Jessica Lange, who once beguiled King Kong, suffered Blanche DuBois’ manic illusions and slipped into psychosis with Frances Farmer has a whole new career going for her on FX’s “American Horror Story.”
Last season she played a master manipulator in a gothic ghost story and this year she’s a nun slipping into madness.
“I understand that there’s a demographic that otherwise probably wouldn’t know my work,” she said. “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.”
Television series has marked a new venue for her.
“It has given me a whole new exposure that probably I wouldn’t have had otherwise, because of the kinds 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 I’m glad people are looking at the work. I’m very grateful for that.”
Lange is one of a handful of female actresses who’ve managed to transmute from blond leading lady to roles of power and substance.
“I think obviously your days as leading lady are limited,” she acknowledges. “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 must have been early 40s. So yes, where you played the romantic lead, that comes to an end at a certain point. … I suppose then you could define the parts that come your way as characters, you become a character actor.”
But with roles in projects like “Crimes of the Heart,” “A Thousand Acres,” “Grey Gardens,” “Cousin Bette,” Lange said she’s always regarded herself as a character actor.
“I was never doing –except maybe for ‘Tootsie,’ which was actually so well written that it didn’t fall into that category, 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.”
Accepting the role of the nun in “American Horror Story” marked a leap of faith for her, said Lange. “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, OK, I’m going to embrace this 100 percent fully. Somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself.”
Each role she approaches differently, she said.
“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. ... With fictional characters you rise and fall on the strength of your imagination, I think. … 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.”
Lange said when she made “Grey Gardens” for HBO she studied the documentary about the woman she was playing, who was the eccentric and destitute aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“I would put on the DVD of (the documentary) ‘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 sink 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. … 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.”
She said she’s relieved that she no longer needs to prove anything.
“I’m not building a career anymore so I’m not trying to figure out is this going to be a wise move, or is this going to ruin my career? I’m so beyond that. It is what it is basically. I’ve made my choices. I’ve gone a certain path for better or worse and now it’s just I’ll do what I want, whether it’s wise or not doesn’t matter to me anymore. That time has passed when I could’ve made wise decisions.”