Film

Interview: The Eyes of Tammy Faye Co-Star Vincent D’Onofrio on the Importance of a Good Script, Working with an Actor’s Director and Reprising His Marvel Role

I remember first interviewing Vincent D’Onofrio almost 10 years ago to the day from when we spoke via Zoom recently. He was here in Chicago promoting his directorial debut, a warped movie musical called Don’t Go in the Woods, but that wasn’t the film I was thinking about. Going into that meeting, I was thinking about performances in his first major film role as the unforgettable Private Pyle in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or the obsessive hopeless romantic in Household Saints, or the slightly off Robert E. Howard in The Whole Wide World.

But then I started thinking about the more off-the-wall roles he’s tackled since the mid-1980s, and I realized that only a risk-taker like D’Onofrio could take on lighter fare in Mystic Pizza or Adventures In Babysitting, alongside his insanely funny performance in Men In Black or just playing insane in The Cell. Lest we forget his charming cameo as Orson Welles in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood or inhabiting Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Movie. One of my personal favorites from the D’Onofrio canon is as Sam Deed in Happy Accidents.

Vincent D'Onofrio Eyes of Tammy Faye

Vincent D’Onofrio in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

In more recent years, D’Onofrio has been in one of the biggest movies of all time, Jurassic World; the western The Magnificent Seven; and fan favorite villain Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin in Netflix’s “Daredevil” (and rumors are swirling that Fisk may be making a comeback in an upcoming Marvel series, “Hawkeye,” which I do ask D’Onofrio about). What reunited us on this particular occasion is his astonishing work playing Moral Majority leader and all-around groovy guy Jerry Falwell in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, opposite Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker and Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker. D’Onofrio plays Falwell as the righteous villain and serious minister, rather than flashy televangelists like the Bakkers. He keeps them close because of their viewership numbers but clearly loathes their life of flashy excess and open-mindedness when it comes to issues like gay rights. Much like the first time I spoke with D’Onofrio, I went in nervous and came out enlightened and impressed. Please enjoy our talk…

I grew up in the 1980s, so I remember Jerry Falwell fairly well, and the thing I remember most about him—which you reminded me about in your performance—is that he was a smug son of a bitch. He very clearly saw the Bakkers as rubes, but he was also smart enough to keep them close because of the size of their audience and their empire. What was the key that unlocked the man for you?

I think it was learning more about him; I didn’t know a lot about him. I was obviously aware of him because I grew up partly in the south, down in Florida. The world was less divided back then, so we had neighbors that were Christians, and sometimes I would be at their house, and sometimes those shows would be on. But I grew up in a very liberal household, so I knew of him but never got into what he was preaching when I was kid. So I had to use Google and YouTube and find him and create my version of him. The most important thing for me was to match his kind of posture and articulation of words and the cadence in which he spoke, because that is impressive—not always as a positive thing all the time or a negative thing—it just said a lot about him in the way he moved and spoke. And then I learned where and how he grew up and where he studied in college, so I could understand where he was coming from. But basically, the main thing with that particular character was to find the way he articulated his words and his posture.

He was something of a visionary. He was the one who saw these parishioners as a political movement as well. He founded the Moral Majority, and I look at you in this role and I can always see the wheels turning. How do you capture his intelligence and conniving ways?

Don’t forget, there has to be a great script first, and that’s your blueprint, and we did have a great script [by Abe Sylvia]. And it’s up to me to service that blueprint of the story. That’s my job as an actor. Knowing that he was educated and that he tried to change his life and take a trajectory that was almost not possible for him to do, there’s a particular kind of person who leads that kind of life. I can only discuss the way that I attacked it, with all of that stuff in mind, and following the script and servicing the story. The combination of those things will give you what you’re talking about and will let you give the audience what they need to understand.

When he first meets the Bakkers, he almost ignores Tammy Faye, which is hard to believe because what Jessica Chastain is doing here is mesmerizing. With all of your years of training, do you ever find yourself lost in another actor’s performance to the point where you forget you have a job to do as well with them?

[laughs] No, it doesn’t happen. But what I will say is, going into the project and knowing how incredibly talented Jessica is and Andrew, you expect that. You’ll accept nothing less than that from them. And then when you’re there, you are part and they are part of a world, and it just makes it all the easier because of the amazing job that they’re doing. Rather than being distracting, it in fact brings you more into the scene.

Working with Michael Showalter, the director, who is primarily known for a certain brand of heartfelt comedy, tell me about working with him and how was he different than maybe some of the other directors you’ve worked with?

All directors are different, and the great ones are all different, and they all are good at particular things. Michael is definitely an actors’ director; he loves actors and loves to watch us work. You can see it in him, because he’s an actor himself. He’s one of those directors who doesn’t charge into a scene; they direct very subtly, and when they do interject, it’s a tremendous amount of help, which in turn helps the scene. His sets are very easy to work on, even though the job may be hard or the character may be hard to portray because it requires focus and juggling different balls while the camera is rolling, but to be able to do this in an open, free atmosphere like Michael’s sets, is a really wonderful thing. He made it so comfortable for all of us.

Unrelated to this film, there have been rumor flying around that you are reprising your role as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin from the Netflix “Daredevil” series in an upcoming Marvel series. Can you confirm this or say anything about that possibility down the road?

If you could see me right now, you’d see that I have long hair and a long beard, because I’m in the middle of playing a part right now. As far as the Marvel stuff, it’s not secret that I loved playing that character. I Tweet about it and I thank people for their praise of the “Daredevil” show that I did. I only hope that it does happen; I would love to do that.

That’s not a no! [Both laugh] Thank you so much, sir. It’s a pleasure talking to you again.

Thank you, Steve.

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