Set in 1964, the FX drama series American Horror Story: Asylum takes viewers into Briarcliff, a haven for the criminally insane, ruled with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun with a troubled past. Inside this locked down facility, danger lurks around every corner, whether it’s a doctor who loves to torture, flesh eating creatures in the forest, alien experimentation or the serial killer Bloody Face, and no one is safe. From co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the show also stars Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes and Lizzie Brochere.
During this recent interview about her work on both seasons of the uniquely structured series, actress Jessica Lange discussed why she prefers the psychological work to physical action, how much she knew of her character arc ahead of time, Jude’s intentions versus Constance’s intentions, how grateful she is for the new audience the series has exposed her to, what it’s been like to work with so many great actors, the process she goes through to find a character, how she would describe this stage of her career, and what it would take for her to return for Season 3. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
JESSICA LANGE: Well, there are times when I’ve said, “I think this is too much,” but that’s not been too often because they tend to write less action for me and more psychological stuff. That’s been better. I wouldn’t really know how to do a lot of the really intense action scenes. I have had a few of those, but not many. I think there was a leap of faith, on my part, just thinking, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.” As an actor, you have to have trust and believe that somebody is taking care of you or watching your back. With a part like this, especially with where we’re going with it, I can’t pull any punches. I can’t do it halfway, especially when you’re dealing with madness and this descent into madness. I really felt like, “Okay, I’m going to embrace this 100%, and hopefully somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself.” Sometimes, I specifically ask them for stuff, like wanting to sing or dance, or doing something frivolous, and, sure enough, it shows up in the next script. It’s a give and take situation. Sometimes there are scenes where I say, “I will not do this anymore. This is enough. I don’t enjoy this. This is not my character.” That’s how we work, really. I’ve never worked this way before, where it’s so fluid between the creators, the writers and me. Usually, you get a script and it’s there, start to finish. This evolves and morphs, as we go along. I do have more input, but then, there are limitations within the structure of the whole story and the trajectory of where it’s going. It’s been an interesting challenge.
How much of the arc for this character did you know ahead of time?
LANGE: This thing has a life of its own. It’s like a river that moves in one direction, and then it shifts direction. I think Ryan has these things roughly plotted out, for where things are going to go, but I don’t always know ahead of time. I understood that we would be dealing with this descent into hell, but I did not really know that Jude would rise to the top of this, in a way. That’s what makes it interesting to play. Usually, you get a script and you have the whole story. All the acts are there, for a play. You know what happens in the first, second and third acts, and you know how it starts, where you go and where it finishes. With this, it’s a whole new experience. I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s been an interesting way to work. It’s made me work in a much more fluid, braver way, just taking every chance that comes along. I don’t plan things ahead of time. I don’t map out the character. I don’t do anything. For me, it’s been a great, powerful exercise in working in the moment. I actually think that it’s made me a better actor because of not being able to go into something pre-determined.
In Season 1, Constance very much seemed to be the puppet master, but in Season 2, Sister Jude is fast becoming a very complex hero. How different are Jude’s intentions to Constance’s, and what did you really want to bring to Jude that you weren’t able to do with Constance?
LANGE: I think “puppet master” is a very good description of Constance. The spine of Constance was that she was a woman who had basically lost everything and had nothing left to lose, and also was extremely unafraid, so she just manipulated people and put herself in situations that other people probably would not have. With Jude, she has a lot to lose because she’s holding on to something that she feels has saved her life and redeemed her. And then, when it all becomes clear that everything was false, and that she did not run over and kill this child, which is what sent her on this whole path, trying to find some kind of redemption and spiritual life, there’s a descent into madness that is completely different and, for me, much more interesting to play. I thought Constance was a wonderful character. She was a throwback to the ’40s, who was this tough dame that was sweet talking, but with a real edge. She did not suffer fools. Nothing went past her. She had a way of moving through everything and getting what she wanted. This woman is much more vulnerable and, in some ways, tragic. She’s destroyed her life. She’s an addict. She’s an alcoholic. She’s had bad luck with a lot of bad men in her life. And she’s come to the end of the road with the hopes that this church and this man – the Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes) – is going to save her, that she’ll become something else and that she’ll make her life worth living. That all comes crashing down, and she’s left absolutely, completely and totally alone. I love playing that idea of being completely alone in the world. Couple that with madness and it’s a really potent combination to play.
How much has Ryan Murphy told you about Season 3, and what about that attracted you to stick with the show for another year?
LANGE: Well, we haven’t really talked about it too much. All that stuff is still under discussion. I think I will try it again, depending on what the story is and who the character is, and all of that. We’ll see what happens.
What would make you want to sign on for Season 3?
LANGE: I don’t know yet. I haven’t really thought it through. When we started talking about Season 2, I had very clear ideas of what I wanted to play. I had never played an alcoholic before. I wanted to play a great drunk scene, and I asked Ryan for that. I wanted to play somebody who was really down and out, and also in that whole area of madness. Those were things that I specifically had in mind, when we talked about the character of Sister Jude. For next year, I’m just exhausted from this whole experience. This season, it seems like it’s gone on forever, and I really don’t have a thought about next season yet. There’s a lot of stuff that will come up, but as of now, I hate to say that I haven’t given it any thought, whatsoever.
LANGE: Not that I can imagine, at this point, because Ryan is very collaborative. I don’t think he would suddenly pull something out of his hat where I would say, “I absolutely don’t want to be involved with this story.” Sometimes I’ll get an episode where I think, “Oh, my god, what the hell are we doing? We shouldn’t be doing this.” And yet, the thing that always amazes me is that nothing that we do in this show is not somehow founded in some reality, somewhere. This whole thing with the character of Bloody Face, I was reading about Ed Gein, not too long ago, and how he actually wore his victims’ skin. Whatever is imagined in this show, there’s nothing that has not happened somewhere in the world, at some point. So, unless we really sink the ship, I can’t imagine that there would be something that Ryan came up with that I would not want to be involved with.
Throughout two seasons, this show has really opened up a whole new audience for you. What’s the fan reaction been like, and what do you make of it?
LANGE: Well, I don’t follow that side of it too much. I understand that there’s a demographic that otherwise probably wouldn’t know my work. I’m always surprised when young people don’t know certain actors or are not familiar with certain films. It is really alarming when people are not aware of certain filmmakers, if it’s more than 20 or 25 years ago, or maybe even 15 years ago. So, I understand that this has given me a whole new exposure that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise because of the kind of films that I do. I don’t do big studio films that gross $100 million. I’ve done mostly small independent movies, and that has a very limited audience. So, this is a greater audience probably than I’ve had for a long, long time, and the demographic is also much younger, so that’s all good, I guess. I don’t ultimately know what that means, but I’m glad people are looking at the work. I’m very grateful for that.
At what point in your acting career did you come to the realization that you could play creepy really, really well?
LANGE: I don’t think of any of my characters as creepy. They might be misguided and they might be crazy, but definitely not creepy. There’s nothing that appeals to me more than playing madness, and I do know how to dip into that, but that’s quite different than creepy.
LANGE: I think the whole story is darker this time. It deals on a much darker, psychological level. You’ve got human experiments. Last season was a ghost story, and this season is really about the darker parts of the human psyche. I think the affect is that it’s hard to watch. I hear that from people a lot. They say, “I can’t watch it. It’s too horrifying.” I don’t know. I think you have to strike a balance. I think this season became darker than anybody anticipated, just because of the subject areas that they laid out, in the beginning, with the ex-Nazi SS doctor and human experiments, the serial killer based on Ed Gein, the warehousing of human beings in these institutions, madness and the Catholic Church. That lends itself to great horror stories.
What’s it been like to get to work with so many great actors, throughout the course of this series?
LANGE: I think the acting has been really amazing this year. A lot of the actors came back from last year, and that’s wonderful. What Ryan had in mind was this idea of having a repertory company, and moving them from one project to another. There’s something great about watching these actors come in and create a different character. But, one of my favorite actors, that I worked with in these episodes, last year and this year, is Frances Conroy. There’s just something in her. When we’re on screen together, something happens. One of my favorite scenes that I’ve played this year was the scene from Episode 7 in the diner, when she’s come for me as the Angel of Death. There’s a connection that you can’t really describe, but certain actors just find something when they’re working together. That’s how I felt, in those scenes with Frannie. But, every actor that I’ve worked with on this – James [Cromwell], Sarah [Paulson], Lily [Rabe] and Ian [McShane] – have just been a pleasure to work with. Even actors who come in for just a day’s work have been amazing and have really brought something, and that makes your work better.
Did you specifically ask for Frances Conroy to come back?
LANGE: No. I think Ryan always knew he wanted her back.
What’s the process you go through, as an actress, to find your characters?
LANGE: It depends. I work differently on all of them. Recently, I’ve been trying to work in a very immediate fashion, so that I’m relying much more on just pure imagination that comes up in the moment, and I just follow that through rather than trying to plan or design anything. I think that’s the biggest difference. With fictional characters, you really rise and fall on the strength of your imagination. With somebody like Big Edie, I had a wealth of resource material to draw from. Sometimes I work on finding it through the emotional core, which is still the main element I work in, but instead of finding it through movement or body, now I try to find it through voice. With Big Edie, every day I’d go to the set, I would listen to her voice. I would put on the DVD of Grey Gardens and not look at the image, but just hear the voice. As soon as I found that voice, I could drop into the character. Now, with Sister Jude, I’ve also found a voice where, as soon as it’s there and present, I feel like I’m in the character. I’ve done something with the voice, as it’s gone along, that it’s been changing as we go down this rabbit hole. That’s how I find the character that I’m working on now. It’s strictly through the imagination, and then trying to find the character, mostly through the voice.
How would you describe this stage, in your career?
LANGE: Obviously, your days as leading lady are limited. You have that one little window of time, from mid-20s to maybe mid-40s. I’m trying to think of the last leading lady I played. It might have been Blue Sky, and I must have been in my early 40s. I suppose then that you could define the parts that come your way as characters. You become a character actor. But, I always felt that way, from the beginning. Except maybe for Tootsie, which was actually so well written that it didn’t fall into that category, I was never playing just the girlfriend or the wife. In my mind, I was always a character actress, even though I suppose that was combined with the element of being a leading lady, whatever that means now. That feels like a throwback to another era of filmmaking. I just did a film this spring, that will come out a year from now, based on Emile Zola’s novel, Thérèse Raquin, which is what James M. Cain based Postman Always Rings Twice on. In 1980, I played the character of Cora in Postman, and in 2012, I played the mother of the son that is murdered by the young couple. It was full circle because it’s basically the same story.
LANGE: Sometimes when I’m doing this, because of this character’s descent and where she’s going with the madness and everything, it harkens back to when I played Frances. So, in some odd way, I’m still doing the same things that I was doing, all those many years ago, but under completely different auspices. The difference is that now I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I don’t mind putting myself out there in the most raw, naked, exposed ways. I am also able to do that because I really feel that Ryan would protect me. But yes, at this point now, I feel like I can take any chance I want and I can go as far as I want because judgment doesn’t matter to me anymore. In the beginning, it does, but none of that matters to me anymore. Now, the only thing that I care about is, “Is it thrilling? Am I doing something I haven’t done before? Am I true?” I think the main thing is, have I found some vein of truth? And then, I’ll follow that as far as I can go with it. It’s a different way of working, but I don’t know if it has as much to do with age as it has to do with how long I’ve been doing it.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX.