Jessica Lange is no stranger to playing complicated women, and the miniseries/movie supporting actress contender — she won in 2009 for lead actress in HBO’s Grey Gardens — upped the ante last season in FX’s American Horror Story. The psychologically twisted series earned 17 Emmy nominations and saw Lange steal the show as Constance Langdon, an eccentric neighbor to the Harmon family (her actions included stealing a baby, sleeping with a man young enough to be her son and, oh, raising a serial killer). The anthology nature of the series means that season two, set to bow in October, will feature new characters, a new era (the 1960s) and a new title — American Horror Story: Asylum — with Lange, 63, returning as a mysterious nun.
The Hollywood Reporter: Constance was such a complex character: loving mother, manipulative neighbor and occasional psychopath. How did you approach playing her? Do you think she was a monster?
Jessica Lange: Playing Constance was actually easy. I approached her the same way I approach all the characters I’ve played: What’s the emotional spine of the character? What does it take for her to survive? Where does she tip over the edge, and how does she hang on? So no, I wouldn’t call her a monster. The scenes with her daughter or with her son I found hugely emotional from just a mother’s point of view, especially the death of both of those children.
What was your driving emotional force in maintaining Constance’s strength?
She’s the last man standing. I think she’s one of those iron-willed ladies. I always thought of her as a throwback to another generation of women, survivors really, tough broads, dames — that kind of character that you saw a lot in the ’30s and ’40s. And under this genteel veneer of the Southern accent and the Virginia beauty queen and all that, she really is the only survivor there, so that made it very interesting to play.
The first season included dark storylines involving rape and murder and for co-star Dylan McDermott a lot of nudity. Was there anything you told the writers you wouldn’t do?
My character was really the witness to everything, so I didn’t have to be involved as a protagonist, in a way, to moving the plot forward, which I liked. I didn’t have to murder anybody. I didn’t have to rape anybody. I didn’t have to be raped or murdered, so it was witnessing what was going on and being the record, being the storyteller in a way.
How did playing Constance compare to playing other tortured characters, like 1930s blacklisted actress Frances Farmer? Which was harder to let go after you’d wrapped?
Frances was much harder because when I played her [in the 1982 film], I was young and held onto things. Frances actually haunted me when I was finished shooting that; I really felt that I was still carrying around this character. But I haven’t felt that way for many years with these characters because I think I’m just working in a different way. Plus, it was right before Christmas that we finished, so I went to my cabin in the north woods with my family, and there was no time to think about Constance.
Constance went toe-to-toe with pretty much everyone on the show: Connie Britton’s Vivien, Frances Conroy’s older version of the maid, Moira, McDermott’s Ben and Denis O’Hare’s Larry. Who do you think made the best foil for Constance?
I’d say the older version of Moira. Frances and I found something I thought was very special when we played together. I loved working with her. You find actors where you’re enchanted by what they’re doing and how they’re working, and that’s how it felt with Frances.
When you signed on for the role, were you aware that the series would be an anthology and reboot itself each season?
That was never discussed when we started. I’m not sure when they came to that decision, but I’m grateful for it. I don’t know how they would have sustained that same story over several seasons. One thing that appealed to me was establishing a character over 12 hours. Usually in film, you’ve got two hours to create this character, and I thought that would be interesting to try to sustain. Would I like to still be doing that same character within that same storyline? No. So this was a great boon that they decided to do it this way.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether Horror Story belongs in the miniseries/movie category. Do you see it as a miniseries?
If you think in the terms that it’s not an ongoing story, then yes. We have a start and a finish to the piece, and then after that, those characters are gone. That story is over, and then we start another story. So in that way, I think they were right to consider it a miniseries rather than a dramatic series, because isn’t that what a drama series is? To go on and on and on, year after year, it’s the same characters?
For season two, you’re playing someone who sounds like the complete opposite of Constance: a nun. Show creator Ryan Murphy tweeted recently that she’s both a heroine and a villain. How much does she have in common with Constance?
She’s very different. She’s also a survivor. I’m not even sure where we’re going with her, but there are certain elements of their history that are definitely shared.