Jessica Lange may be the only person who isn't enjoying her performance on "American Horror Story."
It's not that she doesn't enjoy the work, she says: She just doesn't like to watch herself. The two-time Oscar winner says she's never seen a full episode of the Ryan Murphy-Brad Falchuk hit on FX, except when she attended this season's premiere. Even then, she had to balance her enjoyment of the show with her discomfort in watching herself act on screen.
You can't argue with success. Lange won her second Emmy for the first season of "American Horror Story," after winning her first for HBO's "Grey Gardens" in 2009. More awards seem inevitable: She's nominated for a second Golden Globe this month for her second season on the series, which this time around is called "American Horror Story: Asylum." Lange already won a Globe for the first season.
If voters prefer sympathetic characters, her odds have only improved this time around. In the show's debut season, she played extremely creepy neighbor Constance Langon, who barks at her special-needs daughter and breathes bitterness. In "Asylum," she plays Sister Jude Martin, a former singer who becomes a nun after a drunken car accident. She's soon drawn deeper and deeper into a nightmarish asylum run by the Catholic Church.
We talked with Lange about how to look sane in an insane asylum, what part of her new role she opted not to do anymore, and what Pauline Kael saw in her at the very start of her career.
Congratulations on the Golden Globe nomination. It seems like you're getting any award they can give out lately.
Lange: [Laughs.] The two seasons with these characters have been really surprisingly rewarding, let me put it that way. It's been great.
Are you surprised that people have liked American Horror Story as much as they have?
Yes, I am, actually. I have to admit that I am not a television aficionada. I don't know how it all works. When I got involved in this it really was because Ryan sweet-talked me into doing this, which I think he has a certain talent for. I just kind of jumped in blindly. I had to idea what to expect. So when it became so wildly popular right from the beginning, that surprised me, and then when the performance got the kind of attention it did, that surprised me. And now it's repeating a second year is equally surprising. I really didn't know what to expect going into this. But it has been quite wonderful.
You've said you'll be back for season three. Any idea what's planned?
There's been loose talk about what it could be, but I don't think anything is decided yet.
It doesn't seem like there are a lot of places where the show can go that would be scarier than an asylum.
I think what they hit on this year — in terms of scenes and threads that they could follow — was much richer than the first season. Just because you were dealing with such huge subjects: the Catholic Church, psychiatric institutions, psychiatric treatment, madness, the warehousing of people, Nazis, aliens. They covered a lot of ground this year. I don't know how they're going to top it next year. [Laughs.] Ryan's amazing that way. He definitely finds something that he can pursue for that length of time and still find the novelty and the interest in it.
How do you keep your character grounded in that world, when there's so much craziness going on around you?
I have to say, most of it's in the writing. They give me these scenes to play and as long as I can find the truth in what they've written, which I almost always do, then they're not difficult. There are times when I get to the set and… it's kind of like, 'Oh God. I just don't want to walk on that soundstage and that big old asylum set when it's so dark and grim.'
I have to credit the writers. They have done an amazing job, both seasons for me, in giving me really complete characters to flesh out. Practically every scene that I've been given this year has given me something to play, and I appreciate that a lot. There's nothing that bores me faster as an actor than having nothing to do. And they just seem to come up with episode after episode and scene after scene of something really rich and deep and crazy. I like the madness of it, I have to say. I enjoyed this year even though it was, I think, darker than anybody really anticipated. I think it took a turn that no one really saw coming.
The writers really seem to be writing for you. You said that you wanted to play drunk and sing, and they had you do both things. Did you ask that Sister Jude be more likeable than Constance was in the first season?
No, I think, halfway through they — because I never know for sure if they have determined all of this before they sit down and start writing — my feeling is that all of this evolves as they're going along. So I think somewhere along the lines or maybe before they determined that this character kind of becomes the hero of the story in a way. And that was something I had no idea was coming.
It's curious that you say she's more likeable than Constance. I don’t know. I can't tell when I'm playing these characters how they're coming off. I know that there's a vulnerability that maybe wasn’t there last year. Just because of the incipient madness and her circumstances.
Have they asked you to do anything that made you say, 'That's too terrible or too crazy, I'm really uncomfortable doing that'?
Both of these seasons, my character has kind of avoided the terrible violence. In both situations they give me more of the emotional violence rather than the physical violence. I did say after I think the second caning scene, 'OK, I think we've done this. I'm not doing this anymore, so…' That's fine, and they respect that, and they don't write another scene. That's about the only thing I've said to them. I think we've done it. We don't need to keep dwelling on this.
I recently looked back and was surprised to see that your first film, "King Kong," didn't get the best reviews. But then six years later you were nominated for two Oscars in the same year, for "Tootsie" and "Frances," and won for "Tootsie." Was that reassuring, after the "King Kong" reception?
It's interesting because there were some great reviews for it. I think overall it was thought of less seriously than I had anticipated. I don't know what I expected. But I remember, for instance, Pauline Kael wrote a great review of the piece and of me. It wasn't just across the board. But it was disappointing in a way. I was disappointed that I didn't start off in something more serious or more regarded as a serious piece of work.
Because I always knew sooner or later it would turn around, and it did. There was "Tootsie" and "Frances." But really it kind of started to turn around I think with [1981's "The Postman Always Rings Twice"]. It was great. It's wonderful to be recognized, especially coming off of several years of not being taken seriously. … It was a great feeling to be regarded as a serious actor.
Did it make you feel like maybe critics aren't always right?
Well, I've always thought that. Not just in my case but across the board. Sometimes I see reviews of things that are just out of this world, and I think, 'Wow, what did I just see?' because I don't feel that way. And vice versa.