Film

Interview: Director Michael Showalter on His Background in Comedy, Watching Jessica Chastain Work, and Creating the Colorful World of The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Without making much of a fuss about it, Michael Showalter has transitioned from being one of the most successful comedic talents (as a writer, director and performer during his time with the comedy troupe The State, as well as being a part of Wet Hot American Summer and directing his first movie, The Baxter), to becoming a go-to expert in mainstream dramedies, directing such works as Hello, My Name Is Doris, The Big Sick, and The Lovebirds. His most recent directing effort, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, pushes his expertise in balancing various tones in telling the story of the infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain, respectively). The film takes its subjects seriously while still acknowledging the comedic potential that the couple’s ridiculously lavish lifestyle offered the production. The clothes, the hair, and the makeup all played a huge part in Tammy Faye’s image and popularity, and they are amply represented in this film about her childhood, early marriage, and religious empire-building and the eventual, inevitable downfall with Jim Bakker.

Michael Showalter Eyes of Tammy Faye

Michael Showalter and Jessica Chastain on the set of The Eyes of Tammy Faye; Image courtesy of Searchlight PicturesInte

I spoke with Showalter recently about the film, roughly six years after chatting with him at 2015’s SXSW Film Festival for Doris. He discusses his collaboration with Chastain and their work to nail down the tone of this larger-than-life, rise-and-fall story. We also touch on his upcoming directing effort on the Apple TV+ series “The Shrink Next Door,” starring Will Farrell, Paul Rudd, and Kathryn Hahn, which kicks off in November. Please enjoy…

Over the years, Tammy Faye Bakker has been seen as a combination of a swindler and a punchline. How did you and Jessica and the screenwriter set out to set the record straight, while still acknowledging the humor of the lifestyle and the persona?

A lot of it starts with the documentary, which predates me. I came onto the project after Jessica and [screenwriter] Abe Silvia had already been working on the script for a long time, so there had been numerous drafts of the script written. So they already had very much come up with the take that they wanted to tell the story, which was inspired by the documentary and a setting-the-record-straight kind of thing that Tammy was mistreated and misrepresented by the media. It’s a story about not judging a book by its cover, which made it fun to talk about this underdog who had been picked on and vilified, and who took it all with integrity and was really noble in all of it. Starting with Jessica, we had a really clear sense that she we wanted to portray this character as a really wonderful human being—flawed, of course, but that she had a really beautiful message, and Jessica really wanted to play that character and carry that torch.

It’s interesting that in recent years, people like Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky, who were vilified in their day, are getting re-evaluations. Why do you think it takes so long for people to really seek out the person behind the headlines and jokes?

There’s obviously a kind of group-think that goes on and a bloodlust. They see the money, the cars, the mink coats, and the mansions, and it’s not to say that any of that is wrong, because there were things that were wrong about it. We’re not trying to excuse that. But things move so fast. We’re seeing it with Britney Spears now and what happened with her. I think it’s a sign of our times, especially with women, that we’re going back and looking at these stories that maybe we should have looked at in a different way at the time.

As someone who comes out of sketch comedy, you understand the importance of the right costume, the right wig, the right accessories. How much fun was it for you to play with the colors and clothes and lifestyle of the Bakker world? I believe this is the first time you’ve directed a period piece.

It was. It was so much fun. It was very much part of what I envisioned in this very non-specific way, this explosion of color and makeup and hair and fabric and music—the whole look of it is this opulent 1980s thing. It was so fun to look back at all of that and to see the transitions of Tammy Faye’s look from the ’60s to the ’70s to the ’80 to the ’90s, the way her hair and clothing changed—the shoulder pads. In the ’70s, the colors are very much muted, and then in the ’80s, they get much harsher and more primary. It’s interesting to see those transitions in the research, and really see that, yes, haircuts got more angular. It was so fun to go down that rabbit hole.

I’ve actually seen the film twice now, and there were moments even the second time where I got completely lost in what Jessica is doing—I don’t even see her. Did you have moments like that too?

Yes, I did. I spent so much time with Jessica, and so much of that time, she was in the makeup. Here’s one thing, because Jessica is an actor who can turn it on and off; she can do what she does on camera, and then immediately when we stop rolling, she’ll come up to you and joke around and be Jessica. So when she’s doing that joking around, she looks like Tammy Faye Bakker, with all of the prosthetics on. In the editing room is where I started to see the depth of the performance. I knew what she was doing was incredible when we were shooting the movie as well, but I was also dealing with her so much as a collaborator and a producer, that it wasn’t in the over yet. Once I started to see the totality of the performance and I was no longer dealing with Jessica Chastain the person, just the character she created, I never got tired of watching it. You’ve seen it twice; I’ve seen it 200 times, and I always see something new that she’s done and some new way in which she does it. There’s no artifice to it. Like you said, by the end of the movie, you’re not looking at an actor; you’re just with Tammy Faye the person, and you’re with her, and that’s an amazing achievement for her.

Even people I know who lived through this period and paid no attention to the Bakkers or PTL, they somehow heard or saw that groundbreaking interview she did with Steve Pieters in 1985 [who was undergoing treatment for AIDS at the time]. That moment speaks so much to Tammy Faye’s character, and you let that play out almost in real time. Tell me about the importance of that sequence.

It shows you she was willing to do stuff that nobody else in that world was willing to do. It’s just a testament to the integrity that she had. She really believed that everybody should be treated with respect, and she was really in it for the reason of spreading the message of love and acceptance. That really was what she stood for.

You are involved as a director in the upcoming Apple TV+ series “The Shrink Next Door.” I am of a firm belief that any time a member of The State works with Paul Rudd, I get excited about it. How many episodes are you involved in?

I do the first four episodes, of an eight-episode show, and I’m one of the executive producers of the show. It’s based on a podcast, which I can recommend to you if you like podcasts, and it’s based on this true story about a therapist and a client—Paul Rudd plays the therapist, Will Farrell plays the client—and it’s a very crazy, compelling true story. I’m excited about it.

As am I. Michael, it was good to see you again. Best of luck with this film and the series.

Thank you, take care.

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