Radiating with passion and persistence, Jessica Chastain has a unique propensity for shading in the contours of colorful, often historically-grounded characters. Throughout her career, she has embodied a diverse range of individuals with both heightened heart and masterful emotional gradation, talents demonstrated most recently in her portrayal of Tammy Wynette in Showtime’s “George and Tammy.”
“I came onto this project almost 10 years ago,” Chastain said in an interview on Feb. 19 during a special San Francisco screening event for the limited series, reflecting on its long-term development. “It took about 10 years for it to come to be (a series). We were going to make it as a film. But there’s so much music — it’s 31 songs we sing. It just made sense that it needed to be a miniseries.”
To be sure, music is the tumultuous force propelling “George and Tammy” forward. The six-part series, starring Chastain opposite Michael Shannon, chronicles the volatile artistic and romantic partnership between country music legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
The series is hardly Chastain’s first biopic experience; from “Molly’s Game” to “The Good Nurse,” the actress’s storytelling pursuits are frequently rooted in intriguing public figures. Last year, she even garnered her first Academy Award for her electrifying performance as the famous TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker — yes, another Tammy — in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
“I like playing real women because I like a lot of work,” Chastain shared. “I know that sounds weird to say. I like to change my voice, I like to change my physicality. I like to read, learn things that are different from anything I would know.”
Depicting Wynette — a determined mother, an achingly vulnerable singer-songwriter and later, a decades-long addict — was an especially demanding feat. To construct a convincing yet nuanced portrait of the complex country legend, Chastain not only studied hours of footage from YouTube, but she also turned to actual people in Wynette and Jones’ lives.
“I relied a lot on Georgia, their daughter,” Chastain said, referring to Georgette Jones, a consulting producer of the series as well as the author of “The Three of Us: Growing Up With Tammy and George,” the memoir upon which the show is based. “And then a lot of like makeup artists that toured with them. And other children, Peanutt Montgomery, who Walton Goggins plays, and Charlene Montgomery — they were all there on set.”
Singing presented its own set of challenges for Chastain. Known as the “First Lady of Country Music,” Wynette is remembered for her gripping, particularly emotive vocal delivery. To execute this distinctive brand of classic country music, Chastain worked with producer T Bone Burnett, vocal coach Ron Browning and music supervisor Rachael Moore.
Rather than using voice blending — a technique that uses technology to meld a singer’s voice with that of an actor — all singing scenes in “George and Tammy” were performed live on set. Infusing her own vocals with technical precision and dynamic intensity alike, Chastain managed to strike a skillful balance between imitation and intentional imperfection.
“It was a big risk that we were taking by not doing a blend, a very vulnerable thing,” Chastain said. “It makes me even nervous to talk about it, because I have trouble listening to it. Because I wish it was more perfect. But sometimes in perfection, you lose magic.”
Apart from creating a space for Chastain to experiment with emotionality as a vocalist, the role of Wynette presented another compelling opportunity for the actress: to shed a new light on a wildly successful woman who was disparaged throughout her career — by critics, audiences and other women — even long after her passing.
“‘Stand By Your Man’ wasn’t about being a doormat, it was about forgiving someone when they make mistakes and standing with them as they heal,” Chastain said of Wynette’s controversial 1968 signature track, which has since been framed by many as an anti-feminist manifesto. “I like looking at women who have been vilified in one sense or another, because I find that we can tend to be very hard on successful women in our culture.”
Chastain’s devotion to her artistry is tangible with every supercharged moment she spends on screen. As a mother, wife and musician, Wynette experienced loss after loss of agency and, after receiving a hysterectomy with severe complications, developed an opioid addiction. Yet, even scenes of poignant darkness in “George and Tammy” never become overwhelming, as Chastain is careful to imbue the harrowing narrative with Wynette’s characteristic warmth and undeniable strength.
For her steadfast depiction of Wynette, Chastain won the 2023 SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series. At the end of the day, however, she finds that acting reaps other rewards. “I find that that’s our greatest joy that we get to do, it’s an exercise of empathy, right?” the actress reflected on her appreciation for her craft. “We get to walk in someone else’s shoes.”