes to deal with — we went from one coat of mascara to four or five,” Dowds said. “She would say things in interviews like, ‘Who said you can’t put mascara on false lashes? Where do these rules come from? You don’t have to be dowdy to be Christian.’”
To build a wardrobe for the onscreen Tammy Faye, the film’s costume designer, Mitchell Travers, had to get into her character, too: “Honestly, I went shopping like Tammy did,” Travers said. “She had an expression where she would say that shopping was her favorite cardio. And she was a woman who loved the hunt.”
He scoured swap meets and estate sales, shopped on Etsy and at T.J. Maxx, in search of clothes for a woman who wanted to look powerful even before she could afford to and who later had access to money, then lost it.
“I could tell the story of what it was like to be comfortable with money and almost forget that things had prices,” Travers said. “And I could also tell the story of what it was like to have lost it all and the pressure to live up to that persona when you didn’t have the funds.”
At her 1980s zenith, the character’s apparel looked new and everything about it was big: the shoulder pads, the clip-on earrings, the polka dots. And for Tammy Faye’s post-PTL life, Travers said, he tried to reuse earlier looks he’d already assembled, “so that you get the sense that it’s a woman holding onto something that used to be there but it’s not coming as easily.”
Getting Chastain’s hair to look like Tammy Faye’s memorable tresses required no less than 11 wigs: brunette ones for her youth; big blond ones for her heyday in the ’80s and red ones for her later years — even a removable wig with a built-in headband that Chastain could pull off to reveal the character’s short, spindly locks (in fact, another wig). And don’t assume that Stephanie Ingram, head of the film’s hair department and another veteran of many Chastain projects, simply found these wigs on a store shelf.
“It’s funny because people say, ‘You take ’em out of the box, you put ’em on,’” Ingram said. “I’m like, mmm, no, you don’t.” Some wigs were colored and fit to Chastain’s specifications and others were made custom for her. A given day on set could also call for five to 10 more stylists to provide period hair for the rest of the cast. Near the end of the shoot, when Tammy Faye asks for a divorce from her husband, Ingram said, “I just fell apart. I guess my body just went, oh my God, you actually did it.”
Playing a role under many layers of wigs, clothing, makeup and silicone was a largely new process for Chastain. She said her closest previous experience was portraying the dowdy heroine in a Broadway production of “The Heiress,” on which she didn’t have the benefit of such a large artistic team: “I had a prosthetic nose, which I applied myself,” she said. “So I have the utmost respect for what they do. Because it was really hard.”
Turning herself into Tammy Faye each day could sometimes take as long as five to seven hours, even before any filming started, but Chastain said that lengthy preparation at least offered her the additional time to connect with her character. “When you sit in a chair for that long it can be draining,” Chastain said. “I was constantly watching videos of her, listening to her voice. I was using it as a runway. Sometimes when you’re playing a character, you get a 30-minute runway, and then you take off and you’re shooting. My character had an extra-long runway.”
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