Jessica Lange hasn’t been a regular on American Horror Story in four years, but all it took for her to snag her ninth Emmy nomination was just a few minutes on screen over two episodes in Season 8, Apocalypse. For this short but brilliant turn reprising her Season 1 role as Constance Langdon, Lange could potentially win her fourth Emmy statuette, adding to the two Oscars on her mantelpiece. American Horror Story has put Lange on the Emmy map as a repeat winner—she already won for the chain-smoking, nosy neighbor Constance role in 2012, and in 2014, took home the gold for playing Fiona Goode in American Horror Story: Coven.
In Apocalypse, you play a character that you left behind many seasons ago. Did you think you’d ever go back to Constance?
Never. No, because the premise was, you do one season, you would play that character, and then that was it. That was finished. You move on to the other. The way Ryan brought this up, I know he had toyed with the idea of bringing the different characters back in for a reprisal season. But this one, it came out of the blue for me, and it was a total surprise when I got the phone call from him telling me the premise of this season, and that we were bringing back characters from Season 1, Season 3.
How did you get into her mindset again?
Because I never watch anything I do and I’ve never seen any of these seasons, I had to, for the first time, look at something that I had done. I couldn’t remember—of course, it’s been eight years—the specific accent, the mannerisms, behavior, the way she looked. I had to recreate that, with the help of hair and makeup and costume and everything else. But it was kind of shocking when I went back and looked at it. I thought, Wow, so that was that character. But it was great fun, it really was, especially because the writers know me. We love each other. I appreciate everything they do so much, and they’re writing for you, which is so unique. They did themselves proud with the death scene. It was great. I have to give them complete credit for it.
The writers have given you some of the best insulting lines to say over the years. Do you still remember any of those?
I think maybe my favorite, certainly of Constance, was in Season 1 with Franny, where I said to her, “Don’t make me kill you again.” It’s so camp, but it works.
You’ve played four incredible American Horror Story women. Would you want to revisit any of the others?
Well, probably my favorite character of the four seasons was Elsa in Freak Show. I just loved her. Again, I didn’t watch it, so I can’t compare the finished product with the other seasons. But the doing of it—there was something magical for me in that season. We were in New Orleans. The set that they built, that rundown carnival freak show with all the roundabouts and the actual actors, the people that came in to play those parts—for me, it was like a long poem. Getting to sing Bowie… It was like gifts just kept piling up and piling up.
Has your appreciation of the horror genre changed since you started this?
Well, you know, I think Ryan understood and the writers understood early on, I think I made myself clear that I wasn’t going to get into any kind of gory [stuff], I’m not going to do that. And I said, “I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to, none of this stuff.” So, my characters always seem to escape that area, that genre of horror, which I was very grateful for. And to me that’s never the scariest part, anyhow. It’s the human psyche, isn’t it? That’s the most horrifying.
Over the seasons, you had the chance to delve into characters for 12 hours at a time. What did you like most and least about that process?
The idea of creating a character over 10, 12 hours, it’s the equivalent of doing three or four movies. It was like with Joan Crawford when we did Feud. That had been written originally as a film, so we would have had to condense that story into two hours, and there would have been so much that we weren’t able to explore just because we didn’t have the time. So that part of doing series, I love. I also love that it’s a limited series and I don’t have to ever come back to those characters again, except with this little trip we did this year. Because, I don’t know, honestly, how actors can sustain that same character over 10 seasons, or 12 seasons, or even eight seasons, playing the same character over and over again.
Do you have a particular affinity for playing fictional characters over the others you’ve played, like Joan Crawford or Frances Farmer?
You know, both. I love playing real characters because you have this wealth of research and information to draw on. For instance, when I played Edith Beale in Grey Gardens, I studied that documentary that the Maysles brothers made. I would walk into my trailer every single morning, and that was the first thing I would do. I would listen to that voice. I don’t mean to sound kind of woo-woo, but the voice would then settle down inside me, and then I knew that the character was there, and it all came through Edie’s voice. The same with Crawford, or Patsy Cline or Frances Farmer.
You’ve said before you would retire; do you think you’re hooked?
Well, what I don’t want to ever do, and which I did a lot, is waste my time doing stuff I should’ve just said no to. And I’m sure a lot of actors feel that way, when you have a career that spans almost 40 years. Why did I do that? Why did I ever waste my time? But there’s always a part of you that says, “I should work. I really should work. I’ll find a way to make it worthwhile; I’ll find a way to make this work.” And that, I know I’m never going to do again because time gets way too precious. I wish I hadn’t done a third of the films that I wasted my time on, but that’s old news.
But don’t you think everything leads you to where you need to be, maybe?
No, I think there’s an inevitability about how you make decisions. But I have really deep regrets. It’s not about what I didn’t do, but what I did; what I wasted my time doing.
One of the two Apocalypse episodes you’re in is directed by your co-star, Sarah Paulson. Would you direct?
Ah, yes. I actually think I would love doing it, but nothing has ever really come my way, so…
It may be the next thing. I don’t know. [Sarah] is just a natural director. She’s coming from it, of course, as an actor, so she understands how an actor works and prepares, and what’s needed to get the best performance. She was incredibly well prepared and inventive, and understood camera. I loved working with her.
My role is kind of a tangential story to the main story. But I haven’t seen any of it.
What keeps you coming back to Murphy? This is your third time working with him.
Because I love his imagination. I think he is a rare talent and I love the way he thinks and what he creates. I completely appreciate it. And he has created, for me, the four characters in American Horror Story, as well as giving me the opportunity to play Joan Crawford, which has become one of my favorites. And then this [The Politician], which is so out there. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but it’s nuts; it’s really crazy. Between Ryan imagining and creating the character or the story, and the writers who are actually putting those words into your mouth, it’s been a joy.
You’ve given us so many memorable characters. Is there something you still want to tackle?
I don’t know. I would love to go back on stage again, but I don’t know what play that would be. It’s hard. I played the roles that I really desperately always dreamed about: Mary Tyrone and Blanche DuBois. And right now, there’s also the problem of age. I’m too old to play some of the parts that I would’ve wanted to play, like Martha in Virginia Woolf, or Hannah in Night of the Iguana. I would’ve loved to have played those parts, but I can’t anymore. That time passed. I can’t have a grandfather. He’d have to be a-hundred-and-f*cking-20-years-old!
Two weeks ago, I was up at my cabin in northern Minnesota and I saw the little paper that comes and they put in your mailbox, and there are announcements and school menus and stuff like that. And there was an announcement that this woman in a little town not far from where my cabin was, was turning 107. So, I picked some flowers from the garden, and my brother and I drove down to wish her happy birthday because in the little town that she was in, was where my grandparents lived, and where my father was born and raised. So, I figured maybe…She didn’t know the family because she had only been there for a year, but it was so wonderful speaking with her. She was so present and alive and funny. I explained to her why we came, because I thought it was extraordinary and I wanted to wish her happy birthday on her 107th birthday. She said to me, “I don’t feel 107.” I didn’t even know what to say. I thought, “Yeah, that’s great.”
No, I don’t, which is probably delusional. But yeah, I don’t actually, because, I don’t know, I feel lighter. I feel like a lot of burden and grief and all this stuff is beginning to lift. So that makes a huge difference. But as far as something that I still want to do, I just don’t know. I will, when I see a part, know that that’s a yes. But imagining it now in the abstract? I don’t know.
And you have your photography book coming out next month—you studied photography formally. How has that work impacted your acting?
I studied it very briefly, to tell you the truth, because I fell in love and quit college and ran off to Europe. But they inform each other, which is I think great. And you know, again, it’s like people say, “Well she’s not really a photographer, she’s an actress,” or all this bullsh*t. But they do inform each other as an art form. With the camera, when you’re photographing, for me, it’s almost like a meditation. You’re inside this thing of seeing, and there’s a silence to it, and you’re actually really looking, so it’s a presence. Roland Barthes says this great thing. He says every photograph is a certificate of presence. And that’s what you feel when you’re photographing—that you’re present—and it’s a wonderful kind of concentration. That’s a holdover from acting, because when you’re on a set and there are 50 people running around, the lights are changing, and everybody’s yelling and you’re actually somewhere else in your mind, getting ready to play a scene, but you’re absolutely present also. So, there’s this strange duality. And then I find that the photographs, the moments where I bring the camera up to photograph something, oftentimes it’s informed by the light, by the emotion. So, it has that element of film to it. That is what I’ve known as an actor—how light creates mood and emotion. What’s that wonderful Baudelaire quote? “The emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life.” So, they play off each other. One informs the other, and I’ve been lucky to be able to do both.
You’ve seen so much change in the industry. Is there still a long way to go?
Oh, I think there’s a long way to go. But certainly, at least at this point in the journey, there’s an awareness of the discrepancies, and that was something that wasn’t even discussed a couple of decades ago, or even a decade ago. So, I guess, yes. I’m not sure about the state of this to tell you the truth, because I think there’s now so much product out there—especially in television. You hear people talking about it. There’s more than you can ever get around to watching, unless you just devote every hour of your day to sitting in front of the screen. And yet, at the same time, I think movies aren’t what they were. You think of the heyday of the ’70s, the ’60s, where there was that extraordinary explosion of talent and energy and imagination. And that to me is like the most exciting part of film. Those years there, and all those brilliant directors coming up and doing their first work. And the actors. I don’t know if that exists or if it can come back again. I’m not sure. But the biggest danger, of course, is that, just like everything else, it becomes corporatized, and it becomes about bottom line, becomes about money. It becomes about profit. And then the craft goes.