Andrew Garfield Explores Spirituality Gone Wrong in 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye'
The actor and his director, Michael Showalter, talk about the new film starring Jessica Chastain about disgraced '90s televangelists.
Andrew Garfield has played many men of faith. He's been a conscientious objector in Hacksaw Ridge, a priest in Silence, a prophet in Angels in America, and a conspiracy theorist in Under the Silver Lake. "I'm drawn to the big questions of life and death and how to live it and how to live well and how to comprehend existence, and I think I find mystical study, spiritual study the way towards that for me," he says.
Now, he's playing disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the biopic starring Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker, the tabloid fixture known for her wild makeup as much as her beliefs. Garfield explains in a recent Zoom call that he sees Bakker—who viewed Christianity as a means to prosperity—in conversation with a figure like Kanye West. "You look at Kanye West, there's an element of televangelism," he explains. "It's like, 'God wants me to be a billionaire. God wants me to be the best.' We're all living under our own delusions or illusions or our own matrix, seeing the world through that lens."
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, based on the 2000 documentary of the same name, charts Tammy Faye's rise from Jesus-obsessed kid to college student in love with a captivating preacher to international television star and recording artist. And then, of course, it all comes tumbling down when Jim was accused of sexual assault and indicted on federal fraud charges related to the misuse of funds raised by the Bakker's PTL ministries. The film, directed by Michael Showalter, is less interested in all of the scandals than it is in Tammy Faye's faith, however blind that may be.
"I think this is a really strong message in the movie: How is it possible that you could call yourself a good Christian and yet be so unforgiving of people that you don't like? Or that disagree with you? It just doesn't match up," Showalter says. "I'm very interested in: What is the meaning of life, ultimately?"
Chastain plays Tammy Faye as a thoroughly empathetic figure. She's a woman who loves makeup and clothes, but also genuinely believes in the power of Jesus' love toward all people, even when members of the evangelical establishment want her to promote their bigotry. Showalter was discussing another project with producer Chastain, who bought the rights to the Tammy Faye documentary, when she approached him with this idea. "I love stories about greed and lust and murder," Showalter says. "Those are my favorite stories: True stories about things going horribly off the rails and what they reveal about us as people, and I think Tammy Faye is a great character in that way."
As for Garfield, he saw Jim as just a supremely misguided man. "Everything I say has the caveat of my interpretation. I could be talking out of my butt, but he feels like a very young soul who had a very superficial understanding of what it means to live a spiritual life," Garfield says. "I think he just got it wrong. He read the Bible and he saw the word 'prosperity; coming up a lot in it, and he thought: 'Why do us Christians think that we need to be poor? Jesus talks about prosperity all the time.'" During his jail sentence, Jim, who now peddles apocalypse survival kits and fake COVID cures, read the Bible in Greek and realized that there were no actual references to material wealth and he had gotten it all wrong. If that's grimly funny, well, that's in keeping with the rest of the film.
Garfield was excited that Showalter was on board, given that the director is arguably best known for his comedy work alongside sketch group The State. "They just are funny," Garfield says of Jim and Tammy Faye. "They were charming. She was a star. She was like Lucille Ball. She was just so charming and always looking for a laugh. So was he. He just failed at it more often." Showalter acknowledges that The Eyes of Tammy Faye is more dramatic than anything else, but he wanted to showcase just how "over-the-top" the couple was. "Even when they are not in front of the audience or in front of cameras, even when they are just in their bed in a bedroom, there is still an over-the-top-ness," he says.
For all of the gilded goofiness of Jim and Tammy, Garfield and Showalter were approaching this world with an eye towards philosophical questions. "On a personal level, I'm very interested in spirituality and the meaning of life and taking the dogma out of it, but the principles of goodliness and love thy neighbor, and the principles that most religions espouse about how to live a good life and what that means to be a good person," Showalter says. "I feel like, in a lot of ways, we've lost sight of all of that."
Similar probes are why Garfield keeps coming back to these types of roles. "I feel like art and mysticism and spirituality are the things that make me feel closest to what I'm supposed to be doing and where I feel most alive," he says. "It goes back to that thing of, if we can just allow ourselves to go to where we feel most alive and to be drawn there and to live there and build a chair and footrest and set up shop next to the river that makes you feel most alive, then that's all we can hope for in this life. That's one of the ideas that I've been considering, especially over this last year and a half of COVID, and I think a lot of people are starting to understand that may be a better idea than doing the thing that we're told we should be doing in terms of success and being good consumers and being good capitalists. What is the thing that wakes up the deeper part of us?"