After Jessica Lange won an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG award for her brilliant work in the first “American Horror Story” miniseries, it only makes sense she’s become the star of the show in its second installment, “American Horror Story: Asylum.”
Over the course of eight episodes, viewers have seen Sister Jude shift from the domineering head of Catholic church-run mental institution Briarcliff, to an underdog battling for the forces of good in a world full of evil (Nazis, skin-wearing serial killers, demonic possessions and the like).
Not even Lange knew the twists and turns Jude’s story would take this season, and she likes it that way. After Jude emerged victorious from a vicious battle with guest star Ian McShane’s killer Santa this week, Lange says the bad guys better watch their backs. “Everything gets put in motion as far as Briarcliff and the demise of that institution,” Lange says about what’s coming next. “[Jude] actually does try to right the wrongs she has done, but of course she’s totally trapped within her own making.”
During a conference call with reporters, Lange opened up about the “interesting challenge” of “American Horror Story: Asylum.” Here are the highlights:
On whether or not she feels the scripts ever go too far…
“There are times when I’ve said, ‘I think this is too much,’ but that’s not been too often. They tend to write, for me, less action and more psychological. I wouldn’t really know how to do a lot of the really intense action scenes. I have a few of those but not many.
“I think there was a leap of faith on my part [playing the role], just thinking, ‘Well, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.’ As an actor you have to have trust, you have to believe someone is taking care of you and watching your back. With a part like this 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, ‘OK, I’m gonna embrace this 100% and hopefully somebody will look out for me and not let me completely humiliate myself.’
“Sometimes I ask [the writers] specifically for stuff like, ‘I want to sing or dance, something frivolous’ and sure enough it shows up in the next script. Or, ‘I want to play a lounge singer.’ You know, it’s a give and take situation. And I end up doing things like caning scenes where I have to say ‘OK, I told you I will not do any more, this is enough, I don’t enjoy this.’ That’s how we work. 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, but this evolves as we go along. I do have more input but there are limitations within the structure of the whole story. It’s been an interesting challenge.”
On the differences between her first “AHS” character, Constance, and Jude…
“The spine of the character of Constance was that this was a woman who had basically lost everything and had nothing left to lose. And also was extremely unafraid. She manipulated her way and put herself in situations that other people would not have. With Jude she has a lot to lose. She’s holding on to something that she feels has saved her life and redeemed her. When it all becomes clear that everything was false, from the idea that she did not run over and kill this child — which is what sent her on this path trying to find some kind of redemption — she discovers everything was false from the beginning, there’s a descent into madness that’s completely different and much more interesting to play.
“I thought Constance was a wonderful character. She was a throwback to the ’40s tough dame, 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. [Sister Jude] is much more vulnerable and in some way tragic. She’s kind of destroyed her life. She’s an addict, an alcoholic, she’s had bad luck with men and she’s come to the end of the road with the hopes that this church and this man — the Monsignor — is going to save her, that she’ll become someone else and make her life worth living. Of course that all comes down crashing. She’s left completely on her own. Those are two things I love to play. You’ll also find that in many [Tennessee] Williams characters, that thing of being completely alone in the world and couple that with madness. It’s a very potent combination to play.”
On how much she know in advance about Jude’s journey…
“This thing has a life of its own, it’s like a river. [Creator and executive producer] Ryan [Murphy] has these things roughly plotted out, but I don’t always know ahead of time. I have to say I kind of understood that we would be dealing with this descent into hell, but I did not know that Jude would rise to the top of this in a way. That’s what makes it interesting to play. I don’t know where it’s going, it’s kind of like life, you 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, much braver in a way, just taking every chance that comes along. I don’t plan things ahead of time, I don’t map out the character. It’s been a great powerful exercise in working just in the moment. It’s made me a better actor in a way because of not being able to go into something predetermined.”
On the darker nature of “Asylum”…
“It’s darker, the whole story is darker. It deals on a much darker psychological level, you’ve got human experiments, it’s just… In some way last season was a ghost story. This season it really is the darker parts of the human psyche that Ryan is exploring. I think it’s hard to watch, I hear that from people a lot: ‘I can’t watch it, it’s too horrifying!’
“I think you have to strike a balance. This season became darker than anybody anticipated just because of the subject areas they laid out in the beginning: ex-Nazi S.S. doctor, human experiments, the serial killer based on this character Ed Gein, the warehousing of human beings in these institutions, madness. There are a lot of subjects that they’re covering that lend themselves to great horror stories.”
On her collaborations with the other actors…
“The acting has been really amazing this year. A lot of the actors came back from last year, it’s kind of wonderful. I think what Ryan had in mind is this kind of Mercury Theater — the idea of having a repertory company and moving them from one project to another. There’s something kind of great about that, watching these actors come in and create a different character.
“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, I don’t know, there’s something when we’re on screen together, something happens. One of m
y favorite scenes that I’ve played this year is the scene from episode 7 in the diner when she’s come for me as the angel of death. There’s a kind of connection that you can’t really describe. Certain actors just find something when they’re working together, that’s how I felt in these scenes with Franny. But every actor that I’ve worked with on this — James and Sarah and Lily and Ian — it’s just a pleasure to work with them. Even actors who come in for just a day’s work have been amazing and really brought something and make your work better.”
On her likely return for the third “American Horror Story” installment…
“Ryan is very collaborative, I don’t think he would suddenly pull something out of his hat that I would say ‘I absolutely don’t want to be involved with this story.’ Sometimes episode to episode 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 there’s nothing we do on the show that isn’t founded in some reality somewhere. This whole thing with Bloody Face, I was reading about Ed Gein not too long ago, how he actually wore his victims’ skin. Whatever’s imagined in this show is nothing that has not happened somewhere in the world at some point. Unless we really sink the ship, I can’t imagine there would be something Ryan came up with that I would not want to be involved with.”