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Screenwriter Abe Sylvia on Seeing the World Through "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"

For his new biopic, the out screenwriter had to "[forget] everything" he knew about the beloved televangelist and queer icon.

For decades, gay men have been drawn to Tammy Faye Bakker, the warm, extravagant televangelist who was brought down by her husband's infidelities only to rise from the ashes.

Even though Bakker was a televangelist and immersed in the world of the religious right — and with figures such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell — Bakker accepted all people, including those in the LGBTQ community. When confronted over her acceptance of queer people, Bakker famously said, "We're all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn't make any junk."

After Bakker passed away from colon cancer in 2007, her life story was first brought to the screen in the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by World of Wonder co-founders Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. Bakker's rise and fall is now being depicted in a new biopic, also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye and based on the doc. Jessica Chastain stars as the bubbly televangelist in a performance that is already generating awards buzz. She also produced the project.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye screenwriter Abe Sylvia (Dead to Me, Nurse Jackie) spoke with Logo about how he got involved with the project, and why he thinks gay men love Bakker so much.

Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 14: Abe Sylvia attends "The Eyes Of Tammy Faye" New York Premiere at SVA Theater on September 14, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

What's your history with Tammy Faye? When do you first remember seeing her?

As a middle schooler growing up in the Bible Belt in Norman, Oklahoma, as a gay kid, and seeing this fantastically wild, big personality, real-life soap opera playing out in real time on my television set. I remember when the scandal hit when I was a kid, it was just all the talk in the neighborhood because so many of my neighbors were tuned into PTL all day long. So I was surrounded by it. I didn't grow up in a religious household, but my awareness of her was informed by where I grew up.

You were drawn to her for some reason, but you couldn't put your finger on why.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to put my finger on what the attraction is. You know, I think for gay men of a certain age — or I guess gay men at any age, but more so I think for those of us who grew up without a panoply of role models to look to — what I think I saw was a person who was living outrageously proud, shamelessly suffering the slings and arrows of humiliation and scoring, and moving through that storm without losing her identity. It's not as simple as saying, "Oh, you know, someone's funny, or they're camp," or identifying with the clothes or makeup. I think it's an identification with a person who lived shamelessly.

Wow, I agree.

It's not to say they didn't do shameful things. It's the fact that she walks through life refusing to be shamed for who she was. And that would probably be the greater attraction underneath it all.

I never thought of it that way. I think that's totally spot on.

We all had our best girlfriend in junior high or high school who was mousy and talked back and didn't give a shit. Those women are important to us. And it isn't just that they are attracted to us as gay men because we're not viewing them as sexual objects, and we see them as full people. I think there's a real transference that happens with gay men and iconic, classic women that goes deeper than someone just being stuck with us.

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So, you're approached to write this...how do you even begin working on it? Do you talk to family members? What was that process like?

Well, I started by forgetting everything I knew about Tammy Faye Bakker. I wanted to rid myself of my own assumptions. And then I did a deep dive into the history of Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism and the "electric church," and all the different mooring factions that made up the moral majority. And a deep dive into the politics, what was going on. There's so much more than meets the eye in this story, in terms of how these people were used as pawns. In the political hierarchy of the country at the time — which, you know, by and large, is what gave us Donald Trump. I mean, there's a direct line between the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Donald Trump down to the Falwell connection. Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s endorsement of Trump was the thing that turned the primary for him in 2016. So their place in history is much greater than this one scandal. And this scandal was the cherry on top of a lot of other machinations that were going on behind the scenes. I read every autobiography and every biography and every news article that I could get my hands on. I really tried to stay away from tabloid stuff. You know these people, these characters that I've really come to love, are unreliable narrators. And so you kind of say, okay, what did they say would happen? What do other people say about what happened? And then what feels true? What feels emotional?

I really want to talk about the scene with Tammy Faye's interview with Steve Pieters. Jessica [Chastain] said it was watching that interview that made her want to make the movie. What was it like writing that scene?

Well, I think it shows what an iconic class she [Bakker] was. You know, that at a time when mass media was teaching us to fear people with AIDS, Tammy Faye Bakker said, "We should be putting our arms around these people." It was so [antithetical] to what the rest of the religious right was calling us to do, and say nothing of the fact that you know, yes, it was a watershed moment in televangelism. But it was a watershed moment, period. I mean, nobody else was taking this approach to gay men with AIDS at the time. Certainly there were news reports, but the degree of empathy with which she seeded Steve Pieters as not a pariah, but as someone who deserved to be loved and deserved our support. And that wasn't just unique to a Christian; that was unique, period. But unique to that time.

Have you talked to Steve?

Yes. We're Facebook friends. He loves the film, and I'm really glad that we've been able to connect and that he feels good about it.

And what about the homosexual allegations televangelist John Wesley Fletcher made against Jim Bakker? Was that originally explored more in the script?

No. What you see in the movie is what was in the script. The whole story is told from Tammy Faye's point of view, so, specifically, what does she understand to be true at any given moment? We're not stepping outside that point of view even once. So if there's something going on between him and Fletcher, she's in the shadows not quite understanding. As opposed to we, the filmmakers, declaring something that's absolute. It's important to us not to declare something about Jim Bakker that may not be true for him, that in his autobiography he has talked about having internal conflict around his own sexual identity. So it was definitely something we wanted to touch on, but we wanted to do it from Tammy Faye's experience of what it was like to be in that marriage.

So like, literally from the eyes of Tammy Faye?

Literally from the eyes of... it's all there in the title.

There's the scene where Jim and Fletcher are wrestling on the ground, and Tammy's... she's staring at it a little long. How was that written? Does she suspect anything?

She's trying to make sense of it. What she's seeing is that her husband has a degree of intimacy with this man she no longer has. That's what's confusing to her.

Was there anything in your script that didn't make it into the final movie?

There's always a line here, a line there, you know? There's a scene with her son which I think didn't make the final cut. I was devastated that didn't make it, but I understand it can only be a two-hour movie.

RuPaul and Tammy Faye are always linked in my head because he narrated the documentary. I was hoping for a RuPaul cameo.

It's interesting. The thing about somebody like Tammy Faye Bakker, who was self-producing, was always giving you good material to work with. You know, it really was an embarrassment of Rich's of sort of, you know, wonderful moments we could have chosen from him to include in the film. But at the end of the day, we had to say, "Okay, what is this movie about? What is this?" And to me, it was about this marriage. Is it the story of a marriage that went wrong, like so many marriages do? It's just writ large against sort of the larger tapestry of the "electric church," televangelism. But it is about two young people who meet. They're idealistic, and they make this bargain with one another. And little by little, it gets corrupted until it falls apart. I think a lot of people can see themselves in that story.

Fred Hayes/WireImage

RuPaul Charles and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival (Photo by Fred Hayes/WireImage)

What do you think Tammy would have thought the movie?

I think she'd love it. At least, I hope she would. Both her kids have seen it and they love it. Tammy Sue sings the song over the end titles, "Don't Give up on the Brink of a Miracle." That's actually their daughter singing. And Jamie Charles saw the movie recently and tweeted out his support. He was very appreciative that we didn't shy away from some of the darker aspects of his parents. We treated them much as beings.

Why do you think gay men are still drawn to her and her story? You remember her from when the scandal broke; I discovered her when the documentary came out years later. Why do you think that is?

I think we're always drawn to women who persevere, who break down barriers. We as gay people, so many of us, you know, have to grow up keeping a secret. And she lived right out loud. I think that's her enduring appeal. You know? She was funny and really smart, and she is just an entertainer. She knew her audience and she knew how to play to them. She was that gifted of a performer and a communicator. She made everybody her friend. I think that's the other part in terms of our connection. I think any one of us knew deep down in our hearts, if we ran into Tammy Faye Bakker on the street, she'd give us a hug no matter what.

I think that's why Jessica's performance is so fantastic: She's just so warm. It's so infectious. You do want to hang out with her and hug her.

And she [Bakker] never stopped that. I just think that's a real lesson for our time. Here's a woman who went through this great public humiliation — this incredible crisis of faith, the public shame of an affair, losing her home, losing everything she ever owned — and she still thought to be kind.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is out now from Searchlight Pictures. For more Tammy Faye Bakker check out the Tammy Faye Fest, including the original Eyes of Tammy Faye documentary, on WOW Presents Plus.