Jessica Lange On Leaving ‘American Horror Story’: “There’s Always An End To Everything”

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Freak Show
Photograph by Michele K. Short

In her four seasons of American Horror Story, Jessica Lange has carved a niche as the show’s grande dame. From her turn as a crazed nun in Asylum to the deranged witch of Coven to most recently her all-singing ringmaster Elsa Mars in Freak Show, Lange steals the show every time. Raking in two Emmys, a Globe and a SAG award for her AHS efforts, her recent announcement that she will not be joining the latest in the series, Hotel, has come as a shock to fans. Her involvement with AHS creator Ryan Murphy does not end there however. He will be producing Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway in which Lange will reprise her role as Mary Tyrone – a performance that won her an Olivier award nomination in 2000 —opposite Gabriel Byrne. 

A nation weeps–it’s the end of American Horror Story for you. Why?

I mean they’ll continue and it’ll be great. You know, when I originally agreed to do this, it was for one season. (I thought) “this will be interesting to try this. I’ve never done this kind of television before.” Then I had such a great time doing it the first year, when they approached me to do it again I thought, “well okay, maybe we can do it season to season.” Instead, I agreed to do three more seasons. And that was fine because I’ve had just such a great time doing it. I have no regrets or second thoughts about that decision. But there’s always an end to everything.

You seem to have an almost collaborative relationship with AHS creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.

Yes, I mean I love Ryan. I think he’s absolutely unique and wonderful and brilliant. And the fact of the matter is what kept me coming back were the characters. I mean they wrote such characters for me – so diverse and wild. They gave me so much to do every season in a time in my career where that’s the exception not the rule anymore. I mean we could get into a long thing about women aging in Hollywood and what happens.

That shouldn’t be a topic of conversation anymore, but unfortunately it is.

No, it shouldn’t. But it is because that’s just the natural order of things. There’s a period of time when the work is just plentiful, and then there’s a steep drop-off as far as what is still interesting to play. What was great about these four years is that it reminded me of the kind of work that I was doing when I was in my thirties and forties. Those huge roles. It was kind of like inexhaustible, bottomless. I mean what you could do. And well written with really something to play. I mean, this last season, it was just huge. It was a great role – one of the best I’ve ever had. I really hope that Ryan and I can continue some kind of work situation, but I did feel like four seasons for me was probably enough of this particular piece.

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Coven
“What kept me coming back were the characters. They wrote such characters for me, so diverse and wild,” says Lange, pictured in American Horror Story: Coven Photograph by Michele K. Short

Murphy will produce Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway–you’re playing Mary Tyrone, one of your favorite characters–a role for which you previously won an Olivier Award nomination.

What was wonderful is Ryan and I were talking, he’s so generous, and I mentioned this thing of wanting to do this play because I had done it 15 years ago and I really wanted to do it again. He went out and got the rights, which was so touching. I love him. He’ll be involved as a producer, but he signed it over to the Roundabout Theater so it’s all done, it’s a not-for-profit theater, and we’ll do it on Broadway next year. It’s going to be great. At one point I thought, “what if this doesn’t work out? I don’t care. I’ve played Mary Tyrone,” and then it kept getting closer, one step closer, and I thought, “yes, I get to do it again.” I loved that character.

You consistently play these kind of tortured, extreme women–what draws you to these characters in particular?

Well I just find them so much more interesting. It allows you to really just work from your imagination. Whatever you can imagine is possible because there are no limits to these characters. You know, I’ve always loved that thing of a character who’s just walking that tightrope between holding onto sanity and just with a slip of a foot can fall into that well of madness. All the great characters that I’ve played have been like that – certainly Blanche (DuBois) and Frances Farmer. I do love that thing of navigating that edge.

Your performance of Life on Mars was so Bowie-esque on Freak Showhow did that come about?

The first song Ryan presented was Life on Mars. (I thought), “I mean, what? Certainly not.” But then I realized it’s so perfect and it’s so brilliant because of what the lyrics are and the fact that it’s David Bowie. I studied his music video from that and they copied the blue suit. His movements were very minimal. So I studied them very carefully because I thought, “if I’m doing David Bowie, I’m never going to be able to come up with something’s that’s going to be better than David Bowie. I’ll do it as an homage to his brilliance.”

What is it about TV that works for you in comparison to film?

Well it’s a couple of things. For me it was kind of a perfect storm because of the length of time that you’re given to develop the character – 13 hours as opposed to an hour and-a-half film time – and yet I didn’t have to sustain the same character from one season to the next which, knowing me, I’m sure I would have gotten bored. So this was the best of all possible worlds.

Do you have an all-time favorite co-star? You’ve worked with so many of the greats.

Well probably my all-time favorite, and I worked with her twice, was Kim Stanley. There’s nobody like her, nobody. There was a rawness to her and a truthfulness and a ferocity. I loved working with Tommy Lee Jones, we had a really great way of working together and obviously Nicholson and DeNiro. Liam Neeson. It’s a long list.

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