‘George & Tammy’ star Jessica Chastain on Wynette’s ‘rage and ferocity’
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain shine in Showtime’s drama about fabled country music legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette who couldn’t live with or without each other as they veered toward a collision course fueled by alcoholism, opioid addiction and emotional turmoil — none of which which failed to dampen their love.
“ George & Tammy, ” premiering Dec. 4, tracks the duo’s relationship from their first meeting to their eventual marriage and divorce up through Wynette’s death — in 1998 at the too-young age of 55 — and everything in-between. The series was created by Abe Sylvia , who wrote the screenplay for Chastain’s Oscar-winning role as Tammy Faye Bakker in “ The Eyes of Tammy Faye .” His passion in telling the Jones/Wynette story is palpable from the get-go, with Chastain and Shannon singing all the couple’s solos and duets themselves, adding an air of authenticity and, at times, heartbreak.
(“George & Tammy” is adapted from their daughter Georgette Jones’ book, “The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George.” )
Not only do we see both sides of the Jones/Wynette equation, but their story is given added depth through others who witnessed their stormy relationship first-hand: guitarist Earl “Peanutt” Montgomery ( Walton Goggins ); Wynette’s confidant/hairdresser Jan Smith ( Katy Mixon ); Billy Sherrill ( David Wilson Barnes ), who co-wrote “Stand By Your Man” with Wynette; and songwriter George Richey ( Steve Zahn ), who later married Wynette (her fifth and final husband) and allegedly abused her (as seen in “George & Tammy”).
Chastain said that Georgette Jones made sure that her mother was not portrayed as a victim, despite her turbulent life.
“She had been seen in that way … but she made choices in her life and navigated her life in the way she saw fit,” Chastain, 45, told The Post. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, poor Tammy.’ The reality is [that] this was a woman who had great physical pain. She had over three-dozen surgeries on her abdomen [cutting out scar tissue from a hysterectomy] and blockages from her opioid addiction. She had to have a port to transfer drugs into her heart.
“Not only is she numbing the physical pain of what she’s been through … she also decided to numb the emotional pain” that was part-and-parcel of her life story, Chastain said. Born Virginia Pugh, Wynette’s mother forced her to have electro-shock therapy when she wanted to leave her first husband, with whom she had two daughters .
It was the arc of her stormy life that imbued Wynette’s vocals, Chastain said.
“I do think sometimes when she sang it felt primal,” Chastain said. “Her vocal in ‘Stand By Your Man’ is incredible — it goes from a whisper to a scream but she hated it. She always felt like she sounded like a pig squealing.
“I felt like her voice comes from a woman who was institutionalized … and wanted to leave her marriage and her mother took her kids away,” she said. “I kept thinking when I was playing her she had this sense of rage and ferocity, like ‘Listen to me and see me and take me into account.'”
It’s Wynette’s relationship with Jones, of course, that takes center stage as “George & Tammy” dives deeply into their personal and performing lives and their performing lives, both as solo artists and as an on-stage duet team — which continued even after they divorced each other.
“To watch them on YouTube, when they’re both married to other people, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Chastain said. “The way that they sing to each other, the way that George tries to get her to kiss him … when you have that kind of connection with another person, that almost artistic spiritual soulmate where you make this music together, it’s incredible.”
“I think country music is about not letting wounds heal and opening yourself up and exposing the darkest part of yourself, and that has to cost something to be iconic singers the way they were,” she said. “Mike [Shannon] and I were talking about this the other day. Happiness is not a stagnant thing. George was happy at home and Tammy was like, ‘Let’s go to Vegas’ and he said he never wanted to go to Vegas.”
Chastain said she doesn’t think that Jones and Wynette could live without each other.
“They constantly orbited each other even before they met. Tammy had a book in which she wrote down every lyric of George’s songs before she ever met him,” she said. “Even after Tammy died, George wrote letters to DJs talking about the curious and suspicious nature of her death. They sang about each other in their solos. They were destined, in some sense, to meet — I know that sounds corny but I find it deeply romantic.
“They both had very difficult childhoods and troubles and knew how to put their hearts and souls into their music,” she said. “They put everything of who they were into their art.”