Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon on Prepping for Tammy Wynette and George Jones Roles in New Series, ‘George & Tammy”

Two of country music’s beloved icons, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, have received the Hollywood treatment. In a new series, George & Tammy—which began on Dec. 4—the titular couple is the subject of a six-part limited series based on the book, The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, written by George and Tammy’s only child, Georgette Jones

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The series takes a look at the highs and lows of the lives and careers of the country music power couple. Jessica Chastain, who had a phenomenal turn playing Tammy Faye Baker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress, completely immerses herself into the life of yet another Tammy (an Emmy nod is sure to follow). It’s hard to decipher where Wynette begins and Chastain ends. For his part, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Nocturnal Animals) delves deep into the role of the feisty but lovable Jones.

As Showtime describes the series, George & Tammy chronicles the country music power couple whose complicated-but-enduring relationship inspired some of the most iconic music of all time.

Shannon, who shared that he was not familiar with Jones and his music prior to taking the role, told American Songwriter, “The length of my familiarity with George before this [series] was, ‘Oh, I think I saw that guy on Hee Haw when I was a kid.’ That was it. I didn’t really know much about him at all.”

Added Chastain, “I didn’t really know anything about Tammy except I knew her music, some of it.”

American Songwriter sat down with both Chastain and Shannon to talk about the creation of George and Tammy and the pressure to portray such beloved icons. See the conversation below (edited for brevity)

American Songwriter: How did you both get involved in the George and Tammy project, and what drew you to these roles?

Jessica Chastain: I was approached in 2011. It’s funny, I just started having movies come out for the first time. And I was approached at the Golden Globes, I think. Asked, “Hey, do you want to play Tammy Wynette?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I mean, I didn’t really know anything about Tammy except I knew her music, some of it. So, that started a many-year journey. I think it was a decade, 11 years before we started shooting. So yeah, that’s the beginning of it.

AS: Why so long?

JC: There were many iterations of it, and it was going to be a film for a while, but there’s so much story to be told. I mean, it always felt really rushed to try to fit it all in two hours. There’s so much music, their music’s incredible, and it just made sense as a mini-series. And I didn’t even think about it in that way until Abe Sylvia, who wrote it, called me up at the beginning of the pandemic and said, “I have an idea to tell the story as a six-part series. Would you want to do that?” It’s like, “Yeah.” There’s enough story there for six hours. Yeah.

AS: Michael, how did you get drawn into George?

Michael Shannon: Oh, she asked me to do it, because she was looking for a fellow to do it (laughs). And we did Take Shelter, this movie Take Shelter together, probably right around the time that this came to you (Jessica). And I was a little nervous about it because I didn’t really think I looked much like George. I’m taller than he was. So, I was a little subconscious about it. But I do love music, and I started listening to his music and his voice just blew me away. And then I started reading about him, and he seemed like a very complex person so I dove into it.

AS: Were you familiar with George before getting on this project?

MS: No. I mean, for me the length of my familiarity with George before this was, “Oh, I think I saw that guy on Hee Haw when I was a kid.” That was it. I didn’t really know much about him at all. So, I had a lot of work to do.

AS: What is the preparation for both of you to get into the role of these beloved iconic country music stars? Is there a lot of pressure in that?

JC: A ton. I mean, a ton. I read every book I could find, I spent hours watching YouTube, and there were certain interviews that I latched onto and would record … almost like I could listen to it like a monologue, her talking about growing up. And her life, and the way she laughed, and the certain words she would mix up or mix around. And yeah, it’s all-encompassing. And especially being attached to a project for so long, I’m not the person who kind of waits to be like, “Oh okay, it’s going to start next month.” As soon as I attach myself to something, I start working on it because that’s a lot of the fun for me—learning about something I don’t know. And then I can really be on set and kind of just be free because I don’t have to feel like I’m trying to play catch up.

There was more pressure for me on this. I mean, ‘Stand By Your Man’ is … It’s a big deal. And I think the last time I was so … Oh God, I get just nervous anxiety just even talking about this. But the last time I sang it because we revisit songs in our series, which I find very interesting because it’s the whole like what’s story about what’s happening to this person through the music at this moment in time. And the last time I sang ‘Stand By Your Man’ in front of hundreds of extras and all this stuff in Vegas, or whatever, I finished and I went home and I said, “That is the last time I will ever have to sing that song.” I was telling everyone, “I’m tired of …” Because it was in my head so much. And then of course, on the car ride home I was singing it by myself because I love it.

AS: So, there’s no karaoke in your future with ‘Stand By Your Man’?

JC: Oh no, it might come out sometime. If there’s bourbon involved, I’m sure it’ll come out.

George and Tammy – Unit

AS: You both sing George and Tammy’s songs in this series, and obviously Jessica, you sang in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Michael, you’re in a band, so you sing too. But was it still intimidating for you to sing as George and Tammy?

MS: Yeah. I mean, George is widely considered one of the great American singers of all time. So yeah, I don’t think anybody can really sing like George Jones. And that’s what you hear about when people come to Nashville, and they have raw talent, and they can sing, and they run into a producer and you’re like, “Now, I hear you singing like Hank Williams, and that’s all fine and good, but you need to go out and you need to figure out how to sing like yourself. You need to figure out how to sing in a way that nobody else could possibly ever sing except you.” So, then I’m stuck with the responsibility of trying to sing like the guy who went out and figured out how to sing that way. But fortunately, we had an amazing coach, Ron Browning, who lives here in Nashville, and he got into it with us right away, months before we even started shooting, to help us feel comfortable with all that.

JC: And also, I was helped very early on by someone saying to me, “Listen, she’s got one of the greatest music voices in music history.” I mean, the way she sounds, it’s like this whale of this sadness, and passion, and it’s this depth of feeling that is so incredible. I’m not going to sound like that. And if the goal was that, I would just lip-sync because it’s an impossible thing to do. And I was told very early on by Abe Sylvia (creator of the series), he’s like, “That’s not our goal because, if so, we would just have you lip sync. The goal is storytelling through the music.” And that actually helped me relax more.

AS: Do you guys have a favorite George and Tammy song?

JC: “Hold On” was so fun to sing together. But we also learned to do it by patty-caking. (sings) That was so much fun. I also like ‘Two Story House,’ but I like it in the context of the show because what they’re going through.

MS: Well, I liked the fact that Tammy wrote it. I believe that’s the only one of their duets she wrote. Yeah, I think that’s really special because it’s nice because a lot of times they don’t write the songs and then they sing them, and people think, “Oh, this is their life,” or whatever. But it’s like something George Richie wrote or something. But that, ‘Two Story House’ is like Tammy really laying it on the line.

AS: What do you want viewers to take from this when they watch the movie?

MS: Well, I always struggle answering that question. I think it’ll be interesting for people that are huge fans of George and/or Tammy. I think it hopefully will be also interesting to people like me who didn’t really know much about it, to begin with. I’m sure some people will be like, “Well, it didn’t happen like that,” or whatever. There are always naysayers. But I don’t know, I think the relationship is truly unique that those two had with one another, just one of the most romantic relationships I’ve ever encountered. So, hopefully, that’ll be moving for people.

New episodes of George and Tammy air on Showtime on Sunday nights. Check out episode 4 on Sunday, Dec. 25.

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