Before she was an actor, a movie star, a two-time Oscar Winner, an Emmy winner, the recipient of a Lincoln Center gala tribute and the muse to one of the most prolific showrunners currently working in TV, Jessica Lange was a shutterbug. “I originally signed up for a photography class in college because I couldn’t get a painting class,” she says, crossing her legs and leaning back in her chair. Lange is sitting in her publicist’s office in midtown Manhattan, wearing an immaculately tailored suit despite the fact that it’s August-in-New-York hot outside. She could not look cooler. “I wasn’t interested in photography initially — but there were some young men in the class that I was very interested in. We ran off to Europe; I ended up marrying the best friend of one of them [her ex-husband Paco Grande]. We all lived in the same loft in the Bowery as Robert Frank — he was the first photographer to shoot me, when were doing this little film together. It all kind of starts there.”
It was second nature to have a camera by her side in those days, Lange says, and she never really gave up the habit of stopping to snap a few shots — especially when she was on one of many wanderlust-indulging road trips. Highway 61, Lange’s third published collection of photography, showcases what she saw over six years worth of drives down the iconic road which runs through the center of the U.S.: diners, barrooms, parades, passing barges, landscapes, American eccentrics and everyday people. The book, which hit shelves on October 1st, comes right on the heels of The Politician, Ryan Murphy’s inaugural series for Netflix — and the duo’s seventh collaboration, after five seasons of American Horror Story and playing Joan Crawford to Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis in his anthology series Feud — about an overachieving high school student. (She’s also set to play Marlene Dietrich for Murphy in a project he’s working on about the film star’s time in Las Vegas during the 1960s.)
It’s a particularly busy moment for Lange, in other words, though she’s happy that, some four-plus decades into a career in front of and behind the camera, she can still find ways to scratch that creative itch. “I’ll have moments when I think, ‘Oh it’s all meaningless,'” she admits, before leaning in and breaking into a radiant, straight-outta-Tootsie smile. “But then I’ll see a photo from the book or catch a scene I’m in from one of [Ryan’s] shows, and I think: Well, I did what I set out to do. I don’t have to be embarrassed by the work.” Lange talked to us about dedicating Highway 61 to Sam Shepard, how playing Crawford gave her insight into show business then (and now), why American Horror Story is so popular and more.
You’ve had a late-career resurgence working on series like Feud. What did playing Joan Crawford on that show teach you about the ways
in which show business has changed?
At least now we’ve aged up, so you’re not discarded until, like, a decade later than they were in the Fifties or Sixties. The business back then — God, it was brutal. It’s not the same now, but I know I’m aging out of parts that I would have liked to have played at some point in my life.
A person can only play the ingenue lounging in a giant ape’s paw for so long…
[Laughs] Right! I’m not going to end up pinning my skin up and hiding behind curtains, and refusing to be seen. Still, a woman’s career, it’s probably gotten a lot better, but it’s still not the same as a [male] actor’s career.
You’ve played everyone from King Kong’s romantic interest to Patsy Cline. Do you have a particular role that’s a favorite?
If I had to say what’s at the top, the absolute top of anything I’ve ever done, it would be Mary Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I did a long run of it in London, and then two years ago we brought it to New York. I could spend the rest of my life going back to play her. I think it’s because Eugene O’Neill was writing about his mother … and we all know the well that brings up! [Laughs] It’s bottomless, that part. You could play her every day for the rest of your life and never come to the end of it. I think it’s the most powerful part ever written, but that’s just me.
I’d also say Blanche DuBois [from A Streetcar Named Desire], or maybe Frances Farmer. The truth is, I loved playing Joan Crawford. I didn’t think I was going to, however.
I had no ideas about her, no attachment, no sense of who she really was. I hadn’t been a Crawford fan. I didn’t know anything about her, so I didn’t know anything about playing her. When I started looking into her life, that was when I thought, “Whoa, that is some story.” What she survived was pretty amazing — her childhood was like something out of Dickens — and then she got to the top of the top of the top, which was a testament to her strength. “Joan Crawford” was a character she built to survive. I loved playing her. I really did, start to finish.
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you started acting?
That success as an actor isn’t important — it’s the doing of it that matters. I was lucky that somehow things fell into place, though it could have happened to a hundred other people. But the only thing that’s ever interested me about acting is the process. . . . The result — I’m never satisfied with the result.
What are the most important rules you live by?
I try really hard to be present. It comes a bit from studying Buddhism over . . . well, I haven’t done it regularly, but over the past 20 years. It teaches you some good rules, like being compassionate and paying attention. Because if you don’t pay attention, it all just goes by so fast. You think, “OK, where was I that decade? How did I miss the Eighties?!” [Laughs]
I don’t think you missed that much, to be honest.
Oh, good. Good!
You’re from northern Minnesota — what’s the most Minnesota thing about you?
I have a real connection to the natural world, which feels like a very Minnesota thing to me. For the past 35 years, I’ve had a cabin up in the North Woods, and there’s something so healing about that place. What’s that great quote from [the writer and photographer] Juan Rulfo? “There you’ll find the place I love most in the world. The place where I grew thin from dreaming.” That’s Minnesota to me.
What’s your favorite city and why?
Oh God, there are different ones from different times in my life. In my 20s, it was Paris — it’s 1970, I’m living by myself for the first time, everything is alive and crazy. Being that city back then … it was like another love affair! New Orleans, because it’s a separate universe down there, with different cultures co-existing in a way you don’t see other places. And Duluth, Minnesota, because it’s home. Shout-out to Duluth! [laughs]
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
Oh, I’m a Finn at heart; we don’t like to throw money around! [Laughs] Maybe buying a house in New Orleans.
You studied photography in college, but what inspired you to put together your new book, Highway 61, and collect pictures taken along that route?
That was the highway I grew up on. When I was up in Minnesota, I started photographing the parades, the country fairs, the North Shore. I also have a good friend, Julia Freed, who was from the Delta … she and I would travel that route and go on road trips through there all of the time. Then, when I bought a house in New Orleans, I realized: That’s the opposite end of the highway. I just thought, “Well, I’ll fill in the blanks.”
You dedicated it to Sam Shepard, your partner of 27 years.
Yeah. [Long pause] I miss him every single day of my life, and I thought, “Well, this would be a good dedication, because there was a man who loved the road and spent a good portion of his life driving different highways.” So, yeah. [Smiles]
You’ve worked with
Ryan Murphy on a string of projects, starting with American Horror Story and going through to The Politician. What have your collaborations with him — and joining his repertory of regular actors — done for you creatively?
Everything. Ev-er-y-thing. Ryan Murphy really provided me with the opportunity to just reimagine acting. With my career . . . there was such an initial burst of energy and creativity. Then I got extremely distracted with my family and children and home and everything else. Probably 15 years ago, I was making bad choices and doing films I shouldn’t have even bothered to do. It wasn’t until I did Grey Gardens for HBO [in 2009] that something clicked again: “Ah, this is it. This is what I remember from Frances and Tootsie — this is the thrill!” Then Ryan came into my life, and these parts were like gifts he was handing me: the nun, the witch, Joan Crawford.
Why do you think American Horror Story
is so popular? Why type of nerve do you think the show has hit?
I feel like we’re saying something, even if it’s disguised. I mean, it’s like, Season One: Murder House; Season Two: Asylum; Season Three: Coven; Season Four: Freak Show; Season Five: The Trump Administration [laughs]. Ryan is guiding these stories as a direct commentary of what’s happening around us, under the guise of entertainment. But we’re living through an American Horror Story right now.