There’s something captivating about Jessica Lange. The Academy Award-winning actress took last year’s awards season by storm, scooping up a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, a Primetime Emmy, a Satellite Award, and a Television Critics Association Award in recognition of her work as Constance Langdon in the hit FX series, American Horror Story. And while some might argue that American Horror Story: Asylum isn’t as strong as the previous installment of the series, I think we can all agree that the one person that keeps the audience coming back for more is Lange. Watching her play Sister Jude this season has been pure bliss and has already garnered the talented actress nominations for both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her portrayal of the strict, no-nonsense nun.
It’s the unraveling of Sister Jude that has produced some of the best moments of the season. Episode three, “Nor’easter,” featured a drunk, rambling, and stumbling Jude introducing a movie for the Briarcliff patients and showcased Lange at the top of her game. The most recent episode, “The Coat Hanger,” finds Jude being accused of murdering Frank, the Briarcliff guard, and is now a lifetime member of the asylum she was once in charge of. The episode also highlighted a newfound comradeship with her former patient Lana (Sarah Paulson) is sure to keep the audience on their toes.
Recently, Lange took part in a Q & A session with various media outlets to discuss American Horror Story: Asylum. She spoke of the differences between her characters Constance Langdon and Sister Jude, what she thinks of being the fan-favorite of the show, and if a third installment of American Horror Story is in her future.
I was wondering if you could talk about the process you go through as an actress. You switched from such memorable characters as Big Edie to Constance to Sister Jude, what’s the process you go through?
It depends. I work differently on all of them, but recently, I’ve been trying to work in a very immediate fashion, so that I’m relying much more now on just pure imagination that comes up in a moment, and I just follow through rather than trying to plan anything or design anything. And I think that’s the biggest difference.
With fictional characters, you really rise and fall on the strength of your imagination, I think. With somebody like Big Edie, of course, I had a wealth of resource material to draw from. But the thing that I’ve been working on more and more lately is finding the character through the voice, and sometimes I would work on finding it through the emotional core, which is still the main element I work in, but the external instead of finding it through movement or body or whatever. Now, I try to find it through voice. And it’s been very interesting, because with Big Edie, every day I’d come to the set, I would listen to her voice, I would put on the DVD of Grey Gardens and not look at the image, but just hear the voice, and as soon as I found that voice, I could drop into the character.
Now, with Sister Jude this year I’ve also found a voice, that as soon as it’s there and present, I feel like I think into the character. And I’ve done something with the voice as it’s gone along, that it’s been changing as we go down this rabbit hole. So, that’s the process, I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but that’s kind of how I find that I’m working now. I mean, strictly through the imagination and then looking for the character, trying to find the character mostly through the voice.
I’m really interested in the difference between your character from season one, Constance very much seemed to the puppet master, but in season two, Jude is fast becoming our very complex hero as the season develops. How different are Jude’s intentions to Constance’s, and what did you really want to bring to Jude that you may not have been able to do with Constance?
I think “puppet master” is a very good description of Constance. The thing that I found, kind of the spine of the character of Constance, was that this was a woman who had basically lost everything and had nothing left to lose and also was extremely, what can I say, unafraid, so she just manipulated her way and put herself in situations that probably other people would not have.
With Jude, she had a lot to lose because she’s holding on to something that she feels has saved her life and redeemed her, and then when it all becomes clear that everything was false, from the idea that she did not run over and kill this child, which is what sent her on this whole path, trying to find some kind of life, some redemption, some spiritual life, that when she discovers everything is false from the beginning there’s a descent into madness that is completely different and for me much more interesting to play.
I thought Constance was a wonderful character; she was kind of a throwback to the ‘40s, kind of a tough dame, sweet talking, but with a real edge. She did not suffer fools, nothing went past her, she had a way of moving through everything and getting what she wanted.
[Jude] is much more vulnerable and I think in some way tragic. She’s destroyed her life. She’s an addict. She’s an alcoholic. She’s had bad luck with men, a lot of bad men in her life. And she’s come to the end of the road with the hopes that this church, that this man, the Monsignor, is going to save her, that she’ll become something else, that she’ll make her life worth living. And of course that all comes down, crashing, and she’s left absolutely alone, completely and totally alone, and those are two things I love playing because you also find them in Williams’ characters, the thing of aloneness, the idea of being completely alone in the world and couple that with madness and it’s a really potent combination to play.
Is there ever a time when something is sent your way in the course of these shows that is just too much for you, or are you the one that’s egging Ryan Murphy and company along? Do you want more challenges in your American Horror Story tenure?
Well, there are times when I’ve said, “I think this is too much,” but that’s not been too often because they tend to write for me less action and I don’t know, maybe more psychological. But that’s been better. I wouldn’t really know how to do a lot of the really intense action scenes, so I have a few of those, but not many. I think there was a leap of faith on my part just thinking, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.” And I think as an actor, you have to trust, you have to believe that somebody is taking care of you or watching your back, because with a part like this, especially and where we’re going with it, I can’t pull any punches, I can’t do it halfway, especially when you’re dealing with madness and this descent into madness, and I really felt like, “Okay, I’m going to embrace this 100% and hopefully somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself.
And 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, or I want to play a lounge singer from the ‘40s, so somehow it’s a give and take situation and then I end up doing things where I say, “Okay, I’ve done two, I will not do any more. This is enough. I don’t enjoy this. This is not my character.” So, that’s really how we work really. I’ve never worked this way before where 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. I do have more input, but then there are, of course, limitations within the structure of the whole story and the trajectory of where it’s going. But, it’s been interesting. It’s been an interesting challenge.
One of the things that Ryan does for you on this show is surround you with great actors- Sarah Paulson, Ian McShane, and James Cromwell, and I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about that, about getting to work with so many actors throughout the course of this series, and if you can talk specifically about a scene where maybe it felt great to be working with somebody.
Yes, I think the acting has been really amazing this year. A lot of the actors came back from last year, and it’s wonderful. I think what Ryan had in mind is 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.
One of my favorite actors that I worked with in these episodes last year and this year is Frances Conroy. There’s just something in her, I don’t know, when we’re on screen together, something happens.
I think one of my favorite scenes that I’ve played this year is the scene from, I guess it was episode seven, in the diner when she’s come for me as the Angel of Death. I don’t know, there’s almost a connection that you can’t really describe. But certain actors I think just find something when they’re working together, and that’s how I felt in these scenes with Franny. But every actor that I’ve worked with on this, I mean, James, Sarah, and Lily and Ian, it’s just a pleasure to work with them. And even actors who come in for just a day’s work have been amazing and have really brought something and make your work better.
With Sister Jude starting off as the villain, so to speak, and now becoming the hero of the story, did you know that this was the arc she would take?
Really, no, because this thing kind of has a life of its own. It’s like a river, it moves one direction and then in continues that way and then it shifts direction. 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 have to say, I kind of understood that we would be dealing with this kind of descent into hell, but I did not know really that Jude would rise to the top of this in a way, so no.
And in a way, that’s what makes it interesting to play, because usually you get a script and you have all the story, all the acts are there for a play, you know what happens in the first, second, and third act, and you know how it starts, you know where you go and where it finishes, and with this, it’s a whole new experience.
I don’t know where it’s going. It’s kind of like life; you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And it’s been an interesting way to work. It’s made me work in a much more fluid, I think, in a braver 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 great, powerful exercise in working just in the moment, from this moment to the next moment. And I actually think that it’s made me a better actor, in a way, because of not being able to go into something predetermined.
I think in the first season the scares were certainly slightly more supernatural and this one, it’s more real and far more bloody. What effect do you think that has on the audience for American Horror Story? How are the scares different this time around?
I think it’s darker. I think the whole story is darker this time. It deals, I think, on a much darker psychological level. You’ve got human experiments. I think in some way last season was a ghost story, and this season it really is the darker parts of the human psyche that Ryan is exploring. I think the effect is that it’s hard to watch. I hear that from people a lot. “I can’t watch it, it’s too horrifying,” or whatever. I don’t know, I think you have to strike a balance.
I think this season became darker than anybody anticipated, just because of the subject areas that they laid out in the beginning, I mean, the thing with the ex-Nazi SS doctor and human experiments, and the serial killer based on this character Ed Gein. Yes, the warehousing of human beings in these institutions, madness, I mean, yes, there’s a lot of subjects that they’re covering, the Catholic Church, that lend themselves to great horror stories.
I was wondering if you could talk about the fact that you’ve really become a fan favorite and this show seems to have, throughout two seasons, opened up a whole new audience for you, a whole new energy to what you’re doing. What’s the reaction been like, and what do you make of it?
Well, I don’t follow that side of it too much. I understand that there’s a demographic that otherwise probably wouldn’t know my work. 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, maybe even 15 years ago.
So, I understand that this has given me a whole new exposure that probably I wouldn’t have had otherwise, because the kind of films that I do, I don’t do big studio films that gross $100 million or whatever, I’ve mostly done small, independent movies, and that has a very limited audience. So, this is a greater audience I’ve probably had for a long, long time, and also the demographic is much younger, so that’s all good, I guess. I don’t know ultimately what that means, but yet, I’m glad people are looking at the work. I’ve very grateful for that.
How much has Ryan Murphy told you about season 3, and what about that attracted you to stick with the show for another year?
Well, we haven’t really talked about it took much, and all that stuff is still under discussion. I think I will try it again, depending on what the story is and who the character is and all of that, so we’ll see what happens.
What would be something different that you would want to play, what would make it so that you want to sign on and continue to work with American Horror Story?
I don’t know yet. I haven’t really thought it through. When we started talking about season 2, I had very clear ideas of what I wanted to play. I had never played an alcoholic before. I wanted to play a great drunk scene. I remember I asked Ryan for that. I wanted to play somebody who was really down and out, and also the whole area of madness. So those were things that I specifically had in mind when we talked about Sister Jude. For next year, you know, I’m just exhausted from this whole experience. And this season, it seems like it’s gone on forever, and I really don’t have a thought about next season yet.
Are there any circumstances in which you wouldn’t return for next year once you heard what the concept is?
Well, not that I can imagine at this point, because Ryan is very collaborative. So, 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.” Sometimes from episode to episode, I think, “Oh my God, what the hell are we doing? We shouldn’t be doing this.” And yet, the thing that always amazes me is nothing that we do in this show really is not somehow founded in reality somewhere. Like this whole thing with the character of Bloody Face. I was reading about Ed Gein not too long ago, how he actually wore his victim’s skin, so it’s like whatever is imagined in this show, there’s nothing that has not happened somewhere in the world at some point. So I think unless we really sink the ship, I can’t imagine that there would be something that Ryan came up with that I would not want to be involved with.
American Horror Story: Asylum returns Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 10 p.m. on FX.
Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX