Oscar winner Jessica Chastain returned to the screen by playing another Tammy — Tammy Wynette, the legendary country music star — in the Showtime series George & Tammy. The miniseries, created by Abe Sylvia and directed by John Hillcoat, also stars Michael Shannon as George Jones and chronicles their difficult relationship and careers.
The series also features Steve Zahn as Tammy’s ex-husband, manager, and songwriter George Richey; Tim Blake Nelson as country music singer Roy Acuff; and Kelly McCormack as George’s second wife Sheila Richey.
On the heels of the miniseries’ critical accolade, Below the Line interviewed the show’s costume designer Mitchell Travers about his work on the six episodes. We spoke to Mitchell about collecting vintage costumes across America for the show, dressing up a legendary acting duo as a legendary singing one, and the fresh and modish look he aimed to give the couple.
[Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.]
Below the Line: Mitchell, how did you get involved with this project?
Mitchell Travers: I got asked to do this about two years ago. I had worked with Jessica and Abe Sylvia on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, so we were very familiar with our Tammys. So for the Tammy from Georgia, we had never seen a show like this because it covers an expansive time in the history of country music in our country. I was overwhelmed by the task at hand and very enthusiastic as well.
BTL: Well, this is definitely a different Tammy, so how did you approach this task at hand?
Travers: I just started throwing myself into the research, first by looking at images, documentaries, and interviews with George and Tammy themselves. There were candid photos that friends and family lent to the production, so we could better understand these people. I started to actually surround myself with clothing of the period. I did a pretty extensive cross-country road trip with my assistant, my dog, and a big ass truck as we made our way through all the Southern States. We found some really crazy stuff, including vintage stuff, and actually found pieces that belonged to George Jones and Tammy Wyneth themselves.
BTL: Where did you go in the South, and how was that experience?
Travers: It was super fun. We made our way through Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. On the road, we listened to every George & Tammy podcast and album, and we thought about country, about their style, and how it has changed over time. It was as immersive as you could get—we would hear about a honky tonk one day and then go out to one that night.
BTL: What was the mix of the costumes on the show between sourced costumes and new ones you designed from scratch?
Travers: It was a definite blend. With a project of this scale, you have to rely on the Hollywood infrastructure of rental houses, but about a third of what we did was sourced through these vintage stores, estate sales, back of people’s closets that we met along the way, and the last third was costume made. You are dealing with Michael Shannon who is 6’4, so there is no place you can go to get some of these things.
BTL: Of these costumes that you built, which was your favorite one?
Travers: It’s a tricky question because sometimes, they don’t look the best but they are important in telling part of the story, and sometimes they are your favorite but they get lost in moments. I certainly have a fondness for all the Nudie Suits we got to create for George Jones [referring to decorative, rhinestone-covered suits originally designed by American tailor Nudie Cohn]. The Nudie Suit world has had a resurgence in pop culture in recent years. There is a very small community of people who can make them, and we found someone who was an intern at Nudies and helped us.
As a costume designer, I am always going to be thrilled with the idea of covering a men’s suit with custom embroidery and rhinestone. Also, there is never enough jewelry for me; I could fill a trunk with jewelry and still want more.
I am a big believer in the idea that the last moment when someone is dressing themselves is when they make the most important choices about how they want to look. And, of course, there is no shortage of accessories you can choose from when dressing country music stars. You have spurs, bolos, rings, metal tips on the ends of collars, cowboy boots, and hats. You can just keep going. You have to learn when you are done there. A balance that I don’t know that George mastered, by the way.
BTL: What are those Nudie Suits made of?
Travers: It’s a ton of polyester. The embroidery is also polyester, and then there are a ton of Swarovski crystals. My arms would be sore from carrying out these suits because they are incredibly heavy. It doesn’t feel like it because they look dazzling, but the reality of performing in those is very different.
BTL: What about Tammy and Jessica, any favorites there?
Travers: There is a black rhinestone dress she sings ‘Til I Get It Right. It was a vintage Fredericks of Hollywood piece, which was the right amount of fragility, sexy, and fragrant. Tammy is in a difficult spot in her life when she sings that song in the show.
I am a real stickler for sequins. Sequins manufacturing in the 80s changed, so you have to be very careful from the different sequins in the ’70s versus the ’80s. So, we made sure to have the real old-school sequins here.
BTL: What was the most challenging part of the show?
Travers: We shot from the 1960s to the 1990s. We shot all six episodes at the same time, and there were mornings when we were doing 1968 and afternoons when we were doing 1995. To chart the progression of characters over that amount of time in their lives and get the details rights so that it does not feel costumed but natural, that is difficult. You are juggling a lot of costumes in your mind. Also, we were dressing 400 extras a day. There was no detail left unchecked, so the scale was our biggest hurdle.
BTL: What was the collaborative and creative process like with the show’s directors and your fellow below the line colleagues?
Travers: It was wonderful. Director John Hillcoat was really into the color combinations we were going for and that we had found in our research. There were many moments when we had a scarlet dress with an aquamarine sample and we would be looking at it with our modern designer eyes. The purples and greens of the ’90s. To juggle all those color palettes and accept them with our modern eyes, and keep them isolated from each other, all of that was heard. John was helpful in doing that – keeping them separated.
BTL: Tell us a bit more about the actual colors you picked per decade.
Travers: We wanted Tammy to be lining her way in this new fame, and feeling herself surrounded by flashiness. In the 1960s, we leaned into the metallics and the pastel and jewel tones. We were pulling her out of her brown, early palette, into this newfound fame. In the 1970s, we wanted to pull her out of that into rebellion. And then in 1995, we see them in denim, greens, and purples. Each era for the characters was a world unto itself.
BTL: To close out, any memories you’d like to share about working with Jessica and Michael?
Travers: The most frightening thing in the world happened the first time I was going to fit them both—they were so bonded, they had done so much of their work together, and they wanted to do it all together. We were pulled into your fitting with the number one on the call sheet, and it was both. They came in and said: “We are here for our fitting.” And I was like, “What do you mean? We don’t do two fittings!” It was delightfully chaotic, but a very real experience of what it would have been to work with the two singers. That chemistry between the two is what creates the series.
George & Tammy is available to stream via Showtime.