Jessica Lange made her triumphant return to “American Horror Story” this season with “Apocalypse,” reprising her role from the show’s very first season, Constance Langdon. She is now nominated for an Emmy in Best Drama Guest Actress, seven years after winning for the role.
Lange recently spoke with Gold Derby editor in chief Tom O’Neil and managing editor Chris Beachum about returning to Constance Langdon with “Apocalypse,” working with Ryan Murphy and her ranking of “American Horror Story” seasons. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby (Tom O’Neil): Jessica, I counted up the number of episodes of “Horror Story” that you’ve been in. It’s more than 56. These are one-hour showcases. That means it’s the equivalent of having shot 30 motion pictures.
Jessica Lange: And it feels like it, yes!
GD (Tom): Did Ryan tell you that this might be what you’re getting into when we wooed you to do this project?
JL: No. Way, way back when I did the first season? No. I had no idea what I was in for. Thinking back on it, the four seasons that I did for “American Horror Story” and the characters, I had the greatest time. It was really hard work and it was incredibly long hours and it was chaos and madness half the time, but there was an energy to it and the four characters that I played, they were exciting. It was fun to do. I was taking something to the limit. I enjoyed it. I did. This last little comeback thing, the return of the first character, even though it was a frantic time, ‘cause I was shooting something else, it was fun to go back and revisit that story and that character.
GD (Tom): Constance is such a complicated character because she is both good and evil. This final season, for example, at one point when she confronts her demon grandchild, Michael, as the antichrist, she threatens himself, throws him at the house, is fearlessly confrontational to him, and other times you’re terrified by him. It’s a physical role. He pins you up against the wall. He shakes you on the sofa. There are times when you’re very good, you call him a priest because you’re worried about his soul and he kills the priest but yet you have a line in Episode 6 where you say, “It has occurred to me I was put on earth to raise monsters,” delighting in it. The character of Constance is so complicated.
JL: When Ryan first called me about that character and about doing the show, it was a very difficult time in my personal life because I had come to the end of a 30-year relationship and I was completely disoriented. Going into that series somehow revitalized me and made me understand that there was a whole way of working that I had never done before, which was really… You never had time to prepare. You never knew where your character was going. You never knew the next scripts, when you were even going to get it. Sometimes you’d only get it the morning when you would start shooting that episode. It forced me to work in a way with complete and total abandon. I found that for that moment in my life, it was exactly what I needed. So I’m forever grateful to Ryan for giving me the opportunity to create that character at that time and so to come back eight years later and revisit her was actually… and I have to say this also, because Ryan knows me so well as an actor, and so do the writers, Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk, they know what I like to do. A death scene or a psychotic breakdown or an emotional breakdown, it’s always exciting and it always forces me into areas that I hate to admit it, but I love to explore. So there you go (laughs).
GD (Tom): Our senior editor, Marcus Dixon, broke down his favorite lines of Constance’s from Episode 6. Here they are. The first one is when you appear at the top of the steps when Billy Porter and Emma [Roberts] show up. You say, “I’m Constance Langdon and this is my fucking house.” There’s another one that you say ‘cause you’re irritated at these people coming into the house: “If you really do have witchcraft at your disposal then why don’t you just abracadabra the goddamn hell out of my house.” There’s another one when they’re trying to get you to tattle on Michael and you say, “I don’t spill a drop of tea for free, kiddos.” You want them to bump off Frances Conroy. And then the best line, which is in the finale, my god, it just gives you a chill as a fan of the series, when you throw Michael out of the house, your demon grandchild and Emma comes back in time and runs him over in a car, he’s in the house so that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to live his spirit forever and he’s trying to coax you into taking him into the house as he dies and you say to the devil spawn, “Go to hell.” Amazing.
JL: (Laughs.) You know, it’s a suspension of reality. That’s what we’re doing with this show. Like I said, it’s all been a great adventure. Constance has the complexity that you were talking about and taking everything to the edge. When I went back to revisit it, I didn’t remember her that well, to tell you the truth, because enough years have passed. I went back and I looked at her and I thought, “You know, they had written a really well-crafted character.” It was very well-written and I don’t even know if I realized it at the time. It holds up. Just listening to those lines again, the writers really created something unique, I think, for me, with that character. Well, with all four of the characters I played. I’m particularly fond of Constance.
Gold Derby (Chris Beachum): I wanted to ask you, now it’s fashionable for film stars, Oscar winners, to do television in the last three or four or five years. A ton of them are nominated, like yourself, at the Emmys this year. But when you did “Streetcar” in ’96, there was a division line between people doing film and people doing television. You’ve had 10 Emmy nominations now including “Streetcar.” Why has that always felt comfortable for you doing television as a medium?
JL: I remember the first time I worked in London onstage and there would be these great stage actors. They would have just come from recording some play or whatever for radio and then they were going to do a television series and then they were going to do a film and then they were going to do another play, something on the West End or at the National. I thought, “That’s how an actor should work.” We shouldn’t be, “You’re a television actor. You’re a film actor. You’re a stage actor.” The English actors just move between all these mediums. It seems so right to me that you should not be confined or pigeonholed or categorized. If you wanted to do a radio drama, that’s what you did in the afternoon before you came to the theater for the evening performance. Particularly with “Streetcar,” there was no possibility whatsoever that we were gonna film it and do it as a movie because first of all, you’d be insane to do it as a film after [Elia] Kazan’s film with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. But I thought the opportunity to actually record it, and the only way we could do it would be for television, was something I never wanted to pass up. After doing the stage production we filmed it for television. It never occurred to me that I was crossing a line into a medium that I was not part of. Now you see it. You see a lot of film actors doing television and vice versa and people moving around. That’s just the way it should be, I think.
GD (Tom): It’s our job professionally, Jessica, to track award winners, award ceremonies, etc. I’m always especially aware of your graciousness in acceptance speeches to remember to thank the writers. Actors don’t do that. It’s so rare. I went through some of your past acceptance speeches at award shows last night. Here’s what you said when you took the Golden Globe in 2012, which was for the first season of “Horror Story.” You said, “I wanna thank the writers because I think it’s rare to find a beautiful piece of writing that gives you something to do.” As I spun through on YouTube, it was just fun to do, your various acceptance speeches, you always singled them out with special gratitude. Chris and I were with you and Susan Sarandon on-set of “Feud” for the filming of the very last scene and as that whole miniseries wrapped up, we watched you haul out to the cast a very thoughtful thing for the whole crew. You brought out an ice cream cart and you stuck around and you helped feed the camera guys ice cream. It’s a level of graciousness and old school thoughtfulness that impressed us a lot.
JL: Oh, well where would be, first of all, without the writers? If you don’t have good writers, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have writers who were writing specifically for me, so I do appreciate them. 1,000% I know how indebted I am to them because everything starts there. I know over the years, there’s that tape that runs in your mind where you get a mediocre script or you’re working with a director that you don’t really have faith in and you keep saying to yourself, “I’ll find a way to make this work. I can find a way to make this work.” And 90% of the time, you can’t because it always starts with the script. It starts with the character. It starts with the writing. It starts with the dialogue. If you don’t have that, you’ve got nothing. Yes, I am acutely aware of how important writers are and I wanna stay on the good side of them.
GD (Tom): Chris and I are acutely aware of how frequently your colleagues are not appreciative of that. Go ahead, Chris.
GD (Chris): I had a couple Broadway questions if you don’t mind. One is you won a Tony for “Long Day’s Journey,” we talked about “Streetcar.” Is there a classic role that you would love to play on Broadway that is out there?
JL: I’ve talked to various producers and directors about doing another production because I would love to be back onstage. The two characters that I was passionate about playing, one was Blanche DuBois, and the other, which was probably my favorite character I’ve ever played in all these long 40 years of doing this, Mary Tyrone. I can’t honestly imagine another character. I’m hoping maybe there will be at some point a new play but there’s also the problem, which we can’t dance around, that I’ve aged out of a lot of characters that maybe I would’ve wanted to play at some point, like Hannah from “Night of the Iguana” or Martha in “Virginia Woolf.” I’m too old to do those parts now. I don’t know. I would love to be back onstage more than anything but there’s nothing that really appeals to me at this point.
GD (Chris): My other Broadway question was, just ‘cause we love hearing about stories about people, “Tootsie” was on Broadway this year. The lead won a Tony Award. Were you able to go see it and if you did, what did you think?
JL: You know, I did not go see it.
GD (Chris): It almost seems like if it was me it would be so hard watching a role that I loved being played by somebody else.
JL: I think it was very well-received, from what I understand, but the truth is I didn’t really have any curiosity about it. I didn’t bother to go see it.
GD (Tom): I wanna have the audacity of ranking my favorite “Horror Story” seasons and I would love to hear your reaction. I think the best of them all is “Asylum.” I think number two is “Freak Show,” number three, “Murder House” and then number four, “Apocalypse.” What do you think of that?
JL: Well, I never saw “Apocalypse” so I don’t know. Of the four that I did, I would put them in exactly the order that you just did, “Asylum” first, “Freak Show” second, “Murder House” third, and then “Coven,” which was the other season that I did in fourth place. But I agree with you. That’s exactly how I would rate them.
GD: I like “Coven” too but I told Ryan this, I don’t think there was enough fighting among the witches. There’s a scene, for example, where you as the Supreme take on the young witches and you think as viewers, “Oh, they’re gonna kill each other, yeah!” And then someone rings the doorbell and you all go to answer the door and everybody forgets about the fight. It’s like, “No, go back and kill each other!”
JL: (Laughs.) It’s funny because actually, I was stunned that year to get the Emmy for that part. But again, the part was very well-written. I didn’t particularly like the whole setup and season and story we were telling. But I don’t know. It was not my favorite. My very favorite, just from the experience of doing it, was “Freak Show.” Although, I think “Asylum” was the better season. But I loved “Freak Show.”
GD (Chris): Just one last question, we talked about Ryan Murphy a couple times. He’s really been the king of television the last decade or more. What about him works? Why is he the king? What does he do that other people aren’t doing?
JL: Ryan has an uncanny sense. It’s the reading of the zeitgeist. It’s that sense of what hasn’t been done but what is going to work at that moment. I don’t know. He’s a rare talent and extremely prescient, in a way, as to what will be successful. I’ll be curious to see how “The Politician” is received because I did a small part in that and we shot that last fall. It’ll be coming out in another month or so. It’s a mysterious thing for me to watch Ryan work but there is some brilliance in the way he reads the zeitgeist, what people want, what people a ready for. I don’t know how he does it. I’ve always been out of step with what’s popular but he has a sixth sense about something like that.
GD (Tom): And you’re smart to trust him, Jessica, because look at these genres you’re working in, not only horror but camp horror and that has two chances to go off the rails. It doesn’t, luckily, because he’s a master. It’s fascinating for us as awards watchers to watch you regularly be honored and win awards for that because people don’t win awards for horror. Kathy Bates won an acting award for “Horror Story.” Of course, she won her Oscar in “Misery” for a horror role, too. You won one of your Oscars for comedy. These things traditionally are not honored. With awards, they don’t have the pretension that Hollywood usually demands in order to get you that chunk of gold at a podium that you guys deserve so often for good work that often goes unrecognized. But you’re fearless and we love that. You just go for it.
JL: Either fearless or stupid, I don’t know which one! Or both.
GD (Tom): You’re playing it right. Thank you so much, good luck.
JL: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. Great to talk to you.