The Sopranos

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain on singing, connecting and advice from Tony Soprano

The stars of Showtime’s “George & Tammy,” Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, have been to this rodeo before. Both have immersed themselves in music (two-time Oscar nominee Shannon plays in a band; Chastain’s singing helped win her the 2022 Oscar for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”); and they’ve both shared a marquee in 2011’s “Take Shelter.” Turns out they’re an excellent match on screen and in real life: Both live in New York City and are pals off-camera, and while talking via Zoom, they avert their eyes from the camera frequently, revealing varying levels of shyness that — like magic — peel away when they slip into their bigger-than-life roles. They spoke to The Envelope about singing, social anxiety — and Chastain’s surprising source of fertility advice.

How familiar were you both with the romantic, chaotic lives of George Jones and Tammy Wynette before you took on these roles?

Jessica Chastain: I didn’t know really anything, except “Stand by Your Man” and that she was this icon of country music. I knew there was a Hillary Clinton scandal at some point. But I was approached in 2011 to do it, so I had about 10 years to learn as much as I could. And thank goodness, because it really helped me eliminate any preconceived ideas.

Michael Shannon: I didn’t have 10 years. My mom liked to sing and play the piano, but she didn’t have a stereo or anything. The only time I ever saw George Jones was on that show “Hee Haw.” We’d just watch it to kill time. So I had to do a crash course, really, to get into it.

What was really at the core of their relationship? Were they bad for each other, or did they save one another?

Shannon: I think they were very similar. They endured a great deal of trauma growing up that forged a toughness in them, but also an incredible fragility. When they found each other, they were like two sides of the same coin.

Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon look lovingly at each other onstage with microphones in a scene from "George & Tammy."
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette and Michael Shannon as George Jones sang live for the filming of the limited series “George & Tammy.”
(Dana Hawley / Showtime)

Chastain: When they performed together they weren’t in control of it. It might have been one of the only times they were authentically free of themselves and their fears and expectations. We tried to mimic it, but I’ve never seen anything like that.

Were you intimidated by being asked to sing yourselves, not just lip-sync the originals?

Shannon: If I was lip-syncing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” that would have been horrible. I may not sing it as great as George Jones does, but I sang it and looked at Jess while I was singing it, and something happened.

Chastain: This was the first time I learned they can blend voices with a singer and an actor so a new voice is created but everybody thinks it’s real. I find that disturbing. This is where I push against computer AI, because our flaws and imperfections are what being human is. But we have two versions of every song: The version we made in the studio, for the record, and the version in the show, which is completely live. I’m really glad we did it the way we did, as terrifying as it was.

Actor Michael Shannon in a black T-shirt
Michael Shannon wasn’t blue about playing George Jones in “George & Tammy,” despite the country legend’s personal struggles.

Jones experienced some mental issues in his later years and would sometimes make an unusual quacking noise. Michael, how did you tackle that in a serious way?

Shannon: I kind of felt it was a psychic Tourette-type situation. Not to be TMI here, but I find myself sometimes if I get anxious or uncomfortable I’ll make scatological noises. So it was something I could identify with. It just seemed like a manifestation of his extreme discomfort to where he probably couldn’t stand the sound of his own voice anymore so he started making it sound like something else.

You both have very robust careers. But do you ever wonder if you’ve missed out on some roles because you’re not living full time in Los Angeles?

Chastain: I’ve never made anything in L.A. I’m not a schmoozer; I don’t go to the parties. I have a lot of social anxiety when it comes to things like that.

Shannon: There have been people over the years who’ve been, “You could be more of a star” or whatever. But my problem is I like doing theater too much. Plus, I enjoy taking the subway and walking on the street with stupid clothes and not being fancy. I’m not a fancy person.

Chastain: Yes, you are. You like fancy meals, and you like fancy things. But you also like the subway, and what’s amazing about you is you like everything. You’re well-rounded.

You both were in “Take Shelter” in 2011, which was when you, Jessica, were first tapped for “George & Tammy.” Did you think of Michael for the role at that time?

Chastain: I thought of him for everything I’ve worked on since “Take Shelter.” I remember when we met he was so shy and there was another aspect to him, another quality to him that I didn’t feel the industry had seen yet. You see it in “Take Shelter,” this sweet vulnerability and fragility; he’s very macho, but what I love to see in men is sensitivity and sweetness.

And I understand you connected early in your career with another macho yet sensitive actor — when you and James Gandolfini were both in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Chastain: He was a really sweet guy. We were sitting on the set taking a break while they were lighting or switching the cameras, and we were talking about family and stuff, and I was single. He said, “Do you want to be a mom someday?” I said, “Absolutely.” And — you’d never imagine Tony Soprano saying something like this — he goes, “Freeze your eggs.” I was like, “What?!” And he goes, “Please just trust me. I think you’d be a really good mom. I’ve known so many women that have struggled, and you should give yourself the freedom, because your career is doing really well right now.” It was the first time anyone had really said that to me.

Did you take his advice?

Chastain: I did, I did. That was the first time I started thinking about fertility and all that. Tony Soprano helped me become a mom.

Jessica Chastain.
(Benedict Evans / For The Times)

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