NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In preparation for their upcoming series “George & Tammy,” Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain spent months learning the songs that George Jones and Tammy Wynette made famous, working with a vocal coach and making the pilgrimage to Nashville to record.
“The studio we recorded at butted up against the cemetery where George and Tammy are,” Shannon said. “We would go visit them. It was like this kind of spiritual odyssey that we went on.”
The two Grammy winners and Country Music Hall of Famers sang the most enduring and memorable songs in country music: “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Stand By Your Man,” “Tennessee Whiskey,” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” But the relationship between Jones and Wynette during the height of their careers wasn’t the fairy-tale romance many fans had hoped for the couple often nicknamed “the first lady and president of country music.”
The limited six-part series premiering Dec. 4 on Showtime pulls back the curtains on their lives as they both struggled with the pressures of fame and addiction and poured their real-life pain, love and heartache into their unforgettable and emotional performances. Chastain, whose production company Freckle Films helped produce the series, said she was drawn to their story after seeing videos of their live performances, noting that their stage presence together — both before and after their marriage — was authentic and sometimes messy.
“I was so interested in learning about what was feeding the stuff that was happening on stage,” the Oscar-winning actor said.
Wynette died in 1998 at the age of 55, of heart failure after years of chronic health issues. Jones died in 2013 at the age of 81. Originally planned as a full-length film, writer Abe Sylvia adapted the series based on the autobiography of Georgette Jones, the daughter of Jones and Wynette.
“One of the big theses of the show is that we’re always looking for somebody else to provide salvation for us in love, and that that’s an impossible task,” said Sylvia during the red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. “What George and Tammy see in each other is someone who might be able to save them. And that’s the ongoing theme of the show.”
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Chastain, who won an Oscar for her role as TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, found strength in another Tammy’s story: a successful woman with powerful men all around her trying to take advantage of her talent.
George Jones (Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Jessica Chastain) had a messy past, which is explored on Showtime’s “George & Tammy.” – Courtesy of Showtime
“Nashville was really tough on women,” Chastain said. “And she showed up so brave. You think about it: She showed up as a single mom and this incredible voice and just thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.'”
Shannon had the equally tough role of portraying Jones at his lowest, as his self-destructive tendencies threw his marriage and his career into a tailspin. Jones earned the nickname “No Show Jones” during the ’60s and ’70s for being so wasted that he regularly failed to show up for his concerts or just refused to perform.
“George has a very complex relationship with singing,” Shannon said. “I think he loves singing. But I also think because of his childhood and certain situations where he was kind of forced or ordered to sing that were very traumatic to him, I think that was always in his subconscious. I think he resented having to sing for his supper, so to speak. He didn’t want it to be conditional.”
The actors even got a chance to step into George and Tammy’s shoes. Chastain wore original stage clothes from Wynette. Shannon, however, discovered on a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that he was taller than Jones, so the wardrobe department got him replica Nudie suits, originally designed for Jones by the famed designer Nudie Cohn.
But Shannon was taken aback when he had to literally throw the expensive suit away on the roadside during a scene of one of Jones’ drunken binges.
“That’s indicative of the lifestyle that George was living,” said Shannon. “He was very, very into design, loved fashion and loved decorating. And on the other, if he got in the wrong head space, he could just throw it on the side of the road and walk away, you know?”
But the biggest challenge for the actors was singing live during filming in front of hundreds of extras.
“You sing them a cappella because they want to get your take, your vocal take,” said Shannon. “So you have an (in-ear monitor) and you can hear the track. But the extras are just sitting there watching you sing a cappella.”
“It was incredibly intimidating to do,” Chastain added.