FOR ME, ACTING WAS ALWAYS A WAY TO EXPLORE EMOTIONS . . . TO DIP INTO THE WELL AND REALLY TRY TO REACH ROCK BOTTOM DOWN THERE. Jessica Lange
For someone as innately cool and self-possessed as Jessica Lange, slipping into the skin of women in various stages of psychological and emotional disarray seems to come with remarkable ease. But while Lange’s characters share her natural beauty, they also share her restlessness. She is, to be sure, a complicated woman—and a thoughtful, intelligent one at that—and flirting with the tension that comes from trying to hold things together even as they’re coming apart has fueled much of her nearly four-decade career as an actress: from her debut as the quintessential damsel in distress in John Guillermin’s infamous 1976 remake of King Kong; to her powerful essays on women like Frances Farmer (in 1982’s Frances), Patsy Cline (in 1985’s Sweet Dreams), and “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale (in the 2009 HBO rendition of Grey Gardens); to the diverse range of penetrating performances that she has given in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Tootsie (1982), Music Box (1989), and Blue Sky (1994)—for which she has earned six Academy Award nominations and two Oscars (Best Supporting Actress for Tootsie and Best Actress for Blue Sky); to her many turns as Tennessee Williams heroines, which she has seemed to take at least once a decade, starring as Maggie “the Cat” in a 1984 TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as Blanche DuBois in a 1992 Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire (later also adapted for TV), and as the calculating matriarch Amanda Wingfield in a 2005 revival of The Glass Menagerie.
Lange has continued to spread her wings both professionally and personally, collaborating with directors such as Martin Scorsese (Cape Fear, 1991), Tim Burton (Big Fish, 2003), Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, 2005), and Wim Wenders (Don’t Come Knocking, 2005), and raising her three children in New Mexico, Virginia, and her home state of Minnesota (she has a daughter from her relationship in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as a son and daughter from her nearly three-decade relationship with Sam Shepard). More recently, Lange’s work on Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX series, American Horror Story, has offered her a different sort of latitude, filled with characters as shape-shifting and amorphous as the series itself: Over the past two years, Lange has played both a steely mother haunted by various murders and a sadistic nightclub-singer-turned-asylum-running-nun—earning Emmy nods in both instances. (The show’s third season, which revolves around a coven of witches, kicks off this month.) In addition, Lange, who has previously had two books of photography published, has written a children’s book, It Is About a Little Bird (Jabberwocky), which is due out this fall, and can also currently be seen alongside Elizabeth Olsen in the film Thérèse, based the Emile Zola novel Thérèse Raquin.
Her kids grown, Lange, now 64 (and a grandmother), once again calls New York City, where she began her career as an actress, home. Alan Cumming, who appeared with Lange in Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus (an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), connected with her by phone from Los Angeles.
ALAN CUMMING: Are you in New York City?
JESSICA LANGE: No, actually I just came to L.A. for two days. But I’m down in New Orleans now.
CUMMING: What are you doing there?
LANGE: We’re shooting the series [American Horror Story] there this year.
CUMMING: Oh, you are? Oh gosh.
LANGE: I’m so thrilled to be in New Orleans. It’s one of my favorite places.
CUMMING: [in a Southern accent] You can talk like Blanche.
LANGE: [in a Southern accent] Yeah, Blaaaanche. Did you finish the play [Macbeth, on Broadway]?
CUMMING: I did, last Sunday. I’m a bit knackered. Just not doing it every evening is amazingly replenishing for your body because you don’t have to do that crazy amount of damage to yourself.
LANGE: Well, it was great.
CUMMING: Bless you. I’m really glad I did it. So what’s this season of American Horror Story about?
LANGE: This one is going to deal with a coven of witches, but who knows where it’s going to go from there because it’s always surprising. We’ve just started shooting, so I don’t really know.
CUMMING: And what time is it set in?
LANGE: Well, it moves back and forth in time, like it usually does. There’s present day, and then it goes back as far as the early, mid-1800s.
CUMMING: Does your character have the same qualities that you had in the other seasons? Or is it completely different?
LANGE: No, it’s very different from the first two seasons. But I’m not exactly sure who she is, to tell you the truth. So, we’ll see …
CUMMING: Is this the first television series that you’ve done?
LANGE: Yes. And this is now the third season.
CUMMING: I found, with doing The Good Wife, that I really didn’t like the fact that you don’t know where it’s going and where your character is going. In a film, you know the end of the story and you understand the path you’re on. Whereas with TV, suddenly it’s like, “Oh, now you’ve got a daughter …” I found that, initially, really disturbing. But I’ve grown to absolutely love it—the surprise element. I want to trust the people working on it and the writers and everything.
LANGE: Yeah, I agree with you. At the very beginning, I have a certain anxiety because I didn’t know who it was that I was playing. But once I got into it and I got to know the character, then I loved the idea of surprise and also the speed at which I was doing it. There’s nothing that you can overplan or overthink when you’re doing a series like this. It just flows—kind of like life. [laughs] It’s just like, “Wow, this is happening.”
CUMMING: I like that, too, now—”Oh, I’m going to be able to fire someone today,” or “Next week, I’m going to have sex with someone.” You have to be really in the moment.
LANGE: I’ve found that it’s pushed me to work in a way that feels very natural. The idea of just trusting in the absolute moment that it’s happening … That idea of entering into something with no fear or deliberation, but just throwing yourself at it, is exciting—especially at this point in my acting because things can get stale when you’ve done it for so long.
CUMMING: And also, I think, the tone of American Horror Story, the aesthetic of it is quite heightened. And that seems to be something that you really revel in as well—those kind of quite heightened characters, volatile and unpredictable women.
LANGE: I like playing characters who are out there on the edge, where they can explode at any moment or fall off the precipice. I mean, it was wonderful this past season because there was such a distance to traverse with the character. What is also great is that because you’ve got, like, 13 episodes to explore this character, it’s like creating a character over 12 hours as opposed to over two hours in a film. You’ve got time to keep reinventing and investigating and to develop something. With this piece, because we move back and forth in time, it’s great to be able to see this woman’s sordid past, and then also where she is present day. And then, as the story goes on, you see her complete disintegration and where she ends up, and then at the end, the sense that maybe her life was not in vain. That’s a powerful theme: to, at the end of one’s life, find some meaning in the last moment. This character, I think, was without hope—you know, sans espoir. But then suddenly there’s that moment at the end of her life where maybe it wasn’t. Maybe there was a moment of joy or moment of hope at the end. I don’t know … Sounds depressing. [laughs]
CUMMING: It’s so tense. Lighten up. How long do you have to shoot an episode?
LANGE: Well, we kind of get off to a slow start. But it’s not a typical television series in that we’re doing a lot of special effects and a lot of stunts and things like that. So it takes us some time. We’re also still shooting film, which I love.
CUMMING: Oh, god. So unusual today.
LANGE: Yeah, it’s very unusual. I love the look of it. So it probably takes 14 days or so to do an episode. Something like that. Never enough time.
CUMMING: Never enough. On The GW, they’ve got eight or nine days of shooting for an episode. For Julianna [Margulies], who’s there most of the time, and the crew, I just went, “Wow, it’s insane.” And to do that for 22 episodes … It’s just crazy.
LANGE: The one good thing about that kind of schedule is that you move fast.
CUMMING: Yeah, no hanging about.
LANGE: No, you’re not sitting in your trailer eight out of the 12 hours that you’re there.
CUMMING: You know, I still think that’s fun, though—my early memories of doing films are of the long time spent hanging about. And now even film seems faster. I guess because of digital, things are able to be done faster with the editing process and stuff like that. The whole thing moves faster than it used to.
LANGE: Yeah, it does. I remember a normal shooting schedule would be, like, 16 weeks. I haven’t done a film shot in 16 weeks … How long ago was it when we did Titus ?
CUMMING: Oh, god, that was months, wasn’t it? That was never going to end. [Lange laughs] I’ll always remember when the plane took off from Rome on our last day and we both spontaneously cheered. But I was going to ask you about the fact that you like these characters who are on the edge. Is that because you like to go to the other extreme of who you are? Why are you drawn to those people?
LANGE: In some ways—and you know this—it allows you greater freedom, and I think it enables you to rely much more on your emotions and your imagination, which is the part of acting I like. I never had that kind of formal training. I’ve worked with some teachers and coaches over the years, but I didn’t really study theater or technique or voice or any of that stuff extensively. So, for me, acting was always a way to explore emotions—to dip into the well and really try to reach rock bottom down there. That was the most exciting part of it. I hadn’t found anything that really allowed me to do that until I came upon acting. And I came upon acting just by chance, more than anything.
COMING OUT OF THE ’60s, WHENITWAS STILL THE LAST GASP OF BOHEMIA, I JUST NEVER THOUGHT IN TERMS OF CAREER OR PROFESSION. Jessica Lange
CUMMING: What happened?
LANGE: Well, I had been living in Paris, and it was the early ’70s, and I was studying with this old master mime teacher, Etienne Decroux. I had come to that through this experimental modern-dance theater, underground stuff in New York in the ’60s, working with a woman named Ellie Klein. And then, at a certain point, I thought, “Mime … I love it, it’s beautiful, this man is a genius, he’s a great teacher, but I don’t know if this is something that I can do …” So it was a natural next step to try acting. I had to come back to the States at one point, and while I was here, I thought, “Well, I’m in New York. Let me see about taking an acting class.” So I took a scene-study class with Herbert Berghof. I had never done acting before, and it was like, all of a sudden, something just opened up. It was, “Oh, this is it. This is what I’m suited for.” I like the movement of it, the words, the language, the emotion. So it was really that more than anything, but I didn’t get into it with the idea of having a career. I don’t know how to explain that because now everybody’s so career-oriented, but coming out of the ’60s and then living in Paris in the ’70s, when it was still the last gasp of bohemia, I just never thought in terms of career or profession.
CUMMING: Since that time, it seems like everyone has become more and more focused on achievements and goals. Even when you go to the gym now, they say, “What are your goals?” I have a friend who, when they asked him that, said, “To not have a heart attack.” [Lange laughs] Everything, though, does seem so goal-oriented rather than experience-oriented. So how did you get from Minnesota to Paris?
LANGE: I was in my freshman year of college at the University of Minnesota, and I was in the studio art department. I was there on an art scholarship—I wanted to be a painter. And my second semester of college, I went to sign up for a painting class and it had filled up already, so I signed up for the only thing that was left open, which was a black-and-white photography class. And, of course, you know how life is—the twists and the turns, and where one adventure takes you to the next. So I met these young photographers and documentary filmmakers, and ran off to Europe with them to make some documentary films—first in the south of Spain with the flamenco Gypsies, and then up to Amsterdam. We eventually ended up back in New York, which is where I got involved with this underground theater and dance group. And from dance, I went to Paris to study mime, and after doing that, I came back to New York and decided to take the acting class. So it was all very haphazard. There was nothing deliberate in my path at all.
CUMMING: You had a real bohemian, European, smorgasbord thing.
LANGE: Exactly. And that’s actually what I would like to get back to, after doing this for 37 years. I think I’ll just give it all up and go back to a very haphazard way of living. I think it would be good to finish things off that way—with no plans, no deliberation, no determination, no agenda …
LANGE: No goals! I want to live my life with no goals anymore, but just completely free, like I did when I was younger.
CUMMING: Do you think that’s possible?
LANGE: I don’t know. It’s not entirely possible, of course, because I have family. I’ve got children. And, besides, you can’t recapture what you had when you were 18 or 20 or even 25.
CUMMING: Do you mean living on a farm or something?
LANGE: Trying something completely unknown, I guess. Obviously, I don’t know what that is. But it’s like finding a way to have that approach to life that you had when you were open to adventures, where you just said yes to everything. “Do you want to quit school and go to the south of Spain with us?” “Yes.” “Do you want to audition for a major movie?” “Yes.” “Do you want to …” “Yes.” I’d just say yes. It’s like the end of Ulysses: “Yes I said yes I will yes.” But I don’t know if that’s possible, Alan, because times have changed so much. Those kinds of opportunities, maybe they don’t exist, especially at this point in my life.
CUMMING: It’s more about a state of mind, isn’t it? I mean, it’s rare for me to have a day when there’s not anything planned—no appointments, no work, no training sessions. But just the idea that you can still have an adventure-I love the thought of that. Maybe you just have to say, “I’m scheduling an adventure.”
LANGE: [laughs] I haven’t run into people like that in a long time—who are just kind of living that way. It could be because the business we’re in has become very … Well, I mean, a lot of it is about ambition now, so that in itself negates the idea of taking off on nonsensical adventures. But it would be nice.
CUMMING: It would be lovely. It sounds like your children’s book [It Is About a Little Bird] is a bit like that, though.
LANGE: That’s a funny little thing, because I have two young granddaughters who are two of the most delightful creatures in the universe, and one day I woke up with this story in my mind, and I sat down and wrote the whole thing in one sitting, start to finish. I mean, it wasn’t hard because it’s a children’s book—it’s not like I sat down and wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in one sitting—but it must have come out of something in my subconscious. But because I don’t draw, I thought, What can I do? I’ve always loved hand-tinted photographs, which you see from the earliest daguerreotypes and then in the picture postcards. They have this kind of wonderful quality to them, and since I shot a lot of back-and-white film and had pictures of these little girls, I thought, “Well, I’ll illustrate it that way. I’ll take my black-and-white photography and hand-tint it.” But all of that was done without any deliberate idea of having it published; it was just for their Christmas gift. And then somebody saw it and said, “Why don’t you publish it?” So somebody wanted to publish it, and that’s kind of how it all came about. But it’s all based on a true story. In fact, I remember when we were leaving Rome on the day we wrapped Titus. We went to the airport together, and I had the bird that I based the book on, and you said, “I’m not hanging with you in case you get arrested.” [both laugh]
CUMMING: I remember you had put it in the overhead compartment, and it was tweeting and it wouldn’t shut up. I had to do a performance in New York that night, and I thought, I’m never going to get to the theater because I’m going to be in the clink with Jessica Lange and a canary!
LANGE: I know. You abandoned me at that airport in Rome. But that’s what the story is based on—the delightful adventure of smuggling that canary back in my pocket.
CUMMING: Is there a little me running away in fear, as well?
LANGE: Actually, it’s sweet.
CUMMING: And tell me about your film, the Émile Zola one.
LANGE: Zola has always been one of my favorite novelists. I remember when I first read Thérèse Raquin, the story that this film is based on—it had such a powerful effect. It’s interesting because if you’re around long enough, then everything seems to come full circle. James M. Cain is said to have based his book The Postman Always Rings Twice on Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin.
CUMMING: Wow, I had no idea.
LANGE: He set it in a different time and place, but it seems like it was based on Zola. So when this came up, I thought, Oh, god, one of my favorite French novels—and what a funny coincidence that I’m doing this after having played in Postman  all those many years ago. But it’s a great story and it’s a great character. About halfway through, she suffers a stroke and then no longer has speech or movement, and it becomes very violent and emotional. The emotion is violent. To try to find a way to make that understood without speech or movement was a great exercise for me. It’s great Zola material. I remember when I was in Paris right before we traveled to Serbia—we shot most of it in Belgrade—I went to the Panthéon, and in one of the crypts downstairs, Zola, [Alexandre] Dumas, Victor Hugo are all in the same little room for all of eternity. I snuck something in there for Zola …
CUMMING: What did you take?
LANGE: I actually put in something that I had found. I’m sure if the museum guards had caught me … Another case where I might have been arrested. I slipped it in through the bars of the vault.
CUMMING: What was it? A dead bird?
LANGE: It was just a little note, a missive. And a little gift to him. It was silly. An homage—a tribute to the man, the genius.
CUMMING: Finally, I wanted to ask you: Do you still wash your hair in a bucket?
LANGE: Do I wash my hair in a bucket? [laughs] Is that what you asked me?
LANGE: [laughs] No.
CUMMING: Well, you used to, though, didn’t you? On the farm, you used to wash your hair in a bucket. That is one of the images I have of you—the thing that flashes in my mind is that you told me you used to wash your hair in a bucket on the farm. And I have this vision of you with an old pump in Minnesota, and big skies behind you, and you’ve got your hair inside a bucket. I even imagined you doing it in the West Village in New York, in a special, Jonathan Adler-designed bucket.
LANGE: Well, yeah, I used to do that, but not so much anymore. I wash my hair in the lake now. Does that count?
ALAN CUMMING IS A TONY AWARD-WINNING ACTOR, WRITER, AND DIRECTOR. HE IS CURRENTLY APPEARING IN THE CBS DRAMA THE GOOD WIFE.