'Feud's' Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange Reveal How They Channeled Bette Davis, Joan Crawford
The stars of Ryan Murphy's latest anthology also shared how they think ageism and sexism have endured and changed in Hollywood.
More than 14 months ago, FX gathered a group of journalists and entertainment industry insiders in New York to toast Ryan Murphy's latest anthology series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Now, just weeks away from the launch of Feud, FX invited members of the New York media and entertainment community to view the first two episodes and celebrate Murphy's new series in much the same way.
The eight-episode Feud, which is set to premiere March 5, explores the decades-long rivalry between screen legends Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), specifically as it played out during and after their 1962 movie together, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter at Feud's post-screening dinner at Manhattan's Monkey Bar restaurant on Monday night, both Sarandon and Lange said they researched Davis and Crawford extensively, reading "every book" about each of the Hollywood icons, watching their movies and studying the voices and appearances of their respective actress. And they both revealed it took some work to find their takes on their characters.
Sarandon admitted she was nervous about getting Davis right.
"I spent the first five weeks completely overwhelmed and terrified," she said. "Eventually the fear-fun ratio started to go in my favor. She's so big and she really was so big, so I tried not to make her a caricature or someone a female impersonator would do. She's been done so much. That was my fear, that she would just be kind of one-dimensional."
Sarandon even had a dialect coach record all of her lines so she could get used to the "alien rhythm," as she said it seemed to her, of the way Davis spoke.
Lange, meanwhile, found the heart of Crawford when she learned about the Hollywood star's past as Lucille LeSueur "with a really brutal childhood."
"That suddenly informed my performance, completely, that there was this wonderful, fabricated, beautiful, impenetrable veneer of this great, gorgeous movie star. But always right under the surface was this wretched child, Lucille LeSueur," Lange explained. "So it suddenly presented itself as this kind of wonderful, really informative way of approaching her. Then it became emotional. Everything she did. Everything she said. … She had this great quote about being Joan Crawford: 'When I go out people want to see Joan Crawford. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.' So she was always on, which is a tremendous burden in and of itself, but always there was this thing lurking underneath of being this poverty-stricken, abused, unloved, abandoned young child and woman. So that's what informed the performance."
Despite its early '60s setting, Feud explores issues of sexism, ageism and misogyny in Hollywood that Murphy became all too aware of as he launched his Half foundation, which aims to increase the number of women working behind the camera.
"I met with a lot of women and I got to sit with hundreds of women in Hollywood and I got to say, 'What can I do better? What can we do better?' So in a weird way, I got to channel all of that stuff into Feud because we were writing it at the time I was forming the Half foundation," Murphy said as he addressed the dinner crowd in New York. "So Feud in many ways is about sexism. It's about misogyny. It's about answering the question of, 'Why in our culture is there an It Girl but not an It Boy?' It's about answering the question of, 'Why do women not make as much as men?' It's about ageism. But it's also about handbag envy, because I wanted to do something fun."
Getting serious again, though, Murphy said he was proud that the series features 15 roles for women over 40. One of those roles is Sarandon's portrayal of Davis, something she said Murphy first approached her about years ago, wanting to make Feud as a movie.
"It just felt like it didn't have a context, just being bitchy and kind of funny, but what else? In expanding it to eight hours, you could get more complexity and so many other characters," Sarandon said of the movie to TV series transition, adding that she thinks the small screen has more big, interesting parts for women compared to the film world.
"I think the machine of Hollywood hasn't necessarily made an effort to find stories for older women," the actress said, pointing out that the Housewives franchise is just one example of the way in which women are still pitted against one another to create drama.
"In our story, it was a fact that [the people behind Baby Jane] encouraged the animosity [between Crawford and Davis], first of all to control them, second of all to make what they thought was more onscreen tension, and that really hasn't changed a lot," Sarandon said.
Still, she says she finds encouragement in female producers and comedians who are hiring women, and she thinks women in Hollywood no longer regard each other as rivals, at least in her experience.
"Women who are my age or younger, I think, no longer feel they have to align themselves with male power in order to survive. So I don't see other women as my enemy, and honestly have never come across that," Sarandon said. "Maybe you're jealous that you didn't get an opportunity that someone else did, but I feel that everyone else understands that the business is hard enough without trying to do each other in."
Lange said the ageism themes in Feud particularly resonated with her. "[You're] going along and you're doing work and you're valued and then suddenly because of age, that comes to an end," she said. "It's a huge adjustment to make that you're no longer being offered the roles, that you're no longer considered viable or … you're no longer considered kind of an integral part of the industry."
She added, "Between sexism and ageism, it pretty well destroys women at a certain point. And I don't think it's that different now than it was then. Maybe it's kind of couched in a lot of different things. … The fact is there is a moment where things suddenly shift and the bottom falls out, and I think it has to do with age more than anything."
Other Feud castmembers at Monday night's dinner included Mad Men alum Kiernan Shipka, who plays Davis' daughter B.D. Hyman; Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Olivia de Havilland; and The Americans alum Alison Wright. Executive producer Tim Minear also was in attendance. Additional guests included La La Land director Damien Chazelle, Paul Feig, Martha Stewart, John Stossel, Sutton Foster, Tony Bennett, Gay Talese, Richard E. Grant, Karen Duffy and Real Housewives stars Carole Radziwill and Bethenny Frankel.
The star-studded series, on which Sarandon and Lange also served as producers, additionally features Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell and Sarah Paulson as Geraldine Page.