Jessica Lange -- Sister Jude on "American Horror Story: Asylum" -- has played Big Edie Beale, Frances Farmer, Blanche DuBois, and a gorilla's girlfriend, so she's no stranger to pushing herself as an actress… fortunately, since "American Horror Story" has taken "pushing" to a new level since its debut last year. Lange's clearly the woman for the job; she added to her awards-hardware shelf with a Golden Globe and a Primetime Emmy for her portrayal of Constance Langdon on last season's "AHS," and she's expected to pick up more nominations this year for the Sister Jude role.
Lange spoke with reporters last week about Sister Jude's journey, trusting creator Ryan Murphy, and what happens after the leading-lady window closes. The actress was asked almost immediately whether she ever looks at a script and feels Murphy has gone too far. Occasionally, she admitted, but "that's not been too often" -- and part of it is, well, part of acting. "I think as an actor you have to trust," Lange said. "You have to believe that somebody is taking care of you or watching your back, because with a part like this especially… I can't pull any punches, I can't do it halfway." She has to jump in with both feet and just hope that "somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself."
Easier said than done, we suspect, given that Lange doesn't always know what's coming. She called it "an interesting challenge," and it didn't sound like she was just being diplomatic: "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." Perhaps it's the fact that the writers are so responsive to Lange's requests -- that she not have to do any more whipping scenes in the office, or that now and then, she'd like to play the music. "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," she told reporters. Lange also gave credit to the writing itself, saying, "If you've got it on the page, then you can find a way. The worst thing in the world is to try to play a poorly written scene, so that right away I give credit to the writers and to Ryan" for giving her the raw material she needs.
That includes the characters themselves. Sister Jude is "a really potent combination to play," Lang said (she compared Jude's journey of repentance, and her "aloneness," to characters in Tennessee Williams), but the fact that Lange can't predict what's next for Jude has made her a better actor, she thinks: "It's made me work in a much more fluid, I think in a braver way … It's been for me a great, powerful exercise in working just in the moment."
Asked about what's in store for her in the third season of "AHS," Lange again indicated that her trust in the creative team is critical. "Ryan [Murphy] is very collaborative," Lange said. "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." But she hadn't given much thought to what's ahead, calling herself "just exhausted" by working on the second season.
What Murphy and the writers have come up with so far has given Lange "a whole new exposure, and she appreciates that -- but she also expressed some surprise at, well, the ignorance of kids today. (She was nicer about it than that.) "I understand that there's a demographic that otherwise probably wouldn't know my work," Lange commented, but added, "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."
Watch a recap of last week's episode:
Is Lange particularly grateful for the wider audience given the scarcity of great and well-rounded parts for women over 40? It does seem to us like that situation is shifting, but Lange was realistic about it: "I think obviously your days as leading lady are limited. You have that one little window of time from mid-twenties to maybe mid-forties." In her own mind, she was always a character actress -- she said that the term "leading lady" itself "feels like a throwback to another era of filmmaking" -- but at this point in her career, she's no longer concerned with protecting a leading-lady image: "I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I don't mind putting myself out there in the most raw, naked, exposed ways." These days, Lange can focus on whether it's satisfying work: "Now the only thing that I care about is, is it thrilling? Am I doing something I haven't done before? Am I true?"
She conceded to the press that she's hearing the second season is "hard to watch," because it's dealing with "the darker parts of the human psyche" instead of going for more of a ghost-story feel. But Lange made it sound like great fun to do, describing Murphy's plan for the continuing show and rotating cast as "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." Lange's also thrilled to be working with her fellow "AHS" alum Frances Conroy, who returned recently as the Angel of Death. "There's just something in her," Lange mused. "When we're on screen together something happens."
It sure does.
How'd they make those face-chomps look so real last week? Find out right here:
"American Horror Story" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.