Jessica Lange on Playing Elsa's 'Contradictions,' Singing Bowie, and Her 'American Horror Story' Future

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Dave Nemetz
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Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars in 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' (Michele K. Short/FX)
Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars in 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' (Michele K. Short/FX)

First things first: There's still hope, American Horror Story fans.

AHS's Emmy-winning grande dame Jessica Lange hasn't ruled out a return to the FX horror anthology, despite her much-publicized comments last year that Freak Show would likely be her final season.

"I don't want to say anything definitive," she told Yahoo TV in a phone conversation this week. "[Co-creator] Ryan [Murphy] and I have to have time to sit down and really talk. Because I love him dearly, and I know he wants me to continue."

And we want her to continue, too, of course: Lange has been the cornerstone of AHS for four seasons now, winning a pair of Emmys and showcasing her formidable range in playing Murder House's Southern belle Constance Langdon, Asylum's sadistic nun Sister Jude, Coven's vain witch Fiona Goode, and now Freak Show's fame-hungry ringmaster Elsa Mars — whom Lange calls "the richest character I've played on this series, and… also one of the richest characters I've played in a long time."

Jessica Lange and Danny Huston attend the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball held at Los Angeles Convention Center on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Jessica Lange and Danny Huston attend the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball held at Los Angeles Convention Center on August 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

We caught up with Lange on a rare day off; she's currently shooting Episodes 9, 10, and 11 of Freak Show down in her beloved New Orleans. In a wide-ranging conversation, the actress talked about the joys of playing Elsa, the challenges of belting out David Bowie's classic 1971 tune "Life on Mars," and which of her former co-stars she'd like to see take a role on a future season of American Horror Story. And who knows? She might actually be there to join them.

You're in your fourth go-around now with American Horror Story. At this point, are you helping to shape the characters you play, or does Ryan Murphy come to you with an idea that's fully formed?
Well, I had an investment in this one much more so than I have in past seasons, because I had suggested to him a couple years ago the idea of a freak show as the theme. I had a different kind of idea, like a traveling freak show from the '30s, kind of the Dust Bowl, because it's a period of time that's always fascinated me. He picked up on the idea of the freak show, but then set it in the early '50s with the advent of television, so he added a whole other layer to it that's really fascinating, I think.

As far as specifics on the character, mostly, it comes from Ryan. Every once in a while, I'll say something like, "I would like to have this part of the character explored," or "I would not want to do this." So in that way, it's collaborative. But as far as really creating the character, he does that, and then I play it, you know?

Related: Get Caught Up With Our 'AHS: Freak Show' Recaps

Elsa's German background: Where did that come from, exactly?
What we wanted to do was create a history for this character, of a time that's very specific. So placing her in the Weimar Republic and then emigrating with the advent of Hitler and coming to the United States… it just added a richness to the character. And we're actually showing her past by going back in flashbacks several times, I mean… it's such a joy to play those things.

It's revealed bit by bit, as we go, what happened to her, and of course, it makes the character so much richer. So I feel very fortunate. Because most of the time, you're playing a character and you have no idea why they are the way they are. But because we have this device of telling her history in flashback, it's really great to then be able to layer everything on that.

Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars in 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' (FX)
Jessica Lange as Elsa Mars in 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' (FX)

A few weeks back, we saw that very disturbing flashback of how Elsa lost her legs in the German snuff film. What was that scene like to shoot?
It was awful. But from an artistic point of view, I loved the way they were shooting it, in this kind of 16mm, hand-cranked [style], what probably would have been from that period. I mean, sometimes I think we're in gratuitous areas. [Laughs.] But I think with my character so far, that hasn't been the case. And we'll come back to that same story in another couple episodes. I think in Episode 8, it's continued.

Yeah, it's the richest character I've played on this series, and it's also one of the richest characters I've played in a long time. There are such contradictions in her. There's that kind of brutal, blind ambition, and yet there's this quality where her innate nature is so needy. But at the same time, a great heart, and so generous. That was the one thing I did say to Ryan: I want to make sure that it's very clear how much she loves her monsters. That is, as Elia Kazan would say, the spine of the character. She loves them.

Photos: The Real-Life Inspirations Behind the 'AHS: Freak Show' Characters

And you get to sing as Elsa this season. We haven't seen you sing much on screen before; did you do any vocal training for that?
Well, I sang in the second season [AHS: Asylum], with "The Name Game." And I sang in Grey Gardens, because Edie Beale was a singer. But I am not a trained singer. I've never thought of myself as a singer. So it's also great that Ryan says, "Here, you're going to do a David Bowie number." [Laughs.] So it's kind of like, "Wow, OK, what have I got to lose at this point in my career? Absolutely nothing." So I'll do anything, if it makes sense to the character.

And we see her tremendous fear and insecurity. With this character, what's great is how many kinds of emotions you can play at the same time. As an actor, that kind of complex character is so much more interesting, that you can play many different emotions within one scene. Sometimes, within just one line. It's not linear at all. She's such a big character. She's the biggest character I've played. And I love Ryan for it. You know, he just gives me so much to do. With this character, he's given me just about everything and the kitchen sink. [Laughs.]

Were you familiar with that David Bowie song before you sang it?
You know, I wasn't familiar with it, but then I wasn't around in the '80s very much. [Laughs.] I don't know where I was! I'd had my first baby, and I wasn't still listening to a lot of rock music. So when I heard it and when I first watched his amazing video of it, I thought, "What in the world? I can't do this! This is nuts!" And then Ryan told me I was going to ride out on a little rocket ship that's being pulled by the freaks, and it was like, "Wow, this is too weird." But somehow, he made it all work.

Last year, you said you thought this fourth season would be the last season of American Horror Story you'd do. Is that still true? Have you decided on that? 
I think what has to happen is, Ryan and I have to have time to sit down and really talk. Because I love him dearly, and I know he wants me to continue. I don't want to, but… [Laughs.] I don't want to say anything definitive, because we haven't had the moments that we need to sit down and really have this conversation.

Why would you not want to, though? Is it just the grind of filming a season of television?
Well, it's a combination of things. One, it takes me away from family for a long period of time. This year has been much more demanding, time-wise, for me. It's also been much more demanding as an artist, which is wonderful. I love that part of it. But yeah, it's a long commitment. And I also don't know… she's such an amazing character, I don't know what we could come up with next. Elsa is a pretty extraordinary character to play. The fact that we have this rich, rich history; that she has such layered, conflicting emotions; that I sing! [Laughs.] That I get to play her 20 years younger. And I speak German, I speak Italian… it's kind of like, "Wow, what else?" It's a dream role.

Ryan Murphy confirmed recently that all the seasons of American Horror Story are connected to each other. Did you know that, and does that inform how you play your characters?
No, and I still don't know that. [Laughs.] I don't know what he's talking about. I know there's a very specific connection between Season 2 and Season 4. Is there that kind of specific connection in other seasons? I don't know. I mean, it's always a variation on one of the themes that I know fascinates Ryan, and that is this thing of marginalized lives: people who are not accepted, and who are persecuted, pushed to the outside of society. And I know that always interests him. But more specific than that? I honestly don't know. Maybe he'll tell me. [Laughs.]    

American Horror Story is a big hit with younger viewers, in their teens and 20s. Do you find that this series has introduced you to a whole new fan base?
Yes, absolutely. I'm always stunned at how many people know me now, in their teens and 20s, who would've never really been aware of my work before this, and now they're avid fans. So yeah, that's been kind of surprising.

Are you on social media at all? Facebook? Twitter? Because the show is very popular on there, too.
No, not a bit. I don't know about a lot of the stuff that's said, or posted, or whatever they call that stuff. [Laughs.] That's fine… but they can turn against you in a heartbeat.

Photos: The 'American Horror Story: Freak Show' Cast, On and Off the Red Carpet

Kathy Bates has said that she reached out to you to get her a role on American Horror Story. Are there any other former co-stars that you'd like to work with on the show?
Oh, wow, I hadn't thought of that. You know, I would love, love, love to see Amy Madigan play a character. I'm thinking of actors I've worked with who I absolutely love… Ed Harris. I could list a dozen actors, but who knows whether or not they'd be interested in doing something like this? But yes, working with Kathy these last two seasons has been an absolute joy. And the same with Sarah Paulson. You know, we worked together before, too, on stage [in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway].

I just got the chance, which was really amazing, to work for the first time this week with Mare Winningham, who just knocked my socks off. We came into this scene never having met, and it was just one of those magical moments as an actor, when you sit down and you go through the scene and there's some kind of wonderful alchemy. That's always a great joy, when you get an opportunity to work with an actor of that caliber. We've got some amazing actors working, absolutely.

Thank you so much for your time, Jessica, and we look forward to seeing what happens with the rest of the season.
Well, keep watching, because it just gets weirder!

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.