Cherry Jones is well known as a theatre actress, but whenever she appears on film, she steals her every scene. In the new dramatic version of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” — based on gay filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s documentary — Jones plays Rachel, the title character’s no-nonsense mother. When Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) brings Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) home introducing him as her husband, Rachel sizes him up and does not like what she sees. As the film charts the Bakker’s rise and fall (and Tammy Faye’s recovery), Rachel tries to provide her daughter with a voice of reason, However, hubris and greed, among other sins, get the best of the couple.
Jones plays Rachel as sour and dour, but she is the character viewers will connect with the most. Tammy Faye is good-hearted, a bit dramatic, and chirpy, while her husband Jim is smarmy and possibly a closet case. The actress chatted with Gay City News about her new film and her thoughts on the Bakkers.
KRAMER: What is the appeal of this story? Not just for you as an actress, but for us viewers, who love the schadenfreude of seeing a sanctimonious man fail?
JONES: It has historic importance. I was in my 20s in the mid-80s when all of this was going down. We were watching this march of televangelists, who were spawned from the days of Billy Graham — the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons, who were accumulating this tremendous amount of political power in the country. Jim and Tammy Faye were on the happy, good and bright and cheerful and “we will prosper and live in joy and happiness” side of the movement. There was something for everyone in the evangelical movement. If you wanted hell and fire and damnation, you had Falwell; if you wanted middle-of-the-road you had Pat Robertson; and if you wanted peace, light, love, and prosperity, you had Jim and Tammy Faye. But you had this march towards theocracy if they had their way. And right in the middle of that you had Margaret Atwood write “The Handmaid’s Tale,” about America becoming this right-wing theocracy that controlled every breath a woman took.
At that same time, to have Tammy Faye Bakker — she really was a maverick in that she got to speak her mind as a woman in a time so ruled by power-crazed hungry men who wanted not only to control their children, their wives, their churches, and their communities, they wanted to control the country and eventually the world if they could have! They were scary dudes. What is ironic now is that you don’t need Jerry Falwell anymore. Trump is his own church now. He’s his own God. God has chosen him. He is the messiah to people. He’s God’s “flawed messenger.” That’s why it’s relevant to today. If you care about history and how we get places, this is part of it. What is equally fascinating is that Jim Bakker is still doing it. All he was born to do is to be a con artist, and now in this day of doom and gloom and at these end times, he’s selling products for the end of the world and COVID cures. If you haven’t checked him out, promise me you will. He is still going strong. And he’s married to a woman who looks like Tammy!
KRAMER: Do you pity these people? The film shows their hubris, their moral failure, but also their delusions. This film is a cautionary tale, but it’s a very specific one. What do you think we can learn from “The Eyes of Tammy Faye?”
JONES: I think it’s “Don’t judge book by its cover.” Tammy was a woman of tremendous strength and fortitude, and positivity and love, love, love. Through it all, she had an ability to connect with people that was really moving to see. There’s some crazy interview she did with Roseanne Barr that I saw on YouTube, and Roseanne Barr is being such a bitch in the way she’s questioning what Tammy’s done to her face. She is being awful to her. Tammy could have said right back at her, how do you think you have the right? But she approached it with love, and never got upset or angry. There is something about her personality that I am so struck by. The film was fortunate that Jessica Chastain brought her to life for this generation to see. Historically it is a fascinating period that leads us right to today. As a woman, she was a completely unique creature in that world. Even though she seems like a victim in that world, I think she’s the one true survivor who came out with her dignity intact.
KRAMER: Rachel has a real disapproval not just of Jim but is very critical of her daughter. What observations do you have about her tough love?
JONES: The thing that is clear — and I come from a part of the world where everyone was a very conservative Christian for the most part, and the worst thing that can happen is that someone would fall from grace and not know eternal life. That’s how you know Rachel loves her daughter. Rachel is fighting for her daughter’s soul. Tammy is fighting for her mother’s approval. Rachel is fighting to make sure that when she goes to heaven, she knows she will see her daughter there eventually. Rachel thinks Tammy is doing work of devil by believing in Jim Bakker. Rachel believes that Tammy is a good soul and a kind heart and very genuine in her beliefs and that she is being used and taken advantage of by Jim.
KRAMER: You excel at playing characters like Rachel who are skeptics or provide a voice of reason. I love seeing you play no-nonsense. What are your thoughts on the characters you play?
JONES: I basically do my mother. I get hired to do my mother [laughs]. My mother was very strong and wonderful. She was an English teacher, and brilliant, and kind, and loving, and had a real strength. When I am at my best and my strongest when I do these women, I’m just doing momma. She served me well. She got me a lot of jobs. I played heroines on stage when I was younger. I worried I’d never be able to do characters and be a character actor. It’s a different skill set, so I still feel I am learning how to do character work. It is fun playing strong women. Someday, I hope to get to play weak women, too. I’m at that age and look the way I look. I’m big and I’ve got a big voice. I’m just not going to be the wilting daisy. I’m not. It’s never going to happen. I’m a post-menopausal lesbian! What do you want? [Laughs]
KRAMER: Do you think you will ever get to make a great lesbian film? “The Party” was nice, but I want more. I’ve been wanting this for years!
JONES: I can’t answer that. Just put it out in the zeitgeist and let’s see what happens!
KRAMER: With Broadway coming back do you have plans to return to the stage anytime soon?
JONES: I do not have a job on stage anytime soon, but hopefully I will at some point.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE | Directed by Michael Showalter | Opening September 17 at area theatres | Distributed by Fox Searchlight