The Eyes of Tammy Faye's Intense Transformations: See the Actors vs. the Real-Life Characters

See why Jessica Chastain and the film's hair and makeup team are Oscar-nominated for the biopic about the rise and scandal-plagued fall of Tammy Faye Bakker's televangelism empire.

By Natalie Finn Mar 26, 2022 7:00 PMTags
Watch: Jessica Chastain Talks Conquering Fear of Singing at 2022 SAGs

"I think the eyes are so important. I believe the eyes are the soul, I truly do."

So said Tammy Faye Bakker in a 2000 documentary about the infamous televangelist's rise to fame, scandal-plagued fall and cheery insistence on rising again. Her gaze always dramatically framed by trademark false lashes, that heavily made-up face served as solace to some and a punchline for others, but she never stopped banking on her flamboyant persona.

Jessica Chastain caught the movie on TV one night almost a decade ago and was captivated. She secured the rights to the documentary in hopes of one day redeeming the much more complicated real person at the center of the story, realizing that she too only knew Tammy Faye (who by 2000 was Tammy Faye Mesner, her marriage to Jim Bakker having imploded along with their ministry) through a prism of scandal and all that mockery. 

And she always intended to play the woman herself.

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Stars React to 2022 Oscar Nominations

Holy moly, did Chastain's perseverance paid off. The fruit of that journey, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, earned her the trophy for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role at the 2022 SAG Awards, making her the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar.

And yes, it involved a lot of time in hair and makeup.

20TH CENTURY STUDIOS

"The longest was actually seven-and-a-half hours," Chastain recalled to the Los Angeles Times about physically transforming into Tammy Faye each day with the help of a top-notch team, headed up by Linda Dowds, also Oscar-nominated for the film along with Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh. "And I got to set and I was so panicky. I started to have hot flashes because it's so heavy and hot. I was afraid. It was like going on a long-distance flight every day."

Understandably, after the equivalent of an average working day had passed and only then did the call of "action" ring out, the fair-skinned star ended up rather exhausted.

"By the time I got on set that first day that was seven-and-a-half hours, I was like, 'I have no energy left,'" Chastain recalled. Meanwhile Tammy Faye's "supposed to show up with so much energy. That was the '90s look—the very end. That's the most prosthetics I've worn. Even the bronzer and the foundation are so much darker, the lashes are thicker. The makeup gets heavier as she gets older."

And Chastain knew she ran the risk of the character running a distant second. 

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"You have to reach through the makeup—you can't let the makeup be the performance," explained the actress, who's also a producer on the film. "She was so emotional, and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to get emotional with all this stuff all over me. Am I going to be able to see people and feel free? I just had to get used to it. So much for me is I have to trick my mind."

Not that Chastain was the only one rendered almost unrecognizable by the magic of the movies. To properly bring Jim and Tammy Faye's world to life, as it ranged from muted and modest to over-the-top glam and gaudy, the whole cast was in for some serious face time in the makeup chair.

Here's a guide to the actors and the very real characters they play:

Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker

Born Tammy Faye LaValley in Minnesota, she found her calling on-air, becoming a pioneering figure in the world of televangelism-as-entertainment along with her first husband, Jim Bakker. Married on April 1, 1961, the couple traveled the U.S., Tammy Faye singing and Jim preaching, and after a few years they started hosting a children's puppet show on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

In 1974 the Bakkers launched The PTL Club (for Praise the Lord), spreading what's known as the prosperity gospel—as in, if you put your heart and soul into it, God will reward you with material wealth because you deserve to live comfortably. "Excess and success are close together," Jim said in a 1985 interview. PLT ballooned into a full-blown empire, which at its height included its own satellite network and Heritage USA, a sprawling North Carolina theme park, before it all came tumbling down in 1987 under the weight of Jim's sex and financial scandals.

Over the years, with her heavy makeup and propensity for tearing up on camera, Tammy Faye became easy fodder for late-night punchlines. And undeservedly so, as far as Jessica Chastain was concerned. With The Eyes of Tammy Faye, inspired by the 2000 documentary of the same name, the actress set out to rehumanize the woman who, among other attributes that made her stick out among her contemporaries, defied the largely discriminatory practices of her fundamentalist background in reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community and HIV/AIDS patients.

"I just was so blown away by her and her story," Chastain told People. "The thing I loved the most about Tammy is her capacity to love. She knew what it felt like to not feel important, and she didn't want anyone to experience that."

Tammy Faye was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996, but she found a new level of visibility in her final years, penning the memoirs Tammy: Telling It My Way and I Will Survive...and You Will, Too!, guest-starring on The Drew Carey Show as the comically made-up Mimi's similarly flamboyant mother, and joining the household on VH1's The Surreal Life. She died in 2007 at the age of 65.

Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker

By 1986, PTL employed 2,500 people around the world and was taking in $129 million in annual revenue, according to John Wigger's The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire. Their Christian-themed resort, Heritage USA, was the third-most-visited attraction in the U.S. that year, behind only Disneyland and Disney World, and the PTL Network reached 14 million homes. The Bakkers reportedly owned multiple residences, two Rolls Royces, a 55-foot houseboat and a private jet.

On March 19, 1987, Jim resigned from PTL after church secretary Jessica Hahn alleged that the pastor had sexually assaulted her in December 1980. Jim insisted the encounter was consensual and he was never charged with a crime, but he admitted to paying Hahn $265,000 from the church's funds to stay quiet. An investigation into the ministry's finances found that Jim had also been selling so-called "lifetime memberships" to their Heritage Grand hotel—to more people than there were rooms—for $1,000 a pop. Moreover, PTL couldn't account for $92 million in revenue.

Already at work launching a new TV-driven ministry in Orlando, Fla., Tammy Faye told a reporter ahead of Jim's trial on fraud charges, "If our case is tried on truth, we will win. I'm asking God that everyone will simply tell the truth... I'm praying for all the men who are lying." 

"Not only is Jim on trial, people," she said on her show, "but the church we know is on trial. Everything that has to do with Christian television is on trial when Jim walks into that courtroom."

In 1989, Jim, who pleaded not guilty, was convicted of 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He served five, his sentence reduced on appeal, and upon his release penned the autobiography I Was Wrong, in which he revealed that, when he was 11, he was molested by a male member of his family's church, leaving him very confused about his sexuality. In 1998 he married Lori Beth Graham, they have five children together, and he presides over Morningside ministry in Blue Eye, Mo.

Lila Jane Meadows as Tammy Sue Bakker

A month after Jim stepped down from PTL, it was reported that 17-year-old Tammy Sue, the eldest of Jim and Tammy Faye's two children, had married Doug Chapman, a 24-year-old lifeguard and staffer at her parents' resort complex.

Talking to the Washington Post in 1996, Tammy Sue, who followed in her mom's footsteps as a singer and pastor, said she was "more conservative" than Tammy Faye. "Like, those plastic earrings my mom's got on now? I wouldn't be caught dead in those."

Tammy Faye told the Post of her daughter, "She likes good stuff. She'd rather have one good thing. I'd rather have 10 cheap things. Junk. I buy all cheap junk, but that's what I love."

Nowadays, Tammy Sue leads a largely private life and Chastain made sure to reach out to her and her younger brother, Jay Bakker, as the making of The Eyes of Tammy Faye got underway.

"I was concerned for them," the actress admitted to the Los Angeles Times. "Would this be traumatizing? So I reached out to them immediately and I was told that other projects haven't reached out to them. They've always felt like, 'This is our lives, and yet we're not being included.' So they were very happy. It was a good risk that was taken. Because it's easier, in some sense, to not reach out. You don't want to have the call that's like, 'Leave my family alone. Don't do this.'"

Chastain said she was most interested in the little details about Tammy Faye, such a what perfume she wore, that would help her properly channel the larger-than-life personality. "I wanted to know what she smelled like because I never got to meet her," she explained. "I would say to them, 'What was your mom's favorite color?' And Tammy Sue said to me, 'My mom had two favorite colors: pink and leopard.'"

Kyle Riggs as Jamie Charles Bakker

Born in 1975, the second child of Tammy Faye and Jim—who goes by Jay Bakker—is a pastor and author of Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows, in which he candidly discussed what it was like for his 12-year-old self when his father was arrested and the personal troubles that ensured, including his own battle with substance abuse. A co-founder of the Revolution Church and a married father of two, he supports LGBTQ+ rights (the church offered rainbow-colored communion bread when same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota) and has been openly critical of Christian fundamentalism, intolerance and the politicization of religion.

"For a while, I got really disillusioned with the church and I thought that I might just join the Peace Corps," Jay told TIME in 2011 upon the release of his second book, Fall To Grace: A Revolution of God, Self and Society. "It felt to me like the church was sending an intolerant message, it's our way or the highway. When I realized it didn't have to be about that, that there was pure acceptance in Christianity, I decided to go back with the hope of making church a safer place for folks."

As he put it to NPR that year, "Religion can be a very dangerous thing. It's a constant reminder to me to be careful."

Mark Wystrach as Gary Paxton

The Grammy-winning country and gospel artist, who died in 2016 at 77, appeared on The PTL Club—and Tammy Faye was a huge fan. So much so that, after Jim Bakker had claimed he was unfaithful because he had been trying to make his wife jealous to re-spark her love for him, the Washington Post reported on speculation that an extramarital romance between Tammy Faye and Gary may have been the driving factor.

"She was in love with Gary, or thought she was, and she knew I knew it," Gary's ex-wife Karen told the Post in 1987. "I don't want to sound like a vindictive woman. I love Tammy. We were very close. I thought she was my best friend, but my best friend and my best husband let me down."

Gary insisted they were just friends, though he also cryptically said, "You're with somebody a lot and become too close a friend sometimes, then realize you're too close and quit."

Tammy told the Post in 1996 that it was a purely platonic relationship, explaining. "I was a really lonely, hurting gal—and lived for years that way, not being paid attention to" and Gary was a "soul mate." But, she added, "Even to have a soul mate, if you are married, is wrong. I regret that, and I know that Gary does, too."

Sam Jaeger as Roe Messner

After divorcing Jim in 1992, Tammy Faye married Roe, a contractor who's built more than 1,740 churches and megachurch complexes in 47 states, in 1993.

As the developer of Heritage USA, Roe lost a reported $15 million when PTL folded and he eventually declared bankruptcy. Later he was charged with hiding $400,000 from the courts and sentenced to 27 months in prison for bankruptcy fraud in 1996.

In his memoir, Jim accused Roe of stabbing him in the back by running off with his wife while he was in jail.

"I was never Jim Bakker's best friend," Roe told the Washington Post in 1996. "He never asked me to look after Tammy and the kids. It never happened. But I understand how he feels. I'd feel the same way probably, in the same circumstances. I think any man would."

He and Tammy Faye remained together for the rest of her life and, after she died, he dove back into his work. "I cried a bucket of tears," he told McClatchy Newspapers in 2007. "But I know she'd say, 'Go do your work. Go do what you love to do.'"

Of his rather infamous wife, Roe said, "The press never did get her right. She was smart. And Tammy was the most loving, kind and forgiving person I ever met. People loved her. When she died, she got a million Internet hits and 14 bags of regular mail."

"There are two persons who don't need a last name," he added, "Elvis and Tammy Faye. When she walked into the room, everybody turned and looked."

Gabriel Olds as Pat Robertson

The former Southern Baptist minister gave the Bakkers their start in televangelism (a term Robertson heartily resisted back in the day) in the 1960s, featuring them on his Christian Broadcasting Network. He's still chugging along at 91 as host of the channel's flagship show, The 700 Club, which was first hosted by Jim Bakker when it premiered in 1966. The name was inspired by Roberts' hope to get 700 people to pledge $10 a month to cover his small enterprise's expenses when he launched the station that later became CBN.

In the wake of PTL's scandal in 1987, Robertson laid off 500 of his ministry's 2,000 employees and issued an urgent call to viewers for funds, explaining that Jim's misbehavior "hit the evangelical world like a bombshell." 

"We are laying off godly, dedicated, wonderful people—500 of them—because we just don't have the money to pay their salaries," he said on The 700 Club.  "We had nothing to do with PTL...We had absolutely nothing to do with any of it."

Coley Campany as DeDe Robertson

The Ohio State beauty queen and nursing student married Pat Robertson on Aug. 26, 1954. Their family includes their four children and at least 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Son Gordon P. Robertson is the current CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network and a frequent co-host of The 700 Club.

Talking to CBN.com in 2017, DeDe was asked if Pat sought her out as a "check and balance" when making important decisions.

"Sometimes he does," she quipped, "and sometimes he wished that he had."

Vincent D'Onofrio as Jerry Falwell

After becoming mired in scandal, the Bakkers turned PTL over to Falwell, a Southern Baptist minister, Moral Majority co-founder and conservative activist who was a puritanical thorn in the side of culturally provocative figures such as Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.

Soon finding out that PTL was financially unsalvageable, Falwell washed his hands of the ministry, repeating the rumors that Jim was gay and deeming him and his "greedy" wife unfit to lead. He also accused the Bakkers of fomenting distrust in the evangelical movement as a whole, telling the New York Times in May 1987, "'There's the inability to write that check because a lot of faith has been shattered."

Falwell, who also founded Liberty University, died in 2007.

Jay Huguley as Jimmy Swaggart

The Pentecostal evangelist and founder of SonLife Broadcasting Network became one of Jim Bakker's most outspoken critics when Jim was brought low by sex and money scandals in 1987, calling him "a cancer that needed to be excised from the Body of Christ." In an emergency appeal for $5 million in funds for his own ministry, Jimmy wrote to his church members, per the Los Angeles Times, that Satan had "engineered the PTL fiasco...to destroy Jimmy Swaggart's ministries."

In 1988, Swaggart resigned from the Assembles of God (which had booted Jim the year before) after a rival preacher leaked photos of him in the company of a prostitute in New Orleans, prompting a tearful on-air confession to an unspecified sin.

During a traffic stop in Indio, Calif., in 1991, cops discovered he had a prostitute in the car with him. He was cited for traffic violations.

"He's the same guy who cries on TV for all these people to feel sorry for him...to give him all their money," Rosemary Garcia, the woman he had picked up, said afterward, per the Associated Press. ″For what? So he can come give it to us. That's pretty good."

Jimmy, his wife of almost 70 years, Frances, their son Donnie and grandson Gabriel all remain in the family ministry business. 

Cherry Jones as Rachel LaValley

Tammy Faye was the eldest of Rachel's eight children—two she had with Tammy Faye's father, Carl LaValley, and six from her second marriage. Growing up without indoor plumbing, Rachel would "heat water on the stove and pour it into a galvanized tub," Wiggins wrote in The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire. "They all had to use the same water, with the 'cleanest ones' going first. While they bathed her mother would make fudge and tune the radio to Saturday night National Barn Dance."

Talking about all the research she did on Tammy Faye, Chastain told the LA Times, "I was very lucky to watch anything that the [documentary filmmakers] had. But also, there's so much on YouTube. I've seen so many versions of Tammy Faye making fudge. That is something this girl loved to do—make fudge."

A sweet takeaway from her childhood.

Randy Havens as Steve Pieters

In November 1985, Tammy Faye interviewed Steve, a gay minister living with AIDS, on The PTL Club—an informative eye-opener at a time when many Christian leaders preached that homosexuality was wrong and AIDS was a punishment for their sins.

"How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth," she said afterward, "we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care."

Responding to her critics, she said, simply, "I believe Jesus loves all of us, and so should I."

This story was originally published on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 at 9 a.m. PT.