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Tammy Wynette and George Jones' love story is told in a new Showtime series

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE GONNA HOLD ON")

GEORGE JONES AND TAMMY WYNETTE: (Singing) We're going to hold on.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tammy Wynette loved George Jones before she met him. She was the aspiring country singer; he was already a legend. When they finally did meet, they fell madly in love and made beautiful music. But it was a tough road. He was an alcoholic, she was addicted to painkillers, and the songs that would come to define them were confessions of the real pain they were living through. Their story's being told in the limited Showtime series "George & Tammy," and the singing voices you hear belong to the actors themselves. Jones is played by Michael Shannon.

MICHAEL SHANNON: The song I really love, at least of the solo stuff, is "The Door."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GEORGE AND TAMMY")

SHANNON: (As George Jones, singing) To hear that sound and to know it's really over.

MARTIN: Tammy Wynette is played by Jessica Chastain.

JESSICA CHASTAIN: I loved singing "Help Me Make It Through The Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GEORGE AND TAMMY")

CHASTAIN: (As Tammy Wynette, singing) I don't want to be alone. Help me make it through the night.

MARTIN: I asked both actors what it was like for them to be connected to each other in those harmonies.

SHANNON: Yeah, it's kind of spooky. You know, we worked on it such a long time before we even started shooting. We had kind of a music boot camp with our vocal coach, Ron Browning, out of Nashville. I think it was a couple of months. We just went in Monday through Friday and just sang all day. And for him, his approach was, you know, very much geared towards that intimacy. You know, he would have us sing the songs sitting on a piano bench with our knees touching, you know, and staring at each other and...

MARTIN: Wow. That's intense.

SHANNON: Yeah, it's really heavy, you know? It's like - because, you know, the singing ideally is coming from somewhere very deep inside of you, and you're sharing that with somebody else. And it was hard sometimes to maintain the eye contact without getting, you know, kind of overwhelmed

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GEORGE AND TAMMY")

MICHAEL SHANNON AND JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As George Jones and Tammy Wynette, singing) Take me, take me.

MARTIN: There's an authenticity that you really can't fake when you're singing songs and looking into someone's eyes, Jessica.

CHASTAIN: Yeah, there was - Ron actually had us one day sing a song to each other, one of our solos - and the other person got to choose which song they wanted to be sung to them - and then just stare at each other and sing the song. I have never done that before.

MARTIN: Right.

CHASTAIN: I mean, Mike - maybe I'm - maybe I misjudged. It seemed like it was pretty easy for him, but I was such a, you know, wreck of nerves. And it's incredibly vulnerable. But I think what I loved about this series is the songs weren't ever set up as, like, oh, here's the musical number. It was set up almost like a monologue. It's like, OK - or a scene between us. We're communicating what's happening emotionally on the music.

MARTIN: Yeah. What did each of you know about George Jones and Tammy Wynette before you saw the script?

SHANNON: Oh, I didn't know much at all. I mean, I'm from Kentucky originally, so I guess most people assume if you're from Kentucky, you grow up with country music in the house, but I didn't. My only exposure really was - we would watch "Hee Haw" on TV sometimes. But it was funny. As soon as I signed on and I started telling my friends that I was playing George Jones, it shocked me how many people there were in my life that were huge fans and...

MARTIN: Oh, really?

SHANNON: ...I had no idea. You know, they're like, oh, you're playing George? They'd say, oh, he's a character, and they'd tell the stories. And, I mean, it was, frankly, I think, part of his appeal. You know, I think some of these figures in country music or in music in general, they're kind of fascinating because they're such train wrecks, you know?

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHANNON: And people want to see, when is this person going to fall apart? Can they literally, you know, do all of this harm to themselves and still walk out on stage and sing a song?

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHANNON: And when they do that, there's this unfortunate kind of exhilaration about it, like, wow, look at that. That's amazing - you know? - as this person's kind of beating the tar out of themselves.

MARTIN: Jessica, what did you learn about Tammy that you hadn't known before?

CHASTAIN: I probably misjudged her. You know, there's this idea of "Stand By Your Man" and "Run, Woman, Run." You know, a lot of these songs are, you know, you need a man in your life. You've got to run back to him 'cause you may not find someone else. Or there was this whole feminist movement against "Stand By Your Man" and the Hillary Clinton controversy when she said, I'm no Tammy Wynette standing by my man. It's just - it caused such a hoopla.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GEORGE AND TAMMY")

CHASTAIN: (As Tammy Wynette, singing) Stand by your man. Give him two arms to cling to.

I think for me, it felt like, wow, I'm really going to cross a bridge here. How am I going to relate to this person? And then the more reading I did about her, I was just really shocked by everything she went through. And I developed this empathy. I kind of - I guess I was more - I felt more shame about myself for my misjudgments and preconceived ideas of who she was.

MARTIN: Because you thought she was just this person who just sublimated herself to the men around her?

CHASTAIN: Yeah, well, that's - I imagined that she was, in some sense, a bad example for women. The reality is she was - when she showed up in Nashville, she showed up with three kids. She was a single, divorced woman. She had been institutionalized and had electric shock therapy for trying to leave her first husband. And she showed up in Nashville determined to be a singer in a time when, like, female singers were not really given the same respect and platform that men were. I mean, still to this day, there's - I've talked to some people in Nashville. It's still an issue. But in the 1960s, it was really shocking. She never was anybody's doormat. She made her own decisions, her own choices, and I find her to be quite a formidable woman. And yet she also had to play this part...

MARTIN: Right.

CHASTAIN: ...In order to be accepted as an artist.

MARTIN: Well, your chemistry and your artistic partnership has brought to life the partnership of these two artists, George and Tammy. It's a phenomenal show. You can catch the first episode on demand. The second one's coming up Sunday night. Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, thank you so much for making the time to talk with us.

SHANNON: Our pleasure.

CHASTAIN: Thank you very, very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GEORGE AND TAMMY")

SHANNON AND CHASTAIN: (As George Jones and Tammy Wynette, singing) We're going to hold on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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