Interview: Jessica Lange on ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’, Character Arcs and “Playing Madness”

Jessica: "I’m always surprised when young people don’t know certain actors or are not familiar with certain films"

american-horror-story-asylum-jessica-langeThe sophomore season of FX’s hit show, American Horror Story: Asylum has had a major turning point plot-wise and has seen its star, Jessica Lange, go from playing a take-no-crap nun to mental patient. Lange has been so good in the series that she was nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG Award and if you’ve seen her work on the show, you’ll know that she absolutely deserves it.

The Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe winning actress recently did a Q&A for the show and she mentioned how she loves creator Ryan Murphy‘s approach to the series. “I think what Ryan had in mind is this kind of Mercury Theatre, this idea of having a repertory company and moving them from one project to another, and there’s something kind of great about that, watching these actors come in and create a different character.” She said that she is really enjoying the chance its given her o create a new characters and that her time on the show has made her “a better actor.”

In the interview, Lange talks about acting on the show, not knowing her character arc in advance and how she’s surprised that young actors don’t know film history.

One of the reasons I think you’ve been so successful on the show and in the series it seems is that you’re just so willing and so game to take on really anything that gets thrown at you in the course of these two shows.  I wonder, is there ever a time when something is sent your way in the course of these shows that it’s just too much for you, or are you the one that’s egging Ryan Murphy and company along?  Do you want more challenges in your American Horror Story tenure?

Jessica Lange: Well, there are times when I’ve said, “I think this is too much,” but that’s not been too often because they tend to write for me less action and I don’t know, maybe more kind of psychological.  But that’s been better.  I wouldn’t really know how to do a lot of the really intense action scenes, so I have a few of those but not many.  I think there was a leap of faith on my part just thinking, well, if I’m going to do this I’m going to do this.  And I think as an actor you have to have trust, you have to believe that somebody is taking care of you or watching your back, because with a part like this especially and where we’re going with it, I can’t pull any punches, I can’t do it halfway, especially when you’re dealing with madness and this descent into madness, and I really felt like, okay, I’m going to embrace this 100% and hopefully somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself.  Yes, it’s combined.

And sometimes I ask them specifically for stuff, like I want to sing or I want to dance or I want to do this, something frivolous, and sure enough it shows up in the next script, or I want to play a lounge singer from the ’40s, so somehow it’s a give and take situation and then I end up doing things like … scenes where I say, okay, I’ve done two, I will not do any more.  This is enough.  I don’t enjoy this.  This is not my character.  So that’s how we work really.  I’ve never worked this way before where it’s so fluid between the creators, the writers, and me.  Usually you get a script and it’s there and it’s start to finish, and this kind of evolves and morphs as we go along.  I do have more input, but then there are of course limitations within the structure of the whole story and the trajectory of where it’s going.  But it’s been interesting.  It’s been an interesting challenge.


How much has Ryan Murphy told you about Season 3, and what about that attracted you to stick with the show for another year?

Jessica Lange: Well, we haven’t really talked about it too much, and all that stuff is still under discussion.  I think I will try it again, depending on what the story is and who the character is and all of that, so we’ll see what happens.

Your character from Season 1, Constance, very much seemed to be the puppet master, but in Season 2, Jude, is fast becoming a very complex hero as the season develops.  How different are Jude’s intentions to Constance’s, and what did you really want to bring to Jude that you may not have been able to do with Constance?

Jessica Lange: I think “puppet master” is a very good description of Constance.  The thing that I found, kind of the spine of the character of Constance, was that this was a woman who had basically lost everything and had nothing left to lose and also was extremely, what can I say, unafraid, so she just manipulated her way and put herself in situations that probably other people would not have.  With Jude she has a lot to lose because she’s holding on to something that she feels has saved her life and redeemed her, and then when it all becomes clear that everything was false, from the idea that she did not run over and kill this child, which is what sent her on this whole path, trying to find some kind of life, some redemption, some spiritual life, that when she discovers everything is false from the beginning, there’s a descent into madness that is completely different and for me much more interesting to play.

I thought Constance was a wonderful character, she was kind of a throwback to the ’40s, kind of tough dame, sweet talking but with a real edge, she did not suffer fools, nothing went past her, she had a way of moving through everything and getting what she wanted.  This woman is much more vulnerable and I think in some way tragic.  She’s destroyed her life.  She’s an addict.  She’s an alcoholic.  She’s had bad luck with men, a lot of bad men in her life.  And she’s come to the end of the road with the hopes that this church, that this man, the Monsignor, is going to save her, that she’ll become something else, that she’ll make her life worth living.  And of course that all comes down, crashing, and she’s left absolutely alone, completely and totally alone, and those are two things I love playing because you also find them in Williams’ characters, the thing of aloneness, the idea of being completely alone in the world and couple that with madness, and it’s a really potent combination to play.

I know I’m rattling on.  It’s hard to talk about these characters succinctly, but that would probably be the difference.

Going into Season 3, what would be something different that you would want to play, what would make it so that you would want to sign on and continue to work with American Horror Story as far as character?

Jessica Lange:  I don’t know yet.  I haven’t really thought it through.  When we started talking about Season 2 I had very clear ideas of what I wanted to play.  I had never played an alcoholic before.  I wanted to play a great drunk scene.  I remember I asked Ryan for that.  I wanted to play somebody who was really down and out, and also the whole area of madness.  So those were things that I specifically had in mind when we talked about the character of Sister Jude.  For next year, you know, I’m just exhausted from this whole experience.  And this season, it seems like it’s gone on forever and I really don’t have a thought about next season yet.  There’s a lot of stuff that will come up, but as of now I hate to say I haven’t given it any thought whatsoever.

Can you talk a little bit about how much of the arc you knew ahead of time for this season.  Were you aware, because it really has struck me that Jude started off as the villain, so to speak, in a way and has now kind of become the hero of the story and the one that … to prevail.  Did you know that this was the arc she would take?

Jessica Lange: Really, no, because this thing kind of has a life of its own.  It’s like a river, it moves one direction and then it continues that way and then it shifts direction.   I think Ryan has these things roughly plotted out of where things are going to go, but I don’t always know ahead of time.  I have to say I kind of understood that we would be dealing with this kind of descent into hell, but I did not know really that Jude would rise to the top of this in a way, so no.

And in a way that’s what makes it interesting to play, because usually you get a script and you have all the story, all the acts are there for a play, you know what happens in the first, second, and third act, and you know how it starts, you know where you go and where it finishes, and with this it’s a whole new experience.  I don’t know where it’s going.  It’s kind of like life, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.  And it’s been an interesting way to work.  It’s made me work in a much more fluid, I think in a braver way in a way, of just taking every chance that comes along.  I don’t plan things ahead of time.  I don’t map out the character.  I don’t do anything.  It’s been for me a great, powerful exercise in working just in the moment, from this moment to the next moment.  And I actually think that it’s made me a better actor, in a way, because of not being able to go into something pre-determined.

Are there any circumstances in which you wouldn’t return for next year once you heard what the concept is?

Jessica Lange: Well, not that I can imagine at this point, because Ryan is very collaborative.  So I don’t think he would suddenly pull something out of his hat that I would say I absolutely don’t want to be involved with this story.  Sometimes on episode to episode I think, oh my God, what the hell are we doing?  We shouldn’t be doing this.  And yet, the thing that always amazes me is nothing that we do in this show really is not somehow founded in some reality somewhere.  Like this whole thing with the character of Bloody Face, I was reading about Ed Gein not too long ago, how he actually wore his victim’s skin, so it’s like whatever is imagined in this show, there’s nothing that has not happened somewhere in the world at some point.  So I think unless we really sink the ship, I can’t imagine that there would be something that Ryan came up with that I would not want to be involved with.

You’ve really become a fan favorite and this show seems to have, throughout two seasons, opened up a whole new audience for you, a whole new energy to what you’re doing.  What’s the reaction been like, and what do you make of it?

Jessica Lange: Well, I don’t follow that side of it too much.  I understand that there’s a demographic that otherwise probably wouldn’t know my work.  I’m always surprised when young people don’t know certain actors or are not familiar with certain films, even people who are working in Hollywood, which is really alarming, are not aware of certain filmmakers if it’s more than 20 years ago or 25 years ago, or maybe even 15 years ago.

So I understand that this has given me a whole new exposure that probably I wouldn’t have had otherwise, because the kind of films that I do, I don’t do big studio films that gross $100 million or whatever, I’ve mostly done small, independent movies, and that has a very limited audience.  So this is a greater audience probably than I’ve had for a long, long time, and it’s also the demographic is much younger, so that’s all good, I guess.  I don’t know ultimately what that means, but yes, I’m glad people are looking at the work.  I’m very grateful for that.

AHS_jessica-langeAt what point in your acting career did you sort of come to the realization that you can play creepy really, really well? When was that ‘aha’ moment ? And do you have to tap into a different part of your acting brain to achieve it so well?

Jessica Lange: I don’t think of any of my characters as creepy.  They might be misguided and they might be crazy, but definitely not creepy.  Like I said earlier in this interview today, there’s nothing that appeals to me more than playing madness, and that I do know how to dip into.  But that’s quite different than creepy.  I’m sorry, I didn’t find anything creepy about these characters.

Some of the interesting phases of your career, you were an ingénue, you’ve been a leading lady, and so many actresses they reach a certain age and they either go away or they kind of reinvent themselves.  How would you describe this stage in your career?  It seems to me that you are doing more character acting, is that fair to say?  Are there roles or are there things that you can do now that you couldn’t do 30 years ago?

Jessica Lange: Yes, I think obviously your days as leading lady are limited.  You have that one little window of time from mid-20s to maybe mid-40s.  I’m trying to think of the last leading lady I played, it might have been like what, Blue Sky or something.  And then I was, how old was I then, I must have been early 40s, so yes, where you played the romantic lead, that comes to an end at a certain point.  And yes, I suppose then you could define the parts that come your way as characters, you become a character actor.  But I always felt that way from the beginning, because I was never doing, except maybe for Tootsie, which was actually so well written that it didn’t fall into that category, I mean, I was never playing just the girlfriend or the wife.  So they were all, to my mind, I was always a character actress, even though I suppose combined with that was the element of being a leading lady, whatever that means now, that feels like a throwback to another era of filmmaking.

I just did a film this spring, I guess that will come out a year from now or something, based on Emile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin, which is what, this is an interesting circle, which is what James M. Cain based Postman Always Rings Twice on, in 19-whatever that was, 1980 I played the character of Cora in Postman.  And in this, in 2012, I played the mother of the son that is murdered by the young couple.  So it was a full circle, because it’s the same story basically, James Cain based his story on the Zola novel, so you see it does come back around.  Yes, I suppose in some way, yes, we’ve all become character actors at a certain point.  We’re no longer –

Are there things you can do now, though, as an actress that you can get away with that wouldn’t have worked 20 years ago just because you’re Jessica Lange and you’re of a certain age and you can be a little bit more dramatic?

Jessica Lange: Sometimes when I’m doing this, because of this character’s descent and where she’s going with this madness and everything, it harkens back to when I played Frances, so in some odd way I’m still doing the same things that I was doing all those many years ago, but of course under completely different auspices.

Okay, I know I’m being very vague and rambling, here’s what I think is the difference is now I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I don’t mind putting myself out there in the most raw, naked, exposed ways.  I also am able to do that because I really feel that Ryan would protect me somehow.  But yes, I feel at this point now I can take any chance I want, I can go as far as I want, because judgment doesn’t matter to me anymore.  I think in the beginning it does, the slings and arrows and you suddenly, oh my God, they said that, really?  Is that how they … .  You know none of that matters to me anymore.  Now the only thing that I care about is, is it thrilling?  Am I doing something I haven’t done before?  Am I true?  I think that’s the main thing is have I found some vein of truth?  And then I’ll follow that as far as I can go with it.  So it’s a different way of working, I guess, and I don’t know if it has as much to do with age as it has to do with how long I’ve been doing it.

Could you talk about the process you go through as an actress.  You switched from such memorable characters as Big Edie to Constance to Sister Jude, what’s the process you go through?

Jessica Lange: It depends.  I work differently on all of them, but recently, like I said earlier, I’ve been trying to work in a very immediate fashion so that I’m relying much more now on just pure imagination that comes up in a moment and I just follow that through rather than trying to plan anything or design anything.  And I think that’s the biggest difference.

With fictional characters it really is you rise and fall on the strength of your imagination, I think.  With somebody like Big Edie, of course, I had a wealth of resource material to draw from.  But the thing that I’ve been working on more and more lately is finding the character through the voice, and sometimes I would work on finding it through the emotional core, which is still the main element I work in, but the external instead of finding it through movement or body or whatever, now I try to find it through voice.  And it’s been very interesting, because with Big Edie every day I’d come to the set I would listen to her voice, I would put on the DVD of Grey Gardens and not look at the image but just hear the voice, and as soon as I found that voice I could drop into the character.

Now, with Sister Jude this year I’ve also found a voice that as soon as it’s there and present I feel like I think into the character.  And I’ve done something with the voice as it’s gone along that it’s been changing as we go down this rabbit hole.  So that’s the process, I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but that’s kind of how I find that I’m working now, I mean, strictly through the imagination and then looking for the character, trying to find the character mostly through the voice.

One of the things that Ryan does for you on this show is surround you with really great actors, …, Sarah Paulson, Ian McShane, and James Cromwell, and I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, about getting to work with so many actors throughout the course of this series, and if you can talk specifically about a scene where maybe it felt really great to be working with somebody.

Jessica Lange: Yes, I think the acting has been really amazing this year.  A lot of the actors came back from last year, and it’s wonderful, I think what Ryan had in mind is this kind of Mercury Theatre, this idea of having a repertory company and moving them from one project to another, and there’s something kind of great about that, watching these actors come in and create a different character.

But, yes, I mean, one of my favorite actors that I worked with in these episodes last year and this year is Frances Conroy.  There’s just something in her, I don’t know there’s something, when we’re on screen together something happens.  I think one of my favorite scenes that I’ve played this year is the scene from, I guess it was Episode 7 in the diner when she’s come for me as the Angel of Death, and I don’t know, there’s almost a connection that you can’t really describe.  But certain actors I think just find something when they’re working together, and that’s how I felt in these scenes with Frannie.  But every actor that I’ve worked with on this, I mean, James, Sarah, and Lily and Ian, it’s just a pleasure to work with them.  And even actors who come in for just a day’s work have been amazing and have really brought something and make your work better.

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