Jessica Lange says with 'American Horror Story' she has 'nothing left to lose'
The Oscar winner admits this season is 'darker than anyone anticipated'
As the tortured (and sometimes torturous) Sister Jude on "American Horror Story," Jessica Lange has had to grapple with a Nazi, a serial killer and the devil herself this season. But as tough as it's been, it looks like things are only going to get worse -- and not better. Lange talked to journalists in a conference call about what's up for her character, whether or not she'll be back for season three, and why she never knows what's next for her character -- and that's just fine.
Given how extreme "American Horror Story" can get, it wouldn't be too surprising if Lange told show creator Ryan Murphy to pump his brakes with certain story lines. But Lange says she has a high threshold for crazy. "There are times when I've said I think this is too much, but that's not too often," she says. "They write for me less action and more kind of psychological… I wouldn't really know how to do the really intense action scenes. I have a few of those, but not many."
Part of the reason Lange embraces whatever she gets stems from her commitment to the role. "I think there was a leap of faith on my part; if I'm going to do this I'm going to do this. You have to have trust and think someone is taking care of you. With a part like this, and where we're going with it, I can't pull any punches and I can't do it halfway, especially when you're dealing with madness… I really felt I'm going to embrace this 100 percent, so hopefully somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself."
The payoff is that Lange also gets a chance to offer her input on the show. "Sometimes I'll say something I want to do, like I want to sing or I want to dance or something frivolous, and sure enough it comes up in the next script, or I want to be a lounge singer in the 40s… That's how we work, really. I've never worked this way before, where it's so fluid between the creators, the writers and me. This evolves and morphs as we go along. It's been an interesting challenge."
The flip side of having so much payoff is that Lange rarely knows what's coming up for her character. "No, because this thing sort of has a life of its own," she says. "It's like a river, it moves one way then shifts. I think Ryan has these things roughly plotted out of where things are going to go, but I don't always know ahead of time. I kind of understood we would be dealing with this descent into hell, but I did not know Jude would become, would rise to the top of this in a way. In a way, that's what makes it interesting to play. Usually you get a script and you have all the story, all the acts are there, you know what happens and were you go. This is a whole new experience. It's kind of like life, you don't know what's going to happen next. It's made me work in a braver way, in a way, of just taking every chance that comes along. I don't plan things ahead of time, I don't map out the character, I don't do anything. It's been for me a powerful exercise of working in the moment. I actually think it's made me a better actor in a way, not being able to go into something predetermined."
But of course, the real question is whether she'll be back for season three. When asked if she's discussed what he might have planned, she said, "We haven't really talked about it too much. All of that stuff is under discussion. I will try it again, depending on what the story is and who the character is and all of that. We'll see, we'll see what happens." Yeah, but will she come back? "I haven't really thought it through. When we started talking about season two, I had ideas of what I wanted to play. I'd never played an alcoholic before, I wanted to play a great drunk scene, I wanted to play someone really down and out. Those were things I specifically had in mind. For next year, I'm just exhausted from this whole experience, and I really don't have a thought about next season yet. There's a lot of stuff that will come up. As of now, I hate to say I haven't given it any thought."
The good news is that there isn't much, from a storyline perspective, that would turn her off the idea. "Ryan is very collaborative, so I don't think he'd suddenly pull something out of his hat that would make me say I absolutely don't want to be involved. Episode to episode… there's nothing we do in this show that isn't founded in some reality somewhere. Bloody Face, I was reading about Ed Gein, how he wore his victim's skin. Whatever is imagined in this show is something that's happened somewhere in the world. Unless we really sink the ship, I can't imagine Ryan would come up with something I wouldn't be involved with."
When examining her two "AHS" characters, she said of Jude, "There's a descent into madness that's completely different. Constance is a throwback to the '40s, a tough dame, sweet talking with a tough edge, who didn't suffer fools. This woman is much more vulnerable and in some ways more tragic. She's kind of destroyed her life. She's an addict, an alcoholic… she's had a lot of bad men in her life, and she's come to the end of the road with the hopes that the monsignor will save her, she'll be something else and he'll make her life worth living. Of course, it all comes crashing down. She's left absolutely alone. The idea of being completely alone in the world coupled with madness, it's a really potent combination to play."
So, what happens next week? "I don't know what I'm allowed to say. Everything gets put into motion now, the demise of Briarcliff and everyone's departure from it except mine. She's trying to make things right, but she's totally trapped in her own thinking."
Lange admits that her favorite elements to play are loneliness and madness. "When I'm doing things because of this character's decent, it harkens back to when I played 'Frances.' [the 1982 film about Frances Farmer which earned her an Oscar nod]. In some odd way, I'm still doing the same things I was doing all those years ago, but under completely different auspices. Here's what I think is the difference. Now I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I don't mind putting myself out there in the most raw, naked, exposed way. I'm also able to do that because I feel Ryan would protect me somehow. I feel at this point now I can take any chance I want, I can go as far as I want. Judgment doesn't matter to me anymore. The slings and arrows... none of that matters to me anymore. Now the only thing I care about is, is it thrilling? Am I doing something I haven't done before, am I true? Have I found some vein of truth, and I'll follow that as far as I can go with it. I don't know if it has so much to do with age as how long I've been doing it."
While Lange doesn't think of her character as "creepy," she does concede that this season has been much darker. "It deals on a much darker psychological level. You've got human experiments... I think in some way last season was kind of like a ghost story, and this season it's the darker parts of the human psyche. I think the effect is that it's hard to watch. I hear that from people a lot... This season became darker than anyone anticipated because of the subject areas they laid out in the beginning, the ex-Nazi SS doctor and human experiments and the serial killer based on Ed Gein, the warehousing of human beings in these institutions madness. There's a lot of subjects they're covering... that lend themselves to great horror stories."
On a lighter note, Lange talked about one of her favorite co-stars -- Frances Conroy. "When we're on screen together, something happens. One of my favorite scenes I've played this year, is episode at the diner when she's come for me as the angel of death . There's almost a connection you can't really describe. Certain actors just find something when they're working together. Every actor -- James, Sarah, Lily -- they're just a pleasure to work with. Even actors who come in for just a day's work have been amazing and really brought something and make your work better."
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