Jessica Lange, who has won two Oscars and lives in New York City, visited Los Angeles last month to discuss the HBO movie “Grey Gardens.” In it, she plays Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, the performative, fashionable, destitute mother of Little Edie (Drew Barrymore). The mother-daughter symbiosis was first captured in a 1975 documentary about their lives in a falling-down house in East Hampton, N.Y. In the wrong hands, “Grey Gardens” could have been very campy. We’re talking “Mommie Dearest.”

Yes, yes it could. And I did worry about that, of course. If you don’t get it right, it could be a disaster. But I kept thinking if we just narrow the field here to really creating a love story, unique and unusual as it is, if we approach it that way, then at least we’re in a territory where we know what we’re doing.

You range from 40 to 80 in the movie, and you knew going into this what you were going to look like as Big Edie aged -- like a crazy old lady. How did you feel about that?


One of the compensations was that we did get to play them when they were young. So there were a few moments when you actually thought you looked pretty good. But, yeah. I wanted more than anything to look exactly like Big Edie. I wanted the hair exactly strand for strand what you saw in the documentary. I mean, it was a pain in the ass. And it was a drag to sit there for five hours in the makeup chair getting this stuff put on. But when I decided to do it I wanted all of it, all of it.

And you had to sound like Big Edie as well.

The voice was a big thing for me. More than just the accent, she’s got incredible tumbles of rhythm and melody. Maybe that came from her years of training as a singer.

The singing! Tell me about that.

Unlike a lot of actors who can also actually sing, I cannot sing. When I decided to do the part, we started talking about the fact that there would be singing involved. They gave me a list of songs. I looked at it, and I thought: “Whoa. Well, well, well. Should I try it?” They said, “If you want to just lip sync, we’ll get a singer.” There was a brief moment where I thought, “Well, obviously, that’s the answer to this.” Then I decided, you know, I’m just going to do it myself. Because for one thing, to fully realize the character, I have to be able to channel that joy that she took in singing. Because if I’m not actually doing it, I’ve shortcut it.

I’m curious about competing for awards with your costar.

I think what Drew and I found was a connection very similar to the connection between the characters. We adored each other; we played off each other. I can’t imagine doing it with anybody else. It’s two parts of a whole, really.

The movie definitely took a position that Big Edie and Little Edie were, if not happy in their lovable lunacy -- well, it’s a sympathetic, empathetic portrayal. Is that your interpretation as well?

Well, I think one decision that the filmmakers made, and I think the actors did too -- the one thing that they shared and which makes them truly unique is this tremendous wit.

And also, the more I do this and the longer I do it, the more I think humor is a really great approach to telling a story. As opposed to hammering it home in all of its grimness. And I didn’t see them as being grim in the face of all this. When she yells down, “Shut up! It’s a goddamn beautiful day!” You know? It’s a beautiful day. She’s sitting out there looking at the ocean, and her house is falling down around her. There’s just something about their spirit that I think was much better told in a positive way than as these pathetic, victimized -- I don’t think they were.