George Jones and Tammy Wynette were both long gone by the time Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain began filming George & Tammy, a six-episode series that premieres on Showtime Dec. 4. However, the actors still found a way to commune with the legendary country artists.
“We came to Nashville and did some recording,” Shannon tells Billboard. “The studio that we recorded at was adjacent to the cemetery where George is buried and Tammy’s remains are. So, we would sing their songs and then go and visit them.” Wynette died in 1998 and Jones in 2013.
Playing the country icons was daunting, the actors admit, especially when it came to doing their own singing. “I had so much anxiety and stress about trying to sound like her, but that’s an impossible thing to do,” Chastain says. “She had a once-in-a-lifetime gift.”
Taking on the emotional weight of the troubled couple, who were married from 1969-1975, could also be taxing, so Shannon would try to lighten the mood “if you think fart noises are funny,” he says, cracking Chastain up. “We did actually do something that probably no one would ever expect,” she adds. “We had a bouncy castle day because it was someone’s birthday and I got Mike into the bouncy castle, which is a sight I thought I’d never see.”
The pair, who have been friends since they appeared together in 2011’s Take Shelter, sat down with Billboard recently in Nashville to discuss how they prepared for their roles, why they did their own singing and reveal their favorite Jones and Wynette songs.
Billboard: Jessica, Abe Sylvia, whom you worked with on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, is writer and co-executive producer of George & Tammy. Is that how you got involved?
Chastain: No, someone approached me in 2011 at the Golden Globes, and said, “Hey, do you want to play Tammy Wynette?” It was like my first awards show and I was like, “Yeah, that sounds great. I love that song.” (laughs) There were many, many iterations of it, different directors. And budget wise, it was so expensive with all the music and all the stories we wanted to tell in two hours, it just felt like it wasn’t going to happen. At one point, it just kind of disappeared because it was so expensive. And then, in the beginning of the pandemic, Abe called me and said, “What if we make it a mini-series?” And that sounded very exciting. I’ve been reading about Tammy Wynette for 11 years.
Michael, you’ve said you didn’t know that much about George and that you’re more into jazz. What was your interest in playing him?
Shannon: Jessica asked me about it. I read his autobiography. I was really seduced by his voice, by his singing and his songs. I felt a little self-conscious about it because I don’t think I really resemble George Jones much, but I was excited to have an opportunity to sing and tell a story through singing because I do like to sing.
You used to have your own band. How did that help you since you’ve been in front of an audience performing?
Shannon: I don’t get super nervous about being up in front of a bunch of people, but to try and sing like George is no small feat. I don’t really think anybody can sing like George. But I sure worked hard on it, and we had a vocal coach, Ron Browning, who helped us train for a few months before we even started shooting.
What was your approach in terms of capturing their vocal styles?
Shannon: We wanted to tell the story through singing. The part that really intrigued me is how George and Tammy would tell the story of their life every time they sang together or alone. Even though the songs oftentimes weren’t written by them, they were still communicating by singing them. You can pick the same song and watch 10 different performances of it and get 10 completely different stories just based on the way they’re looking at each other. We could have just lip-synced everything, but I think in order for us to inhabit the people, we had to perform.
When you were doing your research, was there one thing that you clued in on that helped you find the character?
Chastain: I don’t know that this is right at all–I never had the opportunity to meet her–but I felt like she was an incredibly sensuous person, watching her sing, watching her interviews. Everything about her, I think she loved being a woman. She loved cooking. She loved makeup and hair. I found that to be a way in. She loved men at a time where you get married and stay married forever, she married five times. I think a lot of that also has to do with the fact that she loved being around men. Again, my interpretation, but it was kind of my way into playing her.
What about for you, Michael?
Shannon: I don’t know. It’s such a complex journey, George’s life. Every day when I got to work, there was an interview I’d listen to. It was an interview that George and Tammy did together. It coincided with the release of record that they made together for Epic and George talks about finally getting to Epic 17 years (in). It was kind of my morning ritual, put that on and listen to his voice. Listen to him and Tammy together.
There’s a scene in Ken Burns Country Music documentary where record producer Billy Sherrill calls them wounded animals. These are really talented, but tragic people.
Chastain: I think what’s so interesting sometimes about people is when they’re not afraid of their darkness and they’re willing to live in it and willing to explore it and try to move through it. And I think a lot of times we live our lives trying to hide it from others, try to appear to be perfect and hide anything that feels ugly or might upset someone away. The thing about George and Tammy that you see when they sing together is they were just so open. She was in another time period, so she had to hide a lot about who she was, but I don’t think she had to hide from George. I don’t know how I would have been able to even approach playing this character without coming to set knowing that Mike was going to be there playing George because when you’re telling those kinds of stories, you need open people willing to go to dark places to do it.
Do you think they were the love of each other’s lives?
Chastain: We gotta be careful because there’s some people still alive. Do you know what I mean? Oof.
Shannon: I’ll put it this way, I don’t really see the point in making this show if the basic premise of the show isn’t that George and Tammy were the love of each other’s [lives]. That’s kind of the Christmas tree that all the ornaments are hanging on, at least in this particular show. Now, there’s 555 million versions of the story and everybody’s got a different one. Neither one of us would say this is the absolute, irrefutable God’s honest truth of every single moment of George and Tammy’s life, but it’s the story that we signed on to tell.
Chastain: And sometimes being with a love of your life isn’t a healthy thing…It’s not written in any of the books, but people who were there said that they were still romantic later in life. So that’s in our show so I’m not speaking out of turn. So, there were a lot of surprises.
Whether musically or otherwise, after they split, they always found their way back to each other.
Chastain: And when she died, George wrote letters to DJs talking about the circumstances of her death. They were always connected.
What’s your favorite George song and favorite Tammy song?
Chastain: I love “The Race Is On.” I think that’s one of the best songs ever written. I love the lyrics. I love the music. And for her, “Apartment No. 9.” That’s pretty great.
Shannon: “Help Me Make It Through the Night” for Tammy. With George, “Bartender’s Blues.”
Lasting impressions of Nashville?
Chastain: I just loved the people that we got to work with. The guys in the band, a lot of them are session players here in Nashville. There were times I would come on to set and, Mike, I think you were getting ready to do “Beneath Still Waters” and in the breaks all the guys would just start playing and Michael started singing a different song and they would just be jamming. That was incredibly inspiring to be around that all the time. I loved the people here in Nashville and the kind of music history that I got to learn.