In 1985, after thousands of gay men had died of AIDS in the U.S., Tammy Faye Bakker interviewed an openly gay pastor with HIV/AIDS named Steve Pieters on a national Christian television program.
“How sad that we as Christians, who are supposed to love everyone, are so afraid of an AIDS patient that we will not put our arm around them and tell them that we care,” Tammy, through teary eyes and smudged makeup, said then on The PTL Club, the televangelist network she founded with husband Jim Bakker and which spectacularly collapsed after he was convicted of mass fraud and conspiracy.
In “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a new biographical film starring Jessica Chastain as Tammy and Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker that interview with Pieters is recreated verbatim as the centerpiece of the film to highlight Bakker’s complicated character of Christian evangelism, uncommon empathy, and accidental gay iconography.
“That interview was why I needed to make the movie. It was rebellious and brave and courageous and badass,” Chastain revealed to Variety at the New York City premiere Tuesday, held at the SVA Theatre. “I’m 100% convinced that there were people—conservative Christians watching at home—who realized that they had judged their family members unlovingly. I’m convinced that that interview saved families and saved lives.”
Tammy, whose wigs, fake eyelashes and overflowing emotion made her a camp idol, always had the makings of queer iconography—marginalized, vulnerable, and gaudy. But interviews like Bakker’s with Pieters give credence to the televangelist’s powerful revolutions on behalf of others, something Chastain said should remain a core piece of her legacy.
“People see Tammy as putting on a mask, and I don’t see that,” Chastain told Variety. “There’s nothing more beautiful than someone who is authentically as they are, and that goes for Tammy, for LGBTQ people, and yes, for drag queens.” Before the screening, Chastain was joined by a gaggle of drag queens on the pink arrivals carpet.
Pieters, who is now retired from preaching, attended the premiere on Tuesday.
“I’ve had so many people over the years come up to me and say, ‘I saw your interview live, because my mother always had PT L on, and it changed my life because I realized I could be gay and Christian at the same time,’ or ‘it changed my life because I realized that AIDS was a reality and I had to start taking care of myself,’” he said on the red carpet.
In 1985, when dominant Christian narratives preached AIDS as a punishment from God, Tammy’s interview with Pieters was rebellious and history-making. Neither was it lost on him, Pieters said on Tuesday, that Tammy , who wasn’t shy to ask probing questions about his sexual orientation, made a strategic attempt to humanize gay men and people with AIDS to a Christian audience.
“So often when I’ve showed the video, people would say, ‘those are really silly questions, even stupid questions.’ But they weren’t. They were exactly right for her audience,” Pieters told Variety. “She was guiding me to introduce myself to people who would otherwise never hear me speak—or refuse to be in the same room with me.”
And on Tuesday, as the cast celebrated at the PHD Rooftop Bar in New York City, surrounded by guests like Sharon Stone, Zachary Quinto, Krysta Rodriguez and a cabal of iconic New York City drag queens, like Marti Cummings, Jasmine Rice and Scarlet Envy, the Searchlight Picture’s film executive producers, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” creators Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, danced to that cut of Tammy’s legacy—of love and empathy.
“Tammy Faye wasn’t a stunt queen,” said Barbato. “There’s a part of her that’s an outsider, and we feel that way. It’s why gay people see ourselves in her. We’re all outsiders, and we’re all queer in Tammy Faye’s queerness.”