Jessica Lange Breaks Down Her Career, from King Kong to American Horror Story | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

– It's a very violent scene

We were rehearsing

It's hysterical and I'm kind of screaming

There was this pounding on the door

and some neighbor had heard
us and called the police

We looked out the window,
we were scared to death

A cop car, two cop cars had pulled up

I thought, this is the
power of that thing

[upbeat piano music]

You put me down!

Put me down

King Kong is my first IMDB credit

I was taking acting classes in New York,

I was working as a waitress
at The Lion's Head

I had gone to see a
modeling agent in hopes that

maybe I could supplement
my waitress income,

but I was never very
successful at modeling,

but the woman there, the agent,

knew that I was serious about acting

When she was contacted by De
Launrentiis, she thought of me

I arrived in LA and suddenly,

I'm driving through the gates of MGM,

which was my childhood studio

Everything about MGM fascinated me

They took one look at me and
they weren't interested at all,

completely not the type
he was looking for,

but since they had flown me out there,

they agreed to at least put me on camera

I think the second AD showed
up to just say roll it

I did the scene and then he asked me

if I'd like to do another
one, so I did another one

Then he said, why don't
you just wait a bit?

Pretty soon, then the
AD came on the set and

he ran a few takes and then they called

the director to come

Then the director showed up
and I did a few more scenes

and then they called the producer

De Launrentiis came to the set and

by the time I left that
afternoon, I had the part

It was one of those crazy,
hard to believe stories,

but that's how it happened

I think because I was so inexperienced

and it was the first time
I was in front of cameras,

it didn't seem bizarre to me that

I was sitting in some big hydraulic hand

and playing scenes to blue
screen or green screen

At that point, it was better
than being a waitress

That's all I could keep thinking is,

this is a little more interesting

than going to The Lion's Head every night

Not too much,

[woman laughs]

but a little bit

– [Man] Now that's what I
call a real drinker's nose

– And you should know because you're

a real drinker, aren't you Joe?

– Yeah

– Also heavy into speed, aren't you?

– Yeah

– Also sleep with a great many women

– [Man] Real turn-off, huh?

– Just the opposite

– Bob Fosse directed All That Jazz

Bobby was a really dear friend

and he actually recognized
something of my talent

that nobody else did at that time,

or very few people because
after doing King Kong,

it was kind of just like she's not really

an actress or whatever

There wasn't much to take
away from that experience,

but Bobby, he really wanted me to work

and he wanted to create
this character for me

He was shooting All That Jazz and

had been shooting a long time

I think they were way over
budget and over schedule

'cause my scenes as the angel of death

were to come at the very end
of the shooting schedule

They told him that they
were gonna shut down

and he really, really went to bat to

get those scenes that I was in shot

He was just a really dear friend,

very loyal and fiercely supportive

That was basically my
second part, my second role

Everybody was fabulous,

Roy Scheider and all the
actors that were in it

I'm the only character in it
that doesn't sing or dance

I thought, not that I could sing

I could dance a little,

but I certainly couldn't
sing, but I thought,

this is an odd character in the midst

of this whole kind of
musical meilleur to be,

but I understood what he was going for

It was classic Bobby, wasn't it?

A beautiful young woman
comes to gather you up

when your time is done

The Postman Always Rings Twice

[woman crying]

Say you won't leave me, please

The idea that I was a
newcomer and suddenly,

I was being directed by a great
director like Bob Rafelson

and working with this
extraordinary actor Jack Nicholson

It did a lot just for
my whole way of seeing

and thinking of myself as an actor

Both of them were so
incredibly generous to me

for all of that

As you can imagine, working
with Jack is a lot of fun

We had a great time doing it

Thinking back on that time,

it was like something there really

opened up for me as an actor

It was the first time I had been given

the kind of part that felt like

maybe I was a dramatic actress and that

this was something I could
pursue and want to pursue

You were gonna leave me

What are you, writing me a thank you note?

I learned a lot from watching Jack work

because he always had a sense of camera

that was kind of uncanny

It wasn't the kind of acting that

I had studied in acting class, obviously

That was something new to me,

that it was specific for the camera

how you created your performance

I'd never even thought in
those terms really before

It's a classic story, James M Cain

His stories were always
sex and death and opera

I would've been insane
not to do that part

There would've been no reason
in hell not to take that role

I think more than anything,

it was the beginning of the way I work

It was the beginning of finding the

emotional life and working from there

You gotta go back there
and tell them to let me out

'cause I'm ready to get out now,

so you go back in there and you tell them

that you're gonna let me out of here!

– Frances, I'm warning you

– No, I'm warning you!

Graham Clifford was the editor of

Postman Always Rings Twice

and when he decided to direct the film,

he thought immediately of
asking me to play Frances,

which is interesting because years before

when I was taking acting
classes in New York

with Warren Robertson,

Warren Robertson gave me the book

Will There Really be a Morning,

which was Frances'
autobiography, and said,

you should find some scenes
in here to do for class

'cause this was scene study class

I did, I found some excerpts
of things to do in class

and a couple years later,

this movie comes to me of Frances Farmer

I didn't have to think
twice about doing it

I knew I could do it and that

it would change my life
doing it, and it kind of did

Suddenly, I was considered
really for the first time

a real actress

I wanted to do it 'cause
I knew it would be

one of the greatest roles I'd ever play

and the idea of exploring madness

is something that has
always fascinated me,

that idea of somebody who
is living on the edge,

and the relationship with the mother

and the fact that after I
talked to Graham about it,

he said, I'd like to offer
this part to Kim Stanley

Kim Stanley has always been, to me,

the greatest actress ever

There's nobody that
compares to Kim Stanley,

so the idea that I could play this role

with this actress and tell this story,

it was like a gift from the gods

It turned out that way, really

It was

– [Announcer] For her riveting
portrayal of the beautiful,

but tortured actress,

a star with a comet that
burned out too soon,

Jessica Lange in Frances

[audience claps]

– You're always yourself
and I'm grateful for you,

but I just can't see you anymore

No

I work in a very similar
way that Kim worked

There was no protective coating

It was wild and it was raw and the

crazier it was, the better it
was, especially for this part

I think Kim recognized that

She said to me, the best thing you can do

is do a comedy next

Out of the blue, I got a
call from Sydney Pollack

and Dustin Hoffman and there was Tootsie

It was an extraordinary
time, Frances and Tootsie

It was a banner year

It was a good year, it was
a really, really good year

I won an Oscar for Tootsie
and a couple years later,

I won an Oscar for Blue Sky

It just validated the fact that

people recognized that I could
do it, that I did a good job

The script was brilliant

It was funny, it was smart, it
was an extraordinary vehicle

for Dusty and I give Sydney Pollack

total credit for creating that role

He really saw something in
it and brought it forward

It's funny, and it's touching

Again, I think Sydney
Pollack is one of the

genius directors

I was so lucky to be able
to work with him on that

Sometimes I'm watching television at night

and it comes on and that scene,

it just plays so beautifully and the

way he let the camera
follow us as we walked away

It says everything
about that relationship

It's hopeful and it's
sweet and it's tender

Stop!

– Yes Leigh?

– Listen to me Max

Listen to me

You know Max, since all this started,

I thought about you all the time

I've tried to imagine what it must've

been like for you all those
years locked up in jail

First of all, that was
one of those moments where

when I was talking to Marty and

he came to see me about doing this part

I thought, this is a done deal

I'm gonna work with Martin Scorsese

at least once in my career

I wanna work with this brilliant man

I loved working with Marty because

he has an enthusiasm
that's almost childlike

His love of film and the
process is so contagious

I'm sorry that I've only had one

opportunity to work with him

The scene where my character
that I played, Leigh,

is trying to bargain to
not abuse her daughter,

to not assault her daughter,
but to take her instead,

begging him to leave her daughter alone

I want you to do it just
with me, not with her,

because we have this connection

That's one of those scenes where you

do your homework and you've got the lines,

you know what is expected,

but something then explodes
in the moment of doing it

For me, that's always the thrill of acting

where you don't set things ahead of time

With that scene, it really
was some kind of explosion

It's so emotionally powerful that it

kind of sweeps you along with it

I loved that scene, I
loved playing that scene

It was a great project, it was

I really enjoyed doing it

I wish the opportunity to do something

like that would come up again

– Dance the waltz!

How can you resist it?

[woman coughs]

How can you resist that?

– The director Michael Susi
again asked me to do it

and of course I didn't
give it a second thought

Big Edie, are you kidding?

The way he had designed the story that

we would actually go back and
tell some of the early stuff

to portray their early lives because

as you know in that brilliant documentary,

you're just in the house with these women

in this period of time at the end,

but Michael's script
takes us through those

previous years to kind of
see how this all came about

I remember working with my singing coach

and we were getting ready
to prerecord Tea For Two

and he said, I don't know,

do you wanna do anything
different with it?

I thought, oh no, no

I wanna do it beat by
beat, breath by breath,

exactly as she did it because you could

never in a million years improve

on Big Edie's singing Tea For Two

The way I found into
her character every day

was listening to her voice

I would come into the
trailer in the morning

and I would put on the DVD

It was an interesting process because

I would hear her voice
and I would listen to it,

and I would listen to it,
and I would listen to it,

and then suddenly I'd feel as though

something had settled down
and that I had the character

I loved her

She's one of those characters

You can look back in
your whole cannon of work

and you can say, there were characters I

really fell in love with

Frances Farmer obviously, Patsy Cline,

Blanche DuBois, Mary Tyrone, Edith Beale,

there are some that you just,

they mean so much to you and you just

hold them in your heart

I loved everything about it except

the four hours in the makeup
trailer in the makeup chair,

starting at 5AM

– Do they work?

– You'll see

Tonight, I'm gonna let the whole world in,

get a good look at me

Who's the baddest witch now?

I was up at my farm Upstate New York

and the phone rang and
he introduced himself

and I had head of Ryan
Murphy, but I didn't know him

I'd never met him in person and I

wasn't familiar with his work, really,

but I just loved his
energy and his enthusiasm

right from the beginning

It didn't take much to talk me into it

He's heard me say this before,

but if Ryan wants something from you,

he knows exactly how to get it

He spun this story of the first season

of American Horror Story and I thought,

I'm sitting up here at the farm

Why not do it, why not do it?

I always wanted to do a
psychological thriller

It didn't end up exactly of that genre,

but that's what he originally promised me

[woman laughs]

I loved working with Ryan

I loved his imagination
and he had great writers

writing this stuff specifically for me

It is a very special way of working

when you know the writers
understand who you are,

your voice, what you like to
do, the emotional content,

and what you're willing to do,

and they're crafting it
specifically for you

I'm still a little bit caught off guard

when people in obscure places will

suddenly recognize me and I realize

that's the power of television

It is there and they have a
sense of familiarity with you

that they wouldn't have from film

For me, it was the last season that I did,

the fourth season, Freak Show

I loved the character of Elsa

The set outside of New Orleans and this

field and all the
carnival equipment set up

and the tents and the seediness of it

It was like a poem to me

It was so beautiful

The fact that I got to sing David Bowie,

[woman laughs]

it was a great season

♪ Sailors fighting in the dance hall ♪

♪ Oh man, look at those cavemen go ♪

I'm not a singer so it
was very kind of them

to entrust these musical numbers to me

I worked really hard at it,
but I'm not a natural singer

It was fun, it was great fun to try

You win the election,
what do we get out of it?

She really loves boats,

specifically those
Disney-themed cruises, right?

Ryan at his most seductive and convincing,

calling me up and I
know he wants something

I'm not exactly sure
what this is gonna be,

but the idea that it was a comedy,

I think that made all
the difference because

I'd done four seasons of
American Horror Story with him

and then Betty and Joe,

but this was going to be a dark comedy

and I thought, I wanna try that

In all my long, many years acting,

I've only done two comedies,
Tootsie and then this one,

so I thought, let me try this

The part is so outrageous
and she is a monster,

and she's selfish, and
ignorant, willfully ignorant,

and what she does is
inexcusable and criminal,

but it's also in the context of comedy

– You think I should kill him?

– What?

Yes, yes I do

The look, I thought
about that going into it

and Ryan and I talked about it

This was a young girl,
maybe as a teenager,

and somewhere in some
rural West Virginia, poor,

I always imagined she was probably abused,

and she sees this film Five Easy Pieces

and sees Karen Black and thinks,

that's what I wanna look like,

and she creates that look for herself,

goes to Hollywood hoping to
become the next Vanna White,

and now we're 30 years later, whatever,

and this is the character you have

and she still looks like she's

trying to be Karen Black, but she isn't

[woman laughs]

That time has passed

It was a fun character
to play, it really was

[light upbeat music]

I remember the advice
Kim Stanley gave me once

'cause you're in the middle of

all of this stuff going on and she said,

just remember, the work speaks for itself

I would keep that very close, that advice

The work speaks for itself

None of the other stuff
matters in the long run,

the rewards, the awards, the publicity,

the success, the so-called
failures, whatever,

it's the work

The work speaks for itself

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