On a high from her devilish turn in American Horror Story, the cult actress lets us in on her life of extremes
Taken from the summer 2015 issue of Dazed:
Dominatrix-turned-freak show boss. Bipolar Hollywood starlet. Marc Jacobs muse. No actress embraces metamorphosis quite like Jessica Lange. For four decades, the Minnesota-born seductress has confronted the darkest reaches of humanity in roles that took her to the furthest, most obscure corners of her imagination. But even when the cameras weren’t rolling, Lange has lived a life of extremes. From the San Francisco communes of the 60s to wild nights at the seedy Club Sept with Karl Lagerfeld in the 70s, Lange’s past makes her characters look like pussycats – she even posed for Playboy in 1976.
Now in her sixties, Lange’s talent for slipping under the skin of those on the fringes of society has defined her as one of the most daring actresses of her generation. Most recently, she won scores of new admirers with not one but four roles – murderous housewife, sadistic nun, narcissistic coven leader and freak show proprietor – in the brilliantly unhinged TV show American Horror Story. Over the last few years, the series has taken viewers on a twisted journey from a modern-day witches’ coven in New Orleans to a 1960s Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane. At the end of each season, though the cast remains, the storyline resets. So, just when you think you’ve come to terms with the bizarre plots, constant time-travelling, and occasionally insensitive subject matter, you are purposefully thrown back into the unknown. For Lange, the process has been thrilling. “They were four of the best roles I’ve had in decades,” she says. “Actually, one or two of them were as good as anything I’ve ever done.” Considering she’s played tragic Hollywood star Frances Farmer (in 1982’s Frances) and femme fatale Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), a role immortalised by 1940s bombshell Lana Turner, it’s quite a statement. But surrendering to the supernatural at this stage in her career was irresistible: “Filming was like being in a warzone. I’ve always been drawn to characters with deep, dark histories... and secrets that are threatening to come out. So having this sort of madness around me really forced me to work from my imagination. I found it incredibly liberating. It just made the work scarier, braver and more honest in a way. I really embraced the chaos.”
For Freak Show – Lange’s final season with American Horror Story – she slipped under the skin of Elsa Mars, the fame-hungry, washed-up German eccentric and one of the most harrowingly complex characters of the show to date. “I loved her. I absolutely loved her,” she says in her smoky drawl. “It was just so big, going from one extreme to another and that kind of perversity…” Loosely taking its references from Tod Browning’s cult 1932 film Freaks, the plot places her at the helm one of America’s last remaining freak shows in 1950s Florida, just before the advent of television would wipe out the entire culture of travelling circuses. When Elsa isn’t collecting “her monsters” (including a three-breasted lady, a conjoined twin and a lobster boy whose deformed hands send women into uncontrollable orgasms), she’s belting out renditions of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and “Gods and Monsters”, Lana Del Rey’s tainted tale of innocence lost. (Yes, the anachronisms are deliberate.) “When they first told me, I was like, ‘Wow, OK’,” admits Lange, who’s never sung on screen before. “Eventually I just thought, ‘Fuck it.’ I’m going to try this because it is so outside of my comfort zone.” Hours of watching Bowie’s entrancing videos from the 1970s resulted in her unflinchingly surreal performance, something exaggerated by her look: the same powder-blue suit and eye-shadow as seen in the video for his 1971 single. The performances have racked up four million views between them online, an astonishing feat that prompted showrunner Ryan Murphy to release them on iTunes.
Her final season also resonated on a personal level. “I’ve been fascinated by circuses and travelling carnivals for most of my life,” says Lange, going on to detail the time she spent during the 1960s making a documentary on a gypsy community in Europe. She followed them for months on end, darting round on the back of a motorbike with her then-partner, photographer Paco Grande, and living with them in the mountains of southern Spain. It’s this curiosity that inspired her to begin documenting the world on camera, resulting in her first photo book, 50 Photographs, which features an introduction by her friend Patti Smith. “I love being the anonymous observer,” she explains. “In a way it complements acting, because you have to be so there – so absolutely available and present, but still living in the imagination. There’s a strange connection between the two.” Photography’s power to acknowledge those outcast from society has shaped Lange’s own work, from Diane Arbus to Walker Evans’ portrayal of those suffering at the hands of the Great Depression.
In fact, Lange spent much of her career drawn to outsiders. “They are always the ones I find most interesting, especially in my acting. It’s always been the people just teetering on the edge.” And if you look at the key roles that have punctuated her career, like neurotic seductress Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), or eccentric fallen socialite Big Edie in Grey Gardens (2009), you’ll understand the connection. Lange has never been afraid to surrender herself to the roles involving women in a state of psychological turmoil.
In person, Lange is instantly alluring, commanding the room with an intoxicating magnetism. It’s this same spirit that caught the attention of Marc Jacobs, who cast her, aged 64, in his first beauty campaign: a surreal, David Sims-directed film of her reciting the words to The Wizard of Oz’s “Over the Rainbow”. For Jacobs, it was time to showcase Lange the woman, and not just the actress. “I find her voice almost narcotic,” he explains. “There’s this edge of melancholy and darkness which I find so beautifully inspiring. What we really wanted from her was for her to be herself.” For Lange, it was a great compliment to hailed by Jacobs as a beauty icon – but the best thing about him? “He smokes! He’s one of the few people I can actually sit with and smoke. I adore him.”
“For me, the most interesting part of a character is their sensuality. I can still play a very sensual, very sexual character at this point in my life” – Jessica Lange
After spending an hour with Lange, you begin to get a sense of the restless character that left behind her small-town Minnesota roots to discover the world in her early 20s. “It was a time where you could really just live out of the back of a van for years on end,” she remembers. “(Paco and I) just went around America, going wherever caught our imagination at any given moment. I remember we hit San Francisco during the period of Haight-Ashbury in the mid-60s and discovered the music scene, the drugs, the communes – that was exciting! Then we arrived in Paris in the May of ’68 and the whole city was burning. The streets were torn up and the civil guards were out in their riot gear. I mean, it was thrilling! All of the demonstrations and the revolution. It was wonderful to be absolutely free and impulsive. Sometimes I worry about kids today who have this pressure to achieve so early in life. We were the opposite. We wanted nothing. We weren’t in the business of preservation.”
By 1969, Lange arrived in New York and it was here, during the birth of SoHo, that she witnessed a new wave of creatives marking out their territory. “It was truly life-changing, but my God, there was nothing but flop-houses, missions and bars,” she recalls. “We lived in one of the first converted flop-houses on the Bowery and literally had to step over drunks to get into our building. I mean, there was one who just lived in our entryway for years. And you would follow some of them – you’d recognise how fast they were going downhill, or (see someone) who died down the street. There was this one couple that really fascinated me. They were fucked up, oh my God, but they had this sort of intense relationship. It was fascinating, but so tragic to see humanity at rock bottom. Then of course there were the junkies, too – there were so many drugs on the street and a lot of people succumbed to it.”
During this period, she discovered New York’s experimental theatre scene, something that ignited her passion for acting. An encounter with a modern dancer from the Merce Cunningham company led her to meet the French mime master, Étienne Decroux, who she would later go on to study under for three years in Paris. “Everything was underground,” she says. “I knew a lot of the great photographers – Danny Lyon, Larry Clark, Robert Frank – and we did some movies together. It was a thrilling time, but you literally couldn’t buy groceries anywhere! Today when I walk through the Bowery I can’t help but laugh at how much it has changed.”
Despite the longevity of Lange’s career, the reality for women in cinema is still shocking. One recent study of films made between 2010 and 2013 found that only 23 per cent featured a female protagonist, while 29 per cent of all speaking roles were given to women. “There’s always this dialogue about how things have become better – that there have been advancements – but the truth is no,” she says. “It’s still a very male-dominated, male-orientated industry.” Even so, Lange’s roles have fearlessly addressed social taboos, from the wife of a transitioning husband in Normal (2003) to the unstable mother of a clinically depressed teenager in Prozac Nation (2001). It’s all the more ironic that her entrance into Hollywood came as the blonde bombshell that made King Kong roar in the 1976 remake of the monster-movie classic. It may not have been an intellectually demanding role, but Lange’s charisma was unmistakable.
“For me, the most interesting part of a character is their sensuality,” she says. “I can still play a very sensual, very sexual character at this point in my life. I haven’t been completely written off! The characters Ryan Murphy made for me are vital and have a very interesting relationship with the sexual world. You don’t see that very often for women in their 50s – certainly not for women in their 60s.” Goldie Hawn famously said that “there are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy”, and Lange has never been much interested in the last of those. Being a sex symbol on your own terms isn’t a title you give up easily.
Despite recently turning 66, Lange isn’t ready to start slowing down. She’s in the process of finalising a couple of major hush-hush projects which, if past form is anything to go by, will shock and seduce us in equal measure. But for now, she has more pressing concerns. “Maybe I should take my eyelashes off, since I’m going out into the real world?” she asks, smiling, having just wrapped on today’s shoot. Lange doesn’t need the augmentation. As she steps out on to the streets of Red Hook – one of the few remaining areas of Brooklyn untouched by gentrification – she becomes lost in the landscape. And then she’s gone, taking all of her secrets with her.
Jessica wears rollneck by Balenciaga in cover image; hair Domingo Quintero at Jed Root; make-up Fulvia Farolfi at Bryan Bantry; styling assistant Nicholas Centofanti; make-up assistant Robert Reyes
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