When it comes to taking on a challenge like the Showtime limited series George & Tammy, Oscar winner Jessica Chastain says that the challenge is the point. “I’ve always kind of been all in when it comes to this,” she tells Consequence. “It has to cost me something. It can’t be too easy.”
No one would ever describe George & Tammy as “too easy” — the six-episode biographical drama spotlights the complicated bond between iconic country singers George Jones (Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Chastain), with both Shannon and Chastain not only physically transforming themselves as much as possible for their respective roles, but performing all the songs sung by the duo in the series, including hits like “Stand By Your Man,” “Two Story House,” and “Golden Ring.”
Jones and Wynette met at a key moment in both their careers, with their six-year marriage (the third for each of them) only encompassing one portion of their decades-long relationship as friends, lovers, and musical collaborators. Says Shannon, about the series’ exploration of their dynamic, “It’s just about highlighting the depth of the passion that they had for one another, whether it’s making love or making music or having a family together. There was such a strong connection there.”
Chastain agrees, saying that even though mental health and substance abuse issues played a huge role in their story, “the one thing about these two people is they felt so much. And I believe the reason why they were so incredible is because they always told the story. They made you feel something. There are a lot of people out there who have beautiful qualities to their voices. But George and Tammy exposed their hearts when they sang. There was an openness that they had.”
On the eve of the series, Consequence sat down with the pair in person to talk about the biggest challenges of the project, from learning to emulate the original artists to, in Shannon’s case, having to capture Jones’ later-in-life compulsion to talk like a duck. They also reveal how they approached their research for the project, and dig into what it means, to potentially introduce Jones and Wynette to a whole new audience.
To start things off, what was really exciting for you about taking on this series?
Chastain: I like to do things that are incredibly challenging and feel impossible. If something feels like, “Oh yeah, that’s a good way to spend some time, then it is usually not the most interesting. If I feel a little bit like I’m struggling to kind of hang on by my fingernails, then it feels like I’m doing something worthwhile with this job. So that was the most challenging and rewarding thing, the music especially. It was really educational and I learned a lot.
Shannon: I guess I was intrigued by the prospect of singing in a show — not like a musical, but actually using the songs to help tell the story of these people. I don’t get that opportunity very often. I love music, and I also just thought it was really such a romantic story, you know?
I mean, the idea of country as a very intimate genre, where you’re singing these songs that are very directly related to your own lives — was that something that helped or hindered the process of getting into the material?
Shannon: Well, for me, it was critical that we sing the songs for real, no matter what our ability might be to sound exactly like Tammy Wynette or George Jones. Regardless of that, we needed to sing the songs, because there’s this process that happens when you actually sing these songs. They’re almost like spells. It’s conjuring something.
And I felt personally that George and Tammy were always the closest when they were together on stage singing. That’s when they actually truly communicated with each other, and I thought it was a crucial element of the story. So that’s why we put so much into trying to learn how to sing and actually singing the songs. It would’ve been sad I think if someone else had sang them or if we just lip synced, there would’ve been something kind of hollow about it, I think.
How closely were you trying to hit the actual way that they sang, versus finding like a way to take the song and make it your own to some degree?
Chastain: I think, even in acting and playing Tammy Wynette, it’s not a documentary. I can do everything I can to sound as much like her, but it’s all coming down to my interpretation of what she might have felt and what happened in those moments in her life.
I struggled quite a bit because I was really intimidated by singing some of these songs, especially “Stand By Your Man.” The reality is, nobody sounds like Tammy Wynette except Tammy Wynette. And that’s why she was who she was, and many people, especially the showrunner [Abe Sylvia], said to me “Listen, I don’t want you to sound exactly like Tammy Wynette, because if that was the case, I’d have you lip sync the song.”
The reality is we’re telling the story through the music, and country is so exposing because you have people around you that are writing these songs, because they’re lifting something out of you that they see. So it’s like diary entries. So much of our series, when we’re going into the music, it’s never just like, “Oh, here’s a nice musical number.” It’s like, “Okay, the character is going through something very difficult emotionally, and how can we tell that through songs?”
So we listened a lot to them. I listened to a lot to her. But the reality is there’s only so much you can do. I don’t physically exactly look like her, and I don’t physically sound like her. It’s my job as an actor to kind of put the story inside me and see what then comes out.
Was your experience similar, Michael?
Shannon: Oh, I’m nothing like George Jones. I mean, he was much shorter than me. But like I was saying earlier, it’s all about the singing.
Was there a quality to George’s voice that you wanted to embody?
Shannon: Well, I think what happens when people hear George’s voice is that they’re struck by the emotional power of it. It’s almost kind of operatic, his voice. He also does lots of licks — he’ll get so many different notes into one note, just skidding all over the place. And it’s hard to emulate that, particularly in a song like “Take Me”; he’s got so many licks in that song. That’s what we call them, licks. When, let’s say, you got a G note and he’ll go like, G FC DBA. Like the Pied Piper or something with his piccolo.
The main thing is just to take advantage of the songs to tell the story. The interesting thing is some of these songs they write, and some get written for them. But they all seem to be about them somehow, which is strange. And they sing the songs at different points throughout their life and they mean different things at different points throughout their life. And you see how their life changes or their circumstances change, but the song’s always the same. I was fascinated by that situation.
At what point in taking on the project did you realize you would have to do a duck impression?
Shannon: I was almost more worried about that than I was [about] singing like George Jones. And it really wasn’t fair, because our first [assistant director], Mikey Eberle, could do an amazing duck voice, and he would do it all the time to taunt me, on a day where I had a duck scene. I started saying, “Well, you should just do it, and I’ll lip sync that and I’ll give you a credit.” But eventually I got it.
It’s a very good impression.
Shannon: It was so hard. I can’t do it.
Chastain: I mean, you did it.
Shannon: Yeah. I mean, perseverance basically, and hard work, you know? It’s amazing sometimes what you, as an actor, focus on trying to get right. It could be something that silly, you know? But it’s actually a really serious time in George’s life. [Jones] literally started developing multiple personalities, and that was rough, but then it manifested itself in this kind of cute, funny way. He had the duck and then he had the Old Man voice, which you don’t really get to hear in the show. It’s an interesting dichotomy. It’s when he is really really falling apart. Probably the depths of his despair, really.
You both have a fair amount of experience playing real people — are there certain things that you’ve learned to do in approaching a role based in real life, like tools that you’ve developed?
Chastain: Well, if there’s material, that’s for me where I start. YouTube is a great resource when you’re playing a real person, especially for George and Tammy. What was so interesting to me is see these songs and revisit them throughout their lives, whether they were together or they weren’t, and how it changed the way they relate to each other. How she changed.
When [Wynette] first started out, she was so stiff when she would sing, and then when she was with George, he just loosened her up in a different way. He was the truth teller, in some sense. He got her to feel more comfortable and less judged, maybe, by others. So it all starts for me with studying the material, listening to the voice. Even things like her laugh — it’s so different than my laugh. So practicing that, so you can laugh in her way. Because laughing is a spontaneous thing, but you’ve got to be so entrenched in the feeling of the person you’re playing that it comes almost second nature.
Talk show appearances must be such a gift.
Chastain: Incredible. Incredible. Were they high at this point? At this point, were they in love? All of those questions.
Shannon: There was one talk show appearance I looked at a lot — I pick out little interviews and then first thing when I got to work, before I even went in the trailer for makeup or anything, I just watched the interview. This one time, they were on Ralph Emery together and he’s giving Tammy a hard time because she’s seeing a football player, and then Ralph Emery tries to get them to get married again. Or like this interview they did for Epic, when George came over to Epic with Tammy and it was like an in-house interview. These are all things, like Jessica said, you can find them on YouTube.