Jessica Lange is halfway into filming Season 3 of American Horror Story and though she’s relishing in her character Fiona Goode’s sleek stilettos, there is an end in sight. “I’ll do one more season,” the actress says of the FX franchise that’s added an Emmy and a Golden Globe to add to her collection, which already included two Oscars. Just a couple of weeks ago, American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy said, “Every year, she says, ‘OK, that’s my last one.’” But after Season 4, Lange will say goodbye to the series for good. “That’ll be it,” she tells BuzzFeed, offering one of her signature confident grins.
Fans will want to cherish Lange’s penultimate performance in American Horror Story: Coven while they can. The actress is currently playing Fiona Goode, the Supreme, aka the strongest witch in each generation who has multiple powers (as opposed to simply being a human Voodoo doll, like Horror Story newcomer Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie, or screwing men to death like poor Zoe, played by Season 1’s Taissa Farmiga). The season opened with Fiona returning to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, where her daughter Cordelia (Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson) is teaching young witches Queenie, Zoe, clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer), and Madison (Emma Roberts), a former teen movie star who can move things with her mind.
Fiona’s also facing off against two figures in New Orleans’ history: voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) and 1830s high-society woman Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), to whom Laveau gave an immortality potion and then buried alive…until Fiona dug her up, that is. All Fiona wants is what Madame LaLaurie has, minus the bound-by-chains-in-a-coffin-for-180-years thing.
“The spine of the character is that thing of a wasted life,” Lange says. “The idea that this woman has gone through life basically like a bulldozer, in the most selfish, self-centric fashion. Things just falling by the wayside. Now, she’s at a moment in her life where she’s confronted by all these things — her mortality; the fact that maybe she’s alone and what did she discard on the way, like her daughter, that could bring something meaningful, but it’s too late. That Portrait of Dorian Gray element fascinates me: What do you trade off for this idea of eternal youth and beauty and how much are you willing to sell for that? How much of your soul are you willing to give up?”
In the first couple of episodes of American Horror Story: Coven, Fiona throws out hilarious pop culture references (including Harry Potter and Ed Hardy) as quickly as she tosses people who annoy her against a wall. “I think Ryan was maybe even surprised by how fast and how dark it got last year,” Lange notes of Season 2, American Horror Story: Asylum. “Of course, that’s right up my alley. I like that a lot. But I think this season was a deliberate attempt to lighten it and add some humor. And I’m not against humor; my sensibilities just always tend toward the more tragic or the darker.”
But it seems like Lange will soon get her wish.
“Oh, it’s going to change really fast,” she says with a laugh. “It’s only going to get darker. We’re going to move into territory that’s much more interesting to play than these first few episodes.”
In one of the more delicious scenes thus far, Fiona faced off with Lavaeu at Cornrow City, the voodoo priestess’ Ninth Ward hair salon. (“I don’t know how we got away with that one,” Lange jokes of the name.)
“It’s a pleasure,” she notes sincerely of the predominantly female Coven cast, referring to Bates as “a marvelous, brave, and generous actress” and Bassett as “an extraordinary beauty. She just kind of takes my breath away when I look at her.” Lange adds, “It’s a pleasure to be on screen with Kathy or Angela or Frances Conroy or Sarah. It’s been great.”
Episode 3, titled “The Replacements” and airing this Wednesday, Oct. 23, will see the addition of Lange’s longtime friend Patti LuPone. “I love working with Patti. She’s a powerhouse,” the actress notes. When it’s suggested that the two pick up where Asylum’s “Name Game” performance left off, Lange can’t help but laugh thinking about the much-welcomed musical moment in Horror Story’s otherwise incredibly dark season. Lange has never seen that scene since she only watches the premiere of each season, but she knows it was a hit. “People just walking on the street will stop me and say, ‘Oh my god, I’ve seen “Name Game” a dozen times.’”
Though Coven may be without a LuPone and Lange duet, one element Lange is looking forward to is the addition of Danny Huston, who will play nonfiction New Orleans figure The Axeman, an early 1900s serial killer who was never found. He’s also Fiona’s love interest. “Finally, a man,” Lange exclaims, laughing. Thus far on Coven, there’s not a man with the ability to speak. “What are we saying here? The one man who’s still altogether has no tongue so he can’t speak and the other guy is sewn together from various pieces. I mean, Wow,” she says chuckling.
And if a drunk scene was her Horror hope last year, this year, it’s love. “I wanted a romance,” Lange says, referring to Huston’s character. “Especially for a woman that’s at the end of the line and for the first time in her life finds love.”
But Lange’s favorite character on this season of American Horror Story may just be New Orleans itself. “There’s Madame LaLaurie, there’s Fiona Goode, there’s Marie Laveau, there’s New Orleans. It’s unique in this country I think, that city. It has this extraordinary ability to live in the past and the present. Time kind of melds. I don’t know any other place like that. And so authentic still, to its culture and to the people. You feel on the street what these people feel about this place. I mean, you walk down the streets of New York and everybody just looks so unhappy,” she notes with a laugh, staring out the window above Times Square. “They’re not all that happy to be here. But in New Orleans, you get this sense that this is home and we’re connected. We’re connected through generations and we’re connected through the arts and the music and the food and the culture. I mean, it permeates the air … not to paint too rosy a picture because there’s a lot of darkness there, but what I find fascinating is how you can be in a place where you sense the decay and the decadence and the elegance and the spirit and everything is just moving together.”
Murphy has said that it was Lange’s idea to set Coven in the rehabilitated Louisiana city, with which she’s been getting more intimate. “I have a bike so I ride my bike through all these neighborhoods that I would never normally go to. And then you start to see things and realize, I’d like to photograph this or I’d like to photograph that,” says Lange, a photographer since her days in the late ’60s studying art at the University of Minnesota.
“It certainly was what I first became fascinated with a long time ago, but then moved away from it. Never pursued it really seriously,” she says of photography. “And then, of course, I started acting and that became the great passion in my life. And then I came back to photography much later. I’ve really only been shooting now again for maybe 15 years, but it is a great love of mine … I’ve always been, I think, stunned by the power of photography and more so with black and white than with color and more so with still than moving. It’s also that thing of now, in this day and age, where everybody has access to photography, every idiot feels like they can make a documentary, and everybody can post their photos online or whatever, the idea that there’s still this art to it makes me more and more interested in going backward rather than forward,” Lange adds, noting her recent fascination with photogravure, a photomechanical process from the early 19th century.
Another technique she recently explored is hand-tinting (manually adding color to black and white photos) for the illustrations to accompany It’s About A Little Bird, the children’s book she calls a “happy accident.”
“Originally, it was just meant to be a gift for my granddaughters. I was doing just a little handmade book for their Christmas present,” Lange explains. “I’m not an artist so there would be no way I could illustrate this book. And I have long collected real photo postcards, the black and white ones and the hand-tinted ones. So I thought, Well, let me try this. Because it’s a technique I’ve always been fascinated by — that idea that you take a black and white photograph and then you color it. And it’s easy.”
But not that easy. Each photograph took about a day for Lange to color and there are about 20 images in the book. “It was a process, but it was great fun,” she notes. “I like the kind of dreamy quality it had, and they’re a little surreal. You don’t quite know, ‘Is this color photography? What is this really? Is it painting?’ … I loved it. And it’s very meditative. I’m sure that’s how painters feel when they work. You know, I would sit for a whole day and just try different things.”
Lange wrote the narrative for It’s About A Little Bird in one sitting. (“After all, it’s not War and Peace or anything,” Lange jokes with a hearty laugh.) But the story of sisters Adah and Ilse and their grandmother Mem, who brought a little bird back with her from Rome (unbeknownst to airport and customs employees), came naturally to the non-author since it is nonfiction.
“I never did it with the intention that this would some day be published,” Lange says, admitting it took a bit of convincing to turn it into a book. “Would I do it again? I don’t know. I’d have to be enchanted with the whole thing the same way I was with this. It would have to be another kind of photographic process. Maybe it would be something like photogravure or something like that. I’d have to think of a story that would really warrant it.”
Whether or not Lange continues a writing career, she knows for certain that American Horror Story Season 4 will be the end of one era for her. But it’s not because the incredibly dark material has worn on her. “It was like, ‘OK. The end. I’m out of here. It’s Christmas. I’m going home,’” she says of her instant ability to shake off Asylum’s Sister Jude last year. “I have to say, in the early years, playing somebody like Frances Farmer, she would hover and she stayed around to haunt me for awhile,” Lange says of her 1982 role that earned her her first Oscar nomination. “The first time I played Blanche Dubois was the same thing,” she says with a sigh of the legendary Streetcar Named Desire part that she played both on stage and screen. “You just couldn’t get rid of them. But it’s gotten easier over time.”
As for her fourth and final season of American Horror Story, Lange knows a sliver of what’s coming, but she’s well trained in the Ryan Murphy School of Lip-Zipping. “I’m very excited,” she says simply with a smile.
In the meantime, she’s just trying to get through Coven. “Even the actors, we don’t know what’s coming up. So it’s kind of like, How are we going to resolve this relationship? or Where is it going to go from here?” But Lange has learned to go along for the ride. “In a way, it’s kind of interesting to do it that way,” she says. “You don’t have the whole blueprint in front of you from the beginning so you’re making your best judgment as you go along, but you never know for sure what’s going to happen.”
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