Even after 35 years in the spotlight, Jessica Lange gets a curveball thrown at her now and then. On a recent day at work on Season 2 of"American Horror Story,” it was an unaccustomed song-and-dance number.
“I’m not a singer — I’ve only tried it once before in my life, as Big Edie for ‘Grey Gardens,'and it was nerve-wracking,” says Lange, who lip-synced her vocals as Patsy Cline in 1985’s “Sweet Dreams.” “This time I thought: Just approach it as an actor. Go in there and tell a story. That took a little of the pressure off. I have no idea how it sounds, but it was interesting to do because I was taking a chance.”
That’s in keeping with the whole spirit of her first foray into series television. In 2011, the two-time Oscar winner took what she confides was “a giant leap of faith” by accepting the role of intrusive neighbor Constance Langdon in a new project for cable channel FX from creator Ryan Murphy (“Glee,""Nip/Tuck”). It turned out to be a wildly kinky, envelope-pushing creep fest about a ghost-plagued mansion — and she committed without even seeing a pilot script.
“I had no idea what the character would be or how it was going to work,” Lange says. “But what swayed me was Ryan’s insistence that he was going to write a part that would be fascinating for me to play. There aren’t a lot of writers who promise you that. And I haven’t been disappointed at all.”
Neither have viewers. From her first appearance as the unsettlingly strange neighbor who bluntly confesses that she’d have aborted her Down syndrome daughter “if they’d had tests for that,” Lange delivers a performance that’s as electric and unpredictable as it is persuasive. She’s the keeper of the secrets, the one who knows the truth about the ghosts who are plaguing the new homeowners (Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott).
Audiences responded, making “American Horror Story” the year’s top-rated new cable series, and so did TV academy voters — it has landed a whopping 17 Emmy nominations, including acting nods for Lange and costars Connie Britton, Frances Conroy and Denis O’Hare.
Season 2 will bring a twist — in a completely revamped story, Lange now plays the head nun in charge of a mental institution for the criminally insane in the 1960s (the anthology-style series will change its setting and most of its cast each season, making it eligible for the Emmy miniseries category rather than drama series). Her new character, Sister Jude, joined the Catholic order late in life, leaving behind “an unsavory incident and a tragic past,” Lange says. “She’s strict, and a hard taskmaster, but she’s very conflicted.” Is she sane? Lange laughs. “I think I’m safe in saying that there’s some degree of madness in all the characters.”
The singing scene is a flashback to the character’s earlier life as a 1940s nightclub performer. During a recent visit to the Paramount lot, set builders were still noisily constructing the foreboding hallways and holding cells of the 1930s-era asylum, so Lange gave an interview in her trailer, where she reclined on the couch beside her giant black poodle, Jack.
She was eager to talk about the process of bringing Constance to life. “In some ways she was a throwback to a different time, when there was no political correctness,” she says. “She didn’t know how to not speak the truth, no matter how ugly — she spared no one’s feelings.”
Lange’s indelible performances as Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” seem a natural inspiration for the former Southern beauty queen and has been cited by Murphy as the reason he badly wanted Lange for the part. The actress says there’s at least some connection. “I do love these characters who are holding on to some illusion that makes life more bearable — but I tried not to pinpoint her to any one source.”
Whether because of misfortune (her son, Tate, massacred his classmates) or her own bloody deeds (she killed her cheating spouse), Constance teetered on the edge of sanity. That’s a place Lange has often visited — in movies from “Frances” to “Blue Sky” to HBO’s “Grey Gardens.” “I like a touch of madness, because it’s so much richer — and it allows you to work within your imagination,” she says.
She then reveals that despite the acclaim for her performance (it has already brought her a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe) she has never seen herself in “American Horror Story.” “I just don’t look at my work anymore — I’ve gotten to the point where the results, I just don’t know about. The thing I really love is the process.”
That’s where her leap of faith into a new medium — series television — has paid dividends. “I had these monologues, and I sometimes wouldn’t get scripts until the morning we started the episode. That meant that every decision had to come in the moment. And, suddenly,” she says, her voice rising with excitement, “it just opened up this channel that was so liberating. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was doing until after it was over.... It has become more exciting. And at this stage, that’s amazing.”