Creator Abe Sylvia & Georgette Jones on Telling the Truth

Dec 26, 2022

The Showtime series George & Tammy explores the complicated relationship of country music power couple George Jones (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) and Tammy Wynette (Academy Award-winner Jessica Chastain), whose love story was troubled while their music was iconic. The “First Lady of Country Music” with the hugely successful song “Stand by Your Man” was a loving mother who was determined to keep going, no matter what life threw at her, and the once-in-a-lifetime voice known for “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” widely considered to be the greatest country song of all time, were always in sync on stage, even when their personal demons tore them apart.

During this interview with Collider, show creator Abe Sylvia and Georgette Jones (author of The Three of Us: Growing Up with Tammy and George, and the daughter of Jones and Wynette) talked about why this story evolved into a TV series instead of a movie, getting to include so many songs, that life with country music icons for parents was an emotional roller coaster, what it was like for Jones to see actresses portraying her, watching Chastain and Shannon embody these two people, and what it’s been like for Jones to pursue her own music career.

COLLIDER: Abe, you originally conceived of this as a film, and Jessica Chastain signed on, all the way back in 2011. What was the moment that you realized that it wasn’t going to be a film and that it really couldn’t be, and that you needed to turn it into a limited series? How did that happen?

ABE SYLVIA: Oh, gosh, you go to the places where people are saying, “Yes.” We got close to a green light three times. We were in pre-production a couple of times, and for whatever reason, things just didn’t work out. But what’s happening in television is so exciting, in terms of grown-up, character-driven shows that allow for real breadth and detail. We have 41 songs in the show, and we’re playing them pretty much from beginning to end. The songs really are telling the story. So, it was an opportunity to give this story the big stage that it deserved. I’m just so happy that premium television has taken us in a direction that allows us to tell complicated stories.

Image via Showtime

As somebody who loves music, I very much appreciate how much of the songs we did get to hear because, while I know who both George Jones and Tammy Wynette are, I was not fully familiar with all of their music and it was so great to really get to have the music be a part of the story you’re telling.

SYLVIA: Well, their music reflected what they were going through in their lives, 99.9% of the time. It was a real gift to me, as a writer, to be able to say, “Okay, where are George and Tammy at, emotionally? Oh, my goodness, we have a perfect song, tailor-made by Billy Sherrill, for us to serve up to the audience, to deepen the experience of what it was like to be George and Tammy.

Georgette, it seems as though your life was full of extreme highs and lows, all of which must have been confusing as a child. What was it like to examine your life for the book you wrote, and then to have that turned into the series? Was it a difficult process for you to go through, or is it cathartic to explore your family in that way?

GEORGETTE JONES: It actually was, very much so, an emotional rollercoaster. I had never imagined myself writing a book, but because I’d read a book and made it to page 90 before my husband told me, “Put the book down,” because he could see it was so upsetting. It just wasn’t the mother that I recognize, or it wasn’t my mom at all, that started me thinking about my mom and my dad, and how they’re perceived by most people who don’t really know them. And so, I wanted to sit down and write that from my perspective, and show all the different little nuances about how they were and who they really were. Once we did that, it was almost like having gone through therapy sessions. It really was. I saw so much more about my parents, as I was reliving these things, because now as a grownup and as a parent myself, I’m remembering these things and seeing it in a whole new light.

I have so much more appreciation for my parents and what they went through as an adult, than I would’ve had when I was younger and didn’t understand anything. And in this process, as well, there’s so much more to their story. I was so happy that Abe, thank God, saw that, and he knew that, in telling the truth, we also had to tell the whole truth, whether it be good, bad, ugly, or whatever it may be. I’m so thankful that the goodness got in there too because that was one of my biggest concerns. I remember having that conversation and saying, “You can put all the dramatic stuff in there, and a lot of people may wanna see it, but our family really is hopeful that you’ll show that they both had a great sense of humor, they were very loving people, and they were very much family people.” We were very grateful that they listened to that, and they really did do that. They told the whole truth, which is very important.

Image via Showtime

Was it more surreal for you to see these two well-known actors playing your parents, or to see someone playing you?

SYLVIA: Good question.

JONES: It was definitely a little bit of both. My parents, being gone now, it’s very emotional, just imagining them being there. They did such a great job of portraying my parents that there were certainly times where it made me gasp, or do a double take, seeing them move and do the things that they were doing. But then, also, the little girl that played me, Regan [Ciccarelli], actually looks like I did when I was a kid. When I first saw her, I thought, “Oh, my gosh, that’s great casting.” She was so adorable. She did a great job. And Abby Glover, who played me as older me, is such a great actress. She really did a great job. We actually became really good friends. She was so nice to try to talk to me and ask about, “Hey, in this situation, how would you feel about that? What were your emotions?” Everybody, the whole cast, every single person, I can’t even say that there was one person who didn’t reach out and try to learn every possible thing they could, to do their best. We were just overwhelmingly excited and pleased with the result.

Abe, when you do something like this, where so much of the success of this series really depends on who you have play George and Tammy, do you hold your breath until you see that it’s actually working? And did you feel like it was working from the first moment, or was there a minute of being nervous?

SYLVIA: Certainly, it is a tall order to ask of anybody, even actors of the caliber that we have. Luckily, Michael [Shannon] and Jessica [Chastain] are very good friends. They have incredible trust, and they have incredible natural chemistry with one another, so I felt pretty reassured going in. But the first rehearsal that we had, they were just electric. Any sort of hesitation I had was just my own anxiety about putting this story in front of people, feeling a responsibility to the family, and feeling a responsibility to their friends. From that first rehearsal, I knew we were in such amazing hands, with Jessica and Michael embodying these two people.

Image via Showtime

It’s so interesting because you are telling this very personal relationship story, but you’re also telling this bigger than life story of these two people, playing concerts for huge audiences of people. What were the biggest challenges in a production like this, especially having to really balance both of those things?

SYLVIA: Doing crowd scenes during COVID was not easy, but we did it. Just on a technical level, that was probably the hardest thing. Honoring both realms of these people, their careers were certainly larger than life, but at the same time, they were still somebody’s parents. They were still just a girl from Itawamba and a boy from Beaumont, no matter how big they got. I think that’s why their fans felt like they knew them. They were family to their fans. As a writer, I had to imagine, “How hard is that for George and Virginia Pugh to say, ‘All of these people know me’?” That must have been an incredible gift and an incredible burden. And so, as we were making our way through the scripts, we were always remembering that it isn’t always comfortable to be famous. These are just two real people struggling with extraordinary circumstances and trying to love each other through extraordinary circumstances.

Georgette, people would probably assume that it would just be a given that you’d become a singer and performer yourself, especially since you started doing it so young. Was it something you had always wanted to do, or did you ever have times where you just didn’t want any part of it?

JONES: I had a love and a hate relationship with the whole thing, to be honest. Somewhere around eight or nine, I started realizing that people were actually listening and comparing me, already, to my parents. And so, I think I developed a phobia for a long time. I knew I loved it. I loved to sing. I started writing poems when I was a small child, and eventually started writing songs when I was a teenager. But I didn’t want to pursue music, initially, because all I could think about was, “People are never gonna be able to separate me and see me in a positive light because how in the world could I possibly compare to that?”

I was a registered nurse for 17 years. It was only in 2009, when I finally realized I’m not getting any younger. And now that I’m older, and I have more confidence in who I am, as a person, I totally am okay with the fact that I know not everybody is gonna like it, and it’s okay. There was a time where I thought everyone has to like it, but as you get older, that’s not as important. It’s more about following your own passions and being yourself. Those are lessons that my parents tried so desperately to teach me, much younger. I’m thankful that I finally came around to pursue something that I love. Regardless of where that may take me, I’ve been very pleased and happy to make a living making music.

George & Tammy airs on Sunday nights on Showtime, and is available on-demand and streaming.

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