Ryan Murphy Interviews Jessica Lange on Fame, Feuds & the Feminine Mystique

Jessica Lange
Photography: Ruven Afanador

It is Jessica Lange’s final day on the set of Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy’s highly anticipated new series chronicling the bitter rivalry between illustrious screen queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The actress is nowhere to be seen on Fox Soundstage 10 in Los Angeles as crew members scramble to establish the next scene, which will capture Crawford, played by Lange, and Davis, played by Susan Sarandon, in one of their first encounters while shooting What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? That film is more than just an outlandish 1962 horror classic about the vicious sparring between two washed-up movie-star sisters — it was also the backdrop for Crawford and Davis’s own infamous squabbling. Theirs was an age-old grudge match, complete with alleged on-set catfights and Crawford’s successful scheme to torpedo Davis’s Baby Jane Oscar campaign, and it has given Murphy bountiful fodder for what will be one of the biggest television events of the year.

A saga of glamorous costumes and callous backstabbing, Feud is the stuff of drag-queen fantasies. But viewers coming to it expecting the operatic camp of the 1981 Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest may be disappointed. Feud avoids turning its flamboyant subjects into scenery-chewing caricatures, instead mining the rich stories of their lives with precision and compassion. What surfaces is a stirring examination of the ways in which women have been, and continue to be, pitted against one another, and Hollywood’s complicity in our culture’s deep-rooted misogyny. While Sarandon tackles the role of Davis with a fearless, peppery wit, Lange brings refreshing humanity to her portrait of Crawford, a tortured soul who was reduced to a punch line.

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Lange glides onto the set in full Crawford regalia, sporting a sleeveless coral dress, a black wig, and eyebrows plucked to sinister arched perfection. She smiles as work comes to a halt and everyone gathers around her. “This has been the greatest crew,” she announces. “You have made this an unforgettable experience, so thank you.” 

As she stands there, Lange is both the uncanny embodiment of Hollywood royalty from a previous generation and a legendary queen in her own right. Crawford and Lange were two ships passing in the night: Lange made her feature-film debut in the 1976 remake of King Kong; Crawford passed away less than a year later from a heart attack. What they have shared is a tireless, unshakable ambition. Lange began her career working as a model in early-1970s Paris (she roomed with Jerry Hall and Grace Jones in a sort of crash pad for future gay icons) before moving back to America to become an actress. After her performance in King Kong, some pegged her as a shallow ingenue, but she was determined to shed the stigma and prove to small-minded studio execs — to the world — that she was more than that. 

 She got her chance in 1982, with the release of two wildly different films: Tootsie, the queer classic in which Lange portrayed the love interest to a cross-dressing actor played by Dustin Hoffman, and Frances, a harrowing biopic in which she starred as another Hollywood legend, Frances Farmer. “After fooling around in things like King Kong...this stunningly beautiful woman emerges as a major film actress,” Vincent Canby declared in his New York Times review of Frances. The sentiment was shared by Hollywood: Lange was nominated for Academy Awards for both films, winning best supporting actress for Tootsie. 

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Her career soared from there, with her scoring memorable roles in Sweet Dreams (1985), Music Box (1989), and Blue Sky (1994), which earned Lange her second Oscar. Though the leading roles started to disappear as she headed into her fourth decade on the big screen, she made a massive comeback in 2011, when she landed the part of the mysterious Constance Langdon on Murphy’s hit series American Horror Story. That performance reignited Lange’s notoriety in a major way, and over four seasons — playing evil nuns, freak-show doyennes, and witchy matriarchs — she established herself as an icon for a whole new generation of fans. Now, at 67, the actress is proving again that you should never underestimate Jessica Lange.

Back on set, hours later, just before Lange leaves to catch an imminent flight back to her home in New York, the cast and crew assemble one last time. Everyone applauds her as Murphy lifts her off her feet for a huge, affectionate hug. Though Lange’s countless disciples adore her, they are no match for Murphy, who possesses a fierce love for his most treasured muse.

A few days after they wrap shooting, Lange and Murphy reunite to reflect on feuds, fame, the evolution of their creative partnership, and Lange’s enduring gay following.

Ryan Murphy: We just finished shooting last week. Have you managed to shake the ghost of Joan Crawford?

Jessica Lange: She’s going to be a hard one to let go of, because it was a character we explored in such depth, which always gets into the marrow of your bones and lives there for a while. I didn’t think about anything else for five months. I’d read a little bit of the horrible news of the world, but other than that, I just kept returning to Joan Crawford all day long, every day. 

RM: I will say, it was Bette and Joan that got me through the election. [Laughs.]

JL: [Laughs.] Exactly. 

RM: The last time you played a movie star was when you were Frances Farmer in Frances. Frances was mentally ill, so maybe it was more difficult to shake her.

JL: Yes, I think so, because Frances was so tortured. Not that Joan wasn’t tortured, but Frances was martyred in a way, thrown to the wolves by the system and her mother and society. Also, that was so early in my career. I hadn’t gotten used to stepping away from characters. Now it’s second nature, in a way… I think as the years go by, you just get more adept at coming to the end of something and not letting it continue to haunt you. But with Joan, I was just inside her world completely.

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RM: What I love about Feud is it takes you deeply into the interior lives of these women. Many people think of the Bette and Joan story as camp or comedy, but you and I both found that it’s not. It has a lot of depth — it’s a real tragedy. But one of the things I was most amazed by was that you’ve never seen Mommie Dearest.

JL: No, I still haven’t. And I probably never will.

RM: That movie contained a version of the Joan Crawford we know today, but I’m excited about your performance because it majorly reinvents her. I don’t want to call it “Joan’s Revenge,” but I think it shows the real Joan. She wasn’t all terrible — she wasn’t the “wire hangers” Joan. In fact, around town there were many people still alive who knew Joan Crawford, and they all said she was actually a very sweet, tortured soul. She was also an alcoholic, so the story of [her daughter and Mommie Dearest author] Christina [Crawford] may be true. But I love how you humanize her and show her to be a real person, not a monster. 

JL: Well, I’ve never seen her as being monstrous at all. We did all that research — I read the four biographies, her own books, and hundreds of interviews — and no one ever said anything but kind things about her. I don’t want to comment on mothers and daughters [and the relationship described in Mommie Dearest], because within any family there’s always a part of a relationship that no one outside can ever understand. But from everything I’ve read, it seems impossible that the woman was as monstrous as she was made out to be. 

What we did [with Feud] is explore all the other different aspects of her: her tragic childhood, her tremendous ambition. I think any time you come out of a situation like Joan did — which was really a Dickensian kind of childhood, with a mother who didn’t want her — there’s a survival instinct that propels you. When she got to MGM she really fell into lockstep — she said it was her only family. It taught her everything she knew. So it was a combination of being grateful to that system for giving her a life, and also this kind of strident playing by the rules… Whether or not you want to conflate that with ambition, she did rise to the top of a very competitive profession, coming from absolutely nowhere, with every strike against her and nobody in her corner to help her. And she did it with a certain amount of grace. I think that’s extraordinary.

RM: Our crew would pick “Team Joan” or “Team Bette,” but I’m still firmly in the middle. I had great affection for both, but I was so moved by Joan. I was moved by her sexual abuse. I was moved at how we tried to explain her behavior. For example, she’s mocked for being a clean fanatic and a fastidious person, but there was a real reason for that: She worked at schools scrubbing toilets to pay her way through school. 

JL: This psychiatrist I talked to about Joan’s obsessiveness said, “Well, all that is classic for the kind of trauma she would’ve experienced as a child.” So if you think about that, then the cleanliness doesn’t make her a freak of nature — it’s a reaction to that horrible trauma. Also, her wanton sexuality — anybody who’s grown up with a mother who doesn’t love her and who has had no family is going to be looking for comfort wherever she can find it. It seemed to me that if people understood more about her, then they wouldn’t have this unjust, preconceived idea of her from Mommie Dearest.

RM: There were a lot of bizarre details about Joan that I was obsessed with. For example, her dunking her face every morning in ice cubes and witch hazel. Was there anything about Joan that was so deliciously crazy that you got a kick out of it?

JL: How she covered all her furniture with plastic was pretty far out there. [Laughs.] There’s that scene where she goes down to Baton Rouge when they are shooting Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964], and she’s actually packed plastic in her suitcases so that when she gets to the motel room she can cover the furniture. That to me was so batshit crazy. 

RM: In the ’60s and ’70s, she covered everything with plastic because she thought it kept furniture and clothes cleaner and fresher. And one of my great regrets in life is that I didn’t put together a gag reel of all you guys sliding off the furniture in her house because it was so slippery from the plastic. You and Judy [Davis, who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper] both fell off once.

JL: I know, it was hilarious!

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RM: Because I’ve worked with you closing in on eight years now, I’ve obviously seen your tremendous gay fan base — I count myself in that group. Why do you think gay people idolize stars like yourself, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis?

JL: Well, I don’t know about fans, but ever since way back when I lived in Paris, [gay people] have always been my best friends. I don’t know where along the way my career created gay fans. I just know that there’s always been a tremendous mutual affection. I’d be curious what you think [about gay people idolizing certain stars].

RM: I think it has a lot to do with a projection of the person one wants to be in the world. You’re a survivor. You’re somebody that one can look to as a role model — to say, “OK, they were able to live and be happy, and I can too.” You’ve had a very courageous career. When you first started, you were pigeonholed as an ingenue, and very quickly you were like, “Well, I’m not going to take that lying down.” And then you became an Oscar-winning actress. You conquered television. You conquered stage. I look at you as somebody no one could ever keep down, who has a huge reserve of passion. You just move forward in your life. Nothing stops Jessica Lange. It’s exciting that you’ve been able to inspire people. 

JL: If I have inspired people, that would make me feel wonderful. It’s funny because my granddaughters started this girls’ group, and they’ve had people come and speak about being a woman within different professions. They’ve had an FBI agent, teachers, artists. And they asked me to speak. So I said to my daughter, “Well, I don’t know what to say, because I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist.” Obviously I am very independent, but I never used that term. But the one thing I’ve always felt is that I’ve never allowed myself to be restricted. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, and no one could ever tell me there was something I couldn’t do. And maybe that’s what you’re talking about, what resonates with people.

RM: Go to your granddaughters’ class and say, “Here’s my lesson to you: Do what the fuck you want.” And then turn and walk out. 

JL: [Laughs.] Right! Just like the end of [the 1922 James Joyce novel] Ulysses: “Yes, I said yes.”

RM: I’ve never met anybody other than myself who’s more dogged about going after a certain truth and not letting go of that bone until they have it. You did that a lot with Joan Crawford. You’d send me highlighted pages from books, and you had ideas about scenes. I feel one of the reasons you’ve had such a great career is that you’re incapable of bullshit. You’re always trying to get to the truth of the human being you’re portraying.

JL: Well, it’s great to be able to work that way, which is how we’ve always worked together. It makes a huge difference to have that room to explore. 

RM: You and I and Susan [Sarandon] went into Feud feeling the same way: Yes, some of this stuff is theatrical and humorous, but we also dive deep into the social issues these women were up against. In the show, we talk about the brutal treatment of women, not just in Hollywood but around the world — sexism, ageism, misogyny. Why do you think women are always pitted against each other in the press? You had that with Gwyneth Paltrow, but none of it was true. Susan said during Thelma and Louise the media wrote things about her and Geena [Davis]. Why do you think the media loves a good catfight?

JL: It’s like that one line you guys wrote for [the character] Jack Warner [in Feud]: “The saying doesn’t go, ‘Unite and conquer.’” As long as you can pit sides against one another, they have less power. That’s historical. So in some ways that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? Keeping women powerless.

RM: And keeping them insecure. If you never have firm footing, if people are pitting you against others, of course you’re going to strike back. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture that even when we started shooting Feud, I would get calls from people saying, “Are Jessica and Susan getting along? Are they fighting?” And I was like, “Go fuck yourself. Of course they’re getting along. They’re great pros. They’ve known each other forever.” People wanted that drama that’s been there historically. I’m glad we’re finally putting a light on that and letting women know, “You’re stronger united.” That’s the great thesis statement of the show: If Bette and Joan, who had so much in common, had just not listened to the other voices, they would have done so much better economically and spiritually. I think that’s the message of the show, don’t you?

JL: Yes, I do. It has so much to do with that attempt to keep women in their place. We see more and more of that now because of this political atmosphere we’re in. I mean, the fact that this series is coming out now, with the situation that’s being fomented by this administration? It’s extraordinary timing. Somehow, Ryan, you’re always in tune with whatever is about to play out in the zeitgeist. It’s amazing that we’re telling a story about disempowerment — and how it’s so insidious — now. It’s a cautionary tale.

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RM: That’s true. In a weird way, we’ve made a political show. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m proud of it. We were making it right before the election, and I thought we were making something that was going to be seen as irony — like, “Look how far we’ve come.” And then we woke up on Election Day and it was, “Nope.”

JL: Maybe it will work, which is all we can hope for.

RM: Do you think Joan and Bette would like our show if they were alive to watch it?

JL: Yes, I do, because I think it’s tremendously honest. We made a great attempt to tell their story with as much understanding and empathy as we could, and not to judge them. Why wouldn’t they like it? We covered a lot of ground: from the humor to the tragedy, to the sorrow, to their talent, to their drive. I don’t want to blow our horn too much, but it felt like we really touched on everything we knew of them. I think we approached it with great honor.

RM: Something people always ask me is, “When is Lady Lange coming back to American Horror Story?” My answer is always, “Well, I’ll just keep blackmailing her.” [Laughs.] What was your experience like doing it? You have such an audience from it. 

JL: Even now, people will come up and say, “Oh, my God, I loved you on American Horror Story.” What you did for me over those four seasons was create these extraordinary characters. You gave each of them some bizarre history and allowed me as an actor to build on that to make it more real. I loved every one of them. Sometimes I felt our story would jump the tracks [laughs], but they were always amazing characters to play. And for me that’s the only thing that matters: Do I have a character I can sink deep into to find all the emotional turmoil? A character who’s just barely hanging on, always walking that line between madness and sanity? Those are the kind of parts I’ve always gravitated to. Those four and now, of course, Crawford — they were just so complete, with a kind of bottomless depth.

RM: What I also love about you as an actress is you’re incredibly bold. You’ve only said no to one thing I’ve wanted you to do.

JL: [Laughs.] What was that?

RM: Spank somebody again with the wood panel, with [your character] Sister Jude in American Horror Story: Asylum. Remember we wrote another scene where that was Sister Jude’s m.o.? You were like, “No, I think we’ve had enough of that.”

JL: [Laughs.] That’s true. I thought we had done that.

RM: My last question for you: Why aren’t you on social media? I’ve been screaming at you for years, “Please get on social media!” I find it hilarious that you have all these people online who are obsessed with you and you have no idea about any of them.

JL: No, I don’t, thank God. It would make me so nervous if I knew what people were saying about me out there. I don’t think I could survive it. [Laughs.]

RM: [joking] Well, I’m disappointed that you haven’t spent hours reading the Twitter feed for @JessicaLangeGayGoddess.

JL: [Laughs.] “Gay Goddess”? Oh, I love that! 

Photography: Ruven Afandor
Styling: Negar Ali (The Only Agency)
Hair: Robert Vetica/Magnet
Makeup: Francesca Tolot (Cloutier Remix using Mac Cosmetics)
Manicure: Lisa Jachno (Aim Artists)
Prop Stylist: Ron Zakhar

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