Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart may be cousins, but they’re actually played by twins Christian and Jonah Lees on Sun Records.
Christian, plays a young Jerry Lee Lewis. Jonah plays Jerry’s cousin and (in)famous televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart. And, you’d never guess it from their performative Southern accents, but these brothers hail from the U.K.
CMT.com: At what point did you guys catch the acting bug?
Jonah: What happened was, once we learned to speak, we would try to make our mum and dad laugh by performing for them.
Elvis was actually someone that Christian and I absolutely loved when we were about 4 or 5 years old. We actually put Elvis costumes on our Christmas list. So we’d dress up in those white sequined jumpsuits and gold sunglasses and sing. We’d perform Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” and “Hound Dog.” It was kind of the start of us becoming entertainers.
In fact, our parents were in a band, and so we grew up around music, going on tour, traveling around the world on cruise ships before we could speak. That definitely impacted us, being around all that music. And now, we have to fall asleep listening to the TV because we were always falling asleep as babies with noise all around us backstage.
How did you initially prepare for the roles of Jerry and Jimmy?
Jonah: The majority of the footage I’ve found [of Swaggart] is of him preaching and no younger than a middle-aged man, so it’s an interesting process. You have to watch them perform and get whatever you can and learn their mannerisms and vowels and timing. And so I kind of started there and did an impression of him at that age. And then you can kind of chip away to imagine what they were like at a young age, because there’s no footage of those guys just knocking about.
I love it. That’s what attracted me to being an actor in the first place — just these kind of processes. And as such an amazing and powerful person that Jimmy Swaggart was it’s interesting to imagine him in his youth and what inspired him.
Jimmy had a scandalous adult life. Did you ever try to figure out what may have happened in his childhood that maybe contributed to that? Did you apply that to this character?
Jonah: I definitely thought about that. It was always in the back of my mind in every scene. His scandal and the choices he made must come from prior moments in his life. Even though there’s no specific scene, there are little moments of jealousy — and the way women treat him and the rivalry with Jerry — and Jimmy coming up short. I can definitely see that contributing to the baggage, or whatever you want to call it, that he was carrying throughout his life.
Christian: Since I grew up on this music, it was a perfect fit. I was completely excited. I studied Jerry’s idols, like Fats Domino, Little Richard and many more.
Did you have to learn piano for the series?
Christian: I’ve been playing piano since I was 14 and writing music. But I had to learn to play like Jerry, which was from hours of watching YouTube. And now, I can play a lot Jerry’s songs. Funny story: During the audition, I made my fingers bleed. My fingers bled a lot during filming.
Wait. How do your fingers bleed while playing piano?
Christian: Bad technique, I guess? It’s not a great thing to happen, but I guess it kind of shows the passion I have for this project. And if you watch Jerry play, he’ll flick his hands. So with improper technique, that’s where the bleeding comes from.
You both had the rare opportunity to meet with Jerry Lee Lewis while filming. How was that?
Christian: Before we met Jerry, I was told that I’d only have five minutes, so I was prepared for that. But then it turned into an hour-long chat. I was so nervous that I forgot to introduce myself, so he didn’t find out that I was playing him until like midway through the conversation.
But, he kind of gave me his stamp approval, which was more than I would have ever expected. He said, “All right, now my wife showed me a clip of you playing piano and singin’ stuff. I think you’ll do all right, son.”
He was very lovely to meet, and was very excited for the show. And he is exactly the same as he ever was — he’s still the Killer. I will definitely always remember that.
Jonah: It was incredible. To get the opportunity to see him and speak to him and hear it right from him about the relationship he’s had with Jimmy.
One story he told, that I think was just so beautiful, was about how Jimmy was always there for him. There was a moment where Jerry was so low, and he was doing a performance where he didn’t even know Jimmy was in the audience. And Jimmy could feel how low Jerry was, so he took him offstage and back to his house. They just had this connection, which is like brothers. And they still talk. Every now and again, they get on the phone.
Favorite scene to film?
Jonah: All the stuff in the car, because I got to drive around in a 1950s car.
Christian: I think it would be our last scene. Jonah and I play a duet because, you see, Jimmy Swaggart could play the piano, too.
In this scene, everything is going wrong in Jerry’s life. You see him just sitting at the piano, not playing, which you never see because he’s always playing. It’s very iconic.
Jerry says to Jimmy, “This music’s done nothing for me. Look where it’s got me. I think I should just go back into the church and be a messenger of God.” And Jimmy says, “But you’re not good at anything else. This is what you’re meant to do.”
Jimmy is able to bring him out of the darkness. And it’s there they have a piano duet. That’s my favorite scene because it’s so pivotal, it’s the moment he decided, “OK, this is what I’m going to do now for the rest of my life.” Had Jimmy not done that, we may not have Jerry’s music.
How was working with your brother all the time?
Jonah: The fact that we get to play cousins is great, rather than twins. The first day on set was a bit getting used to because we have to treat each other as actors, not brothers. You have to forget that he’s your brother and respect him as an actor. But I think a lot of times we kind of benefiting from being brothers and twins to be able to talk to each other and know each other’s limits especially for the fight scenes.
Favorite Southern food?
Jonah: The breakfast. We don’t have big breakfasts in England. I’ve never eaten so much. I also kept having these massive pretzels and queso dip at this local pub.
But me and Christian are both vegetarian, so we couldn’t try any of those famous ribs. And that’s funny because much of the cast is vegetarian, so we ended up bonding over that and actually finding some good places to eat.
Favorite songs from Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley?
Jonah: I’d say “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash and “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Christian: This is really difficult. I could go on and on. But here’s what I’ll narrow down: “End of the Road” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “That’s All Right (Mama)” by Elvis Presley and “Hey Porter” and “Get Rhythm” by Johnny Cash.
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