Jessica Chastain Wants People to See Tammy Faye Bakker 'Beyond Her Husband's Salacious Mistakes'
What started out as a mission to spread God's word turned into a scandal and years of public mockery for Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband and PTL co-founder Jim. The new movie, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (out Friday), offers a fresh look at the late televangelist who found herself at the butt of jokes about her heavy makeup and high-pitched voice.
"It was always like the media, or SNL, making her into a clown and punishing her for the mistakes of her husband, which all throughout history women have been the victim of," Jessica Chastain, who portrays Tammy Faye in the upcoming film, tells PEOPLE.
The Michael Showalter-directed biopic takes audiences through Tammy Faye's faith-filled life, and Chastain hopes that 35 years after PTL's downfall, it will help audiences "to see her value beyond her husband's salacious mistakes and crime."
Says Chastain, "She always made it her mission that everyone understood she was grateful that they were alive. That's a beautiful gift to give."
Chastain, 44, feels that that mission grew out of the fact that the church community didn't initially welcome Tammy Faye as a child of divorce (Tammy Faye's mom and dad split up when she was 3). "She knew what it felt like to not feel loved and not feel important," the actress says. "And she didn't want anyone to experience that."
After having what Tammy Faye believed to be an epiphany at age 10, she devoted her life to religion and spreading love. "The thing I loved the most about Tammy is her capacity to love," says Chastain, who spent more than four hours a day in the makeup chair to transform into Tammy Faye. "There is a sense of her that wasn't cool because she wasn't guarded. She wasn't mysterious. She always told people she loved them."
Tammy Faye found someone who wanted to disseminate a similar message in Jim Bakker, who she met at bible college in Minneapolis. They married in 1961 and set out to share the word of the Lord; Tammy Faye did that through song and Jim, an Assemblies of God minister, preached that God didn't want Christians to shy away from the good things in life.
"He was trying to figure out his own relationship with God and his own understanding of the Bible and doctrine," Andrew Garfield, who plays Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, says. "He saw the word prosperity come up a lot in the Bible and was like, 'Why isn't anyone talking about this?'"
What started out as the Bakkers preaching to kids with puppets along the Bible belt led to their first television show. Eventually, Jim launched The 700 Club on Christian Broadcasting Network and then he and Tammy turned their talk show Praise the Lord into a full-fledged network. PTL Club grew into a network carried on 1,300 cable systems with nearly 13 million subscribers.
"They were the first reality TV show family," Garfield, 38, says. "They were the forerunners of that whole movement that we're now steeped in. They made all these intimate, private moments, public. They were establishing a whole new paradigm for what it was to be a Christian."
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The Bakkers lived what they preached about, driving luxury cars, wearing designer clothes and sleeping in a five-level mansion. "There were basically saying, it's okay to have money. It's okay to be prosperous. God wants you to have money," Garfield says. "Obviously, some misguidedness in there in terms of materialism and commodification. That's where it got tricky."
News broke in 1987 that Jim slept with church secretary Jessica Hahn seven years earlier — and PTL paid her $265,000 to keep quiet about it — prompting a look into PTL's finances. A jury found Jim guilty on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
While Tammy Faye didn't face any charges, she did experience public scrutiny for her flashy clothing and chunky mascara. "She had obviously self-esteem issues and image issues, but ultimately, her insides were so beautiful and so pure," Garfield says. "That trumps everything."
Tammy Faye divorced Jim in 1992 while he served his time in prison and remarried Roe Messner, a contractor who worked on PTL's Heritage U.S.A. theme park, the following year. She died of cancer in 2007, but left behind a legacy of love.
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"She always made it her mission that everyone understood, no matter who they were, that she was grateful that she got to be around them," Chastain says. "We spend so much time and attention on how a woman presents herself in the world and not really what a woman is saying or accomplishing or doing, and there's a lot of judgment. I'm excited now for people to focus on Tammy and the beautiful things that she did."
The Eyes of Tammy Faye hits theaters Friday.
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