Michael Shannon on why he had to perform live and demystifying George Jones

George Jones and Tammy Wynette were transformed from country music legends to everyday people in the very capable hands of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. George and Tammy, Showtime’s equal parts glitzy and dark limited series that debuted last December, has once again put the spotlight on the figures often called the “Rolls-Royce” and “First Lady” of country music. It highlighted each of their struggles with addiction as they created some of the genre’s greatest songs.

As Shannon describes to StrippedPixel, he was tasked with demystifying George’s “macho, country-western, ‘I don’t care,'” linked to his alcoholism. For Chastain, Tammy’s drug addiction stemmed from the daily pain she endured from a botched hysterectomy. But through all the trauma and new marriages, the show made it clear that George and Tammy were each other’s greatest loves. Bringing that undeniable connection to the screen was the top priority for Shannon and Chastain.

The show is now available to stream on Paramount+. Here, Shannon reflects on the importance of singing live on the show and the simple yet poignant lesson George and Tammy can teach the public.

What first helped you unlock George as a character?

Michael Shannon: I really started from square one because I didn’t know anything about George Jones. Fortunately, she has an autobiography, so that’s always a good place to start, although people would tell me that you might not trust every word of it, which is frustrating. I was fine, you have to start somewhere. Read this and say OK, some of this is true. And then there are other things you can read, like I read Tammy’s book, I watched a lot of interviews, I read Georgette’s book, and then I watched Ken Burns’ country music series. Basically you just do a deep dive. It’s like studying for an exam or something.

Michael Shannon as George Jones in

Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Georgette Jones (George and Tammy’s daughter) was a big part of the series, right?

Yes, it’s actually in it. She played a singer. The last scene in which WE on the bus and we all start singing “Lost Highway”, she sings a line of it herself. She is standing in front of the bus where the driver is.

You and Jessica performed live during the filming of these performance scenes. From what I understand, there were a few days where you sang all day. Did you and Jessica intend to perform live from the beginning of this? Or was it something that developed naturally as time went on?

I entered this project much later than she did. I was a last minute addition. From the moment we showed up, my two cents was that we had to play live. This is the story of these people. If we lip-synced everything, we wouldn’t end up in the situation these people were in. Again, like I said, I can’t know with absolute certainty, but my guess is that this was really the key. of their relationship. The birth of the intimacy and love they had for each other was to sing together. I thought it was really important for the show to feel real and genuine, even if that meant perhaps sacrificing some of its elegance, because it’s a show about people’s hearts, you know? And I think for that to be effective, it has to be genuine.

I love the live performance aspect, especially with George and Tammy’s lyrics. They are such intimate and human songs with very to-the-point lyrics. They are universally understood. I feel like one of the key connective tissues in this series is the love that emanates between them when they sing together, no matter where they are in their lives.


Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in

Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

You and Jessica made it look so easy. How did you two create that closeness?

Well, I think a lot of it was born out of the experience we had learning to sing together. Basically, we were in this singing bootcamp long before we even started filming. We would go five days a week and we would both have solo instruction with our teacher Ron Browning and then work on duets. I think we were both in such a similar place and we were both trying to do something very similar, so we formed a bond through that process of going from a place of fear or doubt and ultimately looking each other understanding things and becoming stronger. and supporting each other. There’s something about harmonizing with another person that’s just a very primal connection, especially with songs like this.

Was the musical element one of the most challenging parts of this role for you?

Yes, I would say that for both of us because we were following in the footsteps of the man who is considered one of the greatest country singers of all time, if not the greatest. That was a lot. I listened to music religiously, and at some point you have to make a decision about, ‘Am I going to try to make it sound exactly like this, or am I going to make it sound like my version of what I think it is? ” I think once we got through the first couple of issues – we never got arrogant about it, but we got to the point where we accepted where we were and started to get more comfortable with it.

So, in the end, you chose to make it your version?

Yes. I mean it’s about the only thing that makes sense, you know? Because the way people sound, a lot if that’s based on your physical being, the way your face is structured, your bone structure. My head is completely different from George Jones’ head, and the way it reverberates inside you, there are just certain factors or elements that will make it difficult to get an exact match.

And it is more important to get the essence of this person. The point is not to sound exactly like this person, but to exude who they really were.

Yes I think so.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in

Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

This season spans six episodes and follows several decades of these people’s lives. George develops this tick and the “old man” personality. What helps you understand how it got to that place?

Wow A lot of it was just putting myself in his shoes and imagining what it would be like to be him, and that’s the hard thing to put into words. You look at your own life and the things you’ve been through and try to match it with his experiences. I imagine she was in so much pain by that point. He had been through so much and lost so much and it feels like almost a Tourette’s that he developed as a form of PTSD from the craziness of his own existence. He was in so much pain, this guy. When I watched the show, it was hard for me, honestly, because it brought back all that trauma. A lot of people look at country music stars or someone like George and get excited about what seems like macho, ass-kicking, country western, “I don’t care,” but to me it was something much more so delicate.

I feel like this series, in addition to showing the success and the talent and the behind-the-scenes of how those songs were created by these legendary country singers, is really about the real pain that both of these people were going through, the addictions that they were struggling with both. with like none of them really got help with those things.

I still don’t know how the hell he did it after all the research I’ve done. I don’t know how he steered the plane, but he did. And he says that only Nancy (Sepulvado, George’s wife after Tammy), Nancy saved his life and helped him straighten up, but I feel like there has to be something more because people can’t do that for you. No one can really save you like that; you have to make that decision for yourself. Maybe when he saw how Tammy finished it scared him so much that… But you see the thing is, he was already awake by then. I do not know. It’s funny because I would read about it and be like, “Yeah, I quit drinking. I almost gave up drinking. Every now and then I’ll have a drink.” That’s not how it works. (laugh) But I don’t know, he seemed very quiet towards the end of his life from what I could tell.

When these ticks develop, it happens around episode 4 or 5 of the six. With only a few episodes to get to that point, how did you pace yourself with the performance so that developing that state of mind felt natural?

wow Well, I have to say, I feel like I should give most of the credit for this to Abe Sylvia, the writer, because he was really tasked with orchestrating the rise and fall of these people in a very limited environment . He had more time than he would have had it been a movie, and I think he was grateful for that. But still, it was a lot to cram into six episodes, that’s for sure. But I try not to worry too much about it. I feel like if it makes sense to me and I can do it, then they’ll figure out how to put it together. For me, you just have to show up to whatever scene you have that day, and whatever time it happens to be, you just have to give yourself 100% and don’t edit. Be as authentic as you can be.

The show humanizes these country legends, but what do you think the importance of this story is on a larger scale, like what message do you think can be conveyed using George and Tammy as the lens?

It’s a complicated one. I adore George and Tammy both equally. I think they are the most beautiful artists and people, but neither of them I would say should necessarily be emulated – although they were both very strong people despite their efforts to get in their own ways. Although Tammy, she was a fighter. Even when he was down and on all those meds, he could still pull things together. She could still show up and do the show. She could still take care of her kids, make dinner, all the rest. And it hurt so much. I don’t know if this show is instructive. I think it’s more of an opportunity to spend some time with two incredibly beautiful, complicated, tormented artists and see how unbreakable the bond they had was.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in

Dana Hawley/Courtesy of SHOWTIME

The bond between you two on this show is really what carried it all for me. I was excited to see you both back in the recording booth scenes singing together. It felt so good to see that connection because it really was so clear.

Maybe that’s the moral of the story. It’s about what a beautiful thing true love can be.

And maybe the understanding of their songs, like the true love behind what informed all those lyrics.

Yeah, it’s funny. A lot of those songs, they didn’t write them. One of my favorite songs is the one that Tammy wrote, the song “Two Story House”.

i love that one It was the first time I would heard song, so it was exciting to see him in that sequence.

I love that sequence on the show, like what you were talking about earlier, when I’m really deep, I’m sleeping in that club, and she comes and picks me up and says, “I wrote a song,” and then we go. sing it It’s very emotional.

George and TammyAvailable now, Paramount+ with Showtime

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