Film

Interview: Actor Cherry Jones on First Meeting Jessica Chastain, Playing People of Faith and Getting the Tone Right in The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I don’t think I’m overstating the facts to say that Cherry Jones can do it all, as far as acting goes. The five-time Tony nominee (winning twice—the first time in 1995’s revival of The Heiress, the second time for the original 2005 production of Doubt) and three-time Emmy winner (once for playing the president on “24,” once for her guest role on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and once for a guest shot on “Succession”) is one of the most reliable actors working today. Even if everyone doesn’t know her name, they certainly know her face, especially in such films as Light of Day, The Horse Whisperer, Erin Brockovich, The Perfect Storm, Signs, The Village, I Saw the Light, and most recently as Rachel LaValley, Tammy Faye Bakker’s long-suffering and suspicious mother, in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, opposite Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker.

Cherry Jones Eyes of Tammy Faye

Cherry Jones (center) in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Her character is more than just a grumpy older woman, and her presence is often felt even when she’s not on screen, occasionally forcing Tammy Faye to question her profession and where exactly all of her ministry’s money is coming from and going. LaValley was a voice of reason amid the glitz of glamour of the PTL Club televised ministry, which her daughter seemed to embrace partly to please her deeply religious mother. Jones gives a complicated and beautifully nuanced performance here and is a stabilizing force in Tammy Faye’s world of excess, pill popping, and exhaustion. I had the chance to chat with Jones recently about the film and the importance of LaValley in the life story of Tammy Faye Bakker, and her points were quite illuminating. Please enjoy…

I read an interesting story that said you first met Jessica Chastain backstage when she was on Broadway in The Heiress in 2012, for which you had won the Tony in the 1995 revival. That was effectively your breakthrough performance. I actually saw Jessica in that production.

Oh, that’s wonderful.

What do you remember about meeting her that first time? What did you talk about?

You know what? I don’t even really remember [laughs], but I do know that we just fell on each other because there’s a wonderful thing that happens when actors share a bond of a role. For me, going to see that—I went to a matinee—it was like going to see old family members and friends, only it was Jessica who was the portal to that world. When I did it, I did it for almost a year, so it really was wonderful to see her do it, and she was so beautiful in it. She was also in the same dressing room I’d been in when I did A Moon for the Misbegotten and she was in the same theater where I’d done Doubt and also the last couple of months of Angels In America. So the whole thing was very familiar, and she felt very familiar.

I had seen her interviewed once on “The Charlie Rose Show” when she made her first couple of big films, and I felt a real bond with her because she started talking about her grandmother and how close she had been with her, and I had been close to mine. I remember loving everything that came out of her mouth and being really impressed.

I asked Vincent D’Onofrio this same question, but were there times in The Eyes of Tammy Faye where you found yourself getting lost in her performance to the point of distraction? I was, because she so completely vanishes into this character.

Doesn’t she? I think that is very true, that does happen occasionally. And the thing that is so amazing about Jessica is that this is her first time production, she’s a mama, she’s a big-old movie star, and she was having to figure out the tone of that film because it’s very difficult because it’s a drama but because the people are so comical…I so admired the way she handled the tone of it. I remember early on thinking, “How is she going to pull that off?” Really, it seemed so difficult. But by God, she did it like she was falling off a log. It was fantastic. And I’m right there with you, you forget it’s Jessica. And even with the makeup and hair, she doesn’t look like Tammy Faye but you forget that, and I grew up with Tammy Faye. That was my generation—I was a young woman when all of that was on TV, and we would watch it for a laugh occasionally. We’d get stoned and watch the PTL Club [laughs].

You crazy kids.

Crazy, crazy kids. But it was also during the early height of AIDS, and when she brought on the AIDS patient, talk about not giving a woman her fair shake. They’ve been selling this woman down the river for years; she’s a true open heart. No one was more vicious in their mockery of Tammy Faye than gay men, probably because of the mascara running down her face when she cried. But boy, I don’t think that physical mockery ever stopped, but later they did it with love in their heart after she brought that AIDS patient on the PTL Club.

I get the sense that Rachel didn’t suffer fools lightly, and maybe she saw what Tammy Faye and Jim were doing as foolish. But there is a great deal of affection between mother and daughter, even if Rachel had a hard time expressing it. What was the key for you to understand her as a person?

In the first place, they did end up coming to Heritage USA [the PTL Club campus] and living there with them, but she did insist on cleaning house and hotel rooms; she absolutely insisted on earning their keep. They worked there on Jim and Tammy Faye’s money to pay for their little house. I do think after Tammy was born during that terrible first marriage, however that ended, there was this devout, Evangelical divorced woman, I can’t even imagine how terrible that marriage must have been. But it resulted in a complicated relationship with that little girl, who must have been much more like her father, or maybe Rachel was something of a wild hare when she was younger. I honestly don’t know the answer. But they definitely did not seem to be from the same planet, and for Evangelical Christians, they practice what they preach—they were modest, devout people who give most of their earnings to the church to help those that have less. So it must have been abhorrent to Rachel to see the way they were living, with their three Rolls Royces.

You mentioned the tone, there are some funny moments with Rachel, especially when she has the spotlight put on her, which she clearly hates. It almost seems impossible for an actor to play a person who hates being in the spotlight.

[laughs] Not at all, because I think most actors have to force ourselves to stay in the spotlight. The difference between being a performer, like Nathan Lane, he’s a performer, and a plain-old actor, you’d really rather not have the spotlight on you. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to do what we have to do, and thank God we can do it as someone else.

You have a history of playing women of faith—you won a Tony for Doubt. Is there a similar mindset that you enter into to get into that headspace. What is unique about Rachel’s brand of faith?

I am not a religious person, and I’m very comfortable with the wonder of not knowing. I’m comfortable with the mystery of everything around me and the glory of that. But I think for a headspace when you play a religious person, you have to have a very personal relationship to God. In the case of Sister Aloysius [from Doubt], it would not be God, it would be the Virgin Mary. You have to go through that side door, whatever you want to call it, to get to the top. But Rachel could go directly to the top, so I’m sure she had many many conversations with the good Lord about her wayward child who was trying to serve him, even though she was misguided.

I want to ask you about Michael Showalter, your director. He’s a performer, to use a word you used earlier, but he’s also a fairly nuanced director as well. Did you get a sense from working with him on this that he was particularly attuned to actors?

Honestly, my part was minor enough and it was such an archetype that it was a little different situation than it normally might be with an actor and director. But he’s part of the reason why the tone works, and I don’t know how Michael and Jessica found that or how they sustained that. Of course, it was not a large-budget film and Andrew and Jessica were in prosthetics for every frame of the film, which takes so much time, which meant Michael had less time to make this film than you would if your two stars weren’t in makeup for every frame of the film. There were several obstacles that he had to deal with and I was impressed with the way he managed them. And he’s a very funny man, and that always helps. He’s delightful, kind, warm and friendly, but a doer—he got the work done. It was a mish-mash of Showalter-isms; it cracked me up.

I assume you watched the documentary that this is based on. It also managed to capture that tone you were mentioning. You go in thinking it’s going to be about these larger-than-life people, but it finds the humanity fairly quickly. What were your feelings on the doc?

I think it’s easier to do that in a documentary because in a film, it’s not really the real person; it’s whoever is playing that subject, and they have got to create that tone. Tammy was just Tammy, and the [documentary] filmmakers obviously loved her and let her do her. They wanted to celebrate her for being this misunderstood American icon, and I think it’s easier in a documentary to get a tone that is successful with an audience. I’m just saying I think Michael wins the prize for having the more difficult job [laughs].

Thank you so much, Cherry. It was great chatting with you.

Thank you so much, Steve.

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