By Corey Scholibo
Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2009 12:00 AM ET
Jessica Lange is so sweet it makes you wonder what she is hiding. Certainly one of the most talented actresses of stage and screen of the last 40 years, Lange always seems to play women you don't want to completely trust, and she has been rewarded for doing so with six Oscar nominations and two wins, among a slew of other trophies. Maybe it's because her characters always seem smarter than you, or you feel her sexuality is something beyond control, but her heroines -- be it Tamora in Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus, or Leigh Bowden in Cape Fear -- are intimidating. And so it is a surprise to hear her sound so damn normal when we discuss the DVD release of her new film Grey Gardens.
Anyone would be intimidated about taking on one of the most iconic characters among gay fans, Big Edie Beale, mother of Little Edie Beale and costar of the documentary Grey Gardens, which follows two women -- who just happened to be related to Jackie Kennedy -- who are living in utter squalor in the Hamptons. Their story was so fascinating that it spawned books, a musical, and out director Michael Suscy's film adaptation for HBO. Lange tells me how she had always thought about one day making the film into a dramatic piece, why she doesn't have a high opinion of marriage, and what the chemistry between she and Drew Barrymore was really all about.
Advocate.com: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.Jessica Lange: Thank you.
Have you ever done an interview for The Advocate.I don't think so. Oh wait. I think maybe I did for Normal. But I can't be sure because I have no memory myself. [Laughs]
In Tootsie the conceit at one point is that Dustin Hoffman's drag persona is in love with your character, and your character thinks she is a lesbian and rejects her. Do you remember how gays and lesbians may have reacted at that time?You know, I don't. But there was a lot going on in my life at that moment and I might not have been paying attention. But I do remember a lot of reaction to Normal, which was of course a film about the transgender community.
Tell me about how you got involved with Grey Gardens?Michael Suscy came to speak to me about it before he really even had a script or anything. I had actually in the back of my mind been thinking of doing something with it myself for a while. When I saw the documentary it just fascinated me and I thought, What could you do here as a dramatic film? because you look at the two Edies and you think, Whoa would I love to play one of those [laughs]. So it was something that I had in the back of my mind, but never got anywhere with. And then, out of the blue, I got a call from a friend asking me if I would meet with this young director to speak to him about Grey Gardens, which was pretty amazing. He described how he envisioned it with moving the characters back and forth in time, covering a 40-year period, and he asked me if I would like to play Big Edie, which I hadn't really thought about. And then of course the process of the script and getting it financed took several years before we were actually shooting. But it's one of those great characters that comes along rarely, especially now, and I think Michael did a great job with it. It was a little bit of a risk, trying to adapt this story dramatically, but I think he hit just the right balance. We didn't try to say this is what happened, or, this is the reason this happened, which I think would not only have been risky but it would have been dishonest, because how do you presume to know exactly how they got where they got?
That is the main curiosity of this story -- how does anyone get to that point in their life?We certainly talked about it, but the fact that we didn't give any pat, easy resolution as to why it happened, I was glad about that. I think it would have been a mistake.
I think your performance of Big Edie is transformative in that in the scenes where you re-create the documentary you actually completely disappear and we forget we are watching Jessica Lange. Would you call this approach an impersonation?Certainly that was a decision. I wanted to find as much as I could that I could do exactly as Big Edie. That is partly why I kept insisting that of all the documentary footage that was used -- Michael was going through and picking and choosing which parts of the documentary to use as the touchstones in our film -- that we use “Tea for Two,” because it was such an iconic moment. So in that sense I guess you could say that it began as an impersonation. I worked on it literally millisecond by millisecond, every single movement of her hands, her fingers, her facial expressions, the tone of her voice. I felt it was really important to do it precisely, as precisely as I could. So there is that element. And then there is the element of filling in all the blanks between those moments. All we had was the footage of the documentary, but she clearly has such strong identifiable mannerisms and gestures and behaviors, and I would study that even when I was doing the younger character, so that it was organic. That certain gestures are with her throughout her life. I mean those are things that are just very obvious. I don't mind at certain times impersonating her because it was my way into the character. It was different from any way I had worked before. By watching the documentary every day when I came into my trailer, I could kind of feel when the character entered into me. I don't want to sound psychedelic or anything [laughs], but I could literally feel there was a moment when her voice, you know, I would say lines along with her and I would move with her and do all that, and then I could kind of feel the character settle down. Then I could work from there.
You obviously watched the documentary a lot. I mean, I find that film very hard to watch. It is emotionally grueling.Yeah.
Do you become numb to it at some point?I don't think so, but again I am watching it as an actor trying to nail the character. Once I started working on this project I was no longer watching it as an observer.
Did you stay in character throughout the shoot?Yeah.
I mean, you took that makeup off.Yeah to a certain extent when I went home. Unless I went home to see family or something, you couldn't stay as Big Edie [laughs]. But in the hotel I stayed immersed in her. I watched movies from the '30s and was dancing and singing and working on voice.
You and Drew were out promoting this movie like a lesbian couple. I mean, you were out at every event together as each other's dates. It was so cute.[Laughs] We had a great time working together. Absolutely one of the best I have had. Her commitment to doing this part and getting it, I don't think we could have done it without each other. There was some kind of alchemy, some chemistry there.
You recently went to Italy with the film's director Michael Suscy. What was that for?They were honoring me at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily and I was so fascinated in going to Sicily. They invited Michael because they screened Grey Gardens. And it was nice because I hadn't really spent any time with Michael outside of the film since we finished.
Did you think at all about gay viewers when you were approaching Grey Gardens. Gay fans have to some extent kept this film alive all these years. Was it something that occurred to you at all?I think we felt a certain obligation to get it right. We didn't want to disappoint their [Little and Big Edie's] most ardent fans. Which you could tell in the screening premieres in New York and Los Angeles because the audience cheered when they felt we had done it right. Obviously there are a lot of people who know every line,and every gesture, and every costume. On the other hand we were trying to tell this story to people who aren't familiar with it.
It is tricky. I think when it was announced there was like a collective feeling of, You can't remake this film.I know. I know. And believe me, I think everyone on this film at one moment or another felt exactly the same way. But it worked. And it is a credit to everyone who worked on it.
You have had a gay following your entire career. I am curious if you were aware of that?I think I have always known. It's great. I am honored actually and I find it a great compliment.
I think it is because you play these extremely passionate women -- I wouldn't say “divas,” but very, very strong female characters. I can't think of any of your characters who weren't.I think you are attracted to what is going to challenge you and what's going to keep you interested. There are certain characters that are so normal or so thin or so regular that they don't interest me. It would be a waste of my time as an actor.
Were you ever close to playing a gay role.No, there is nothing that has ever come up that was offered me. Normal was the closest thing, and that was about being transgender. But, hmm. Well I know I've never turned [a gay role] down, so I assume I have never been offered anything.
Well we've got to find one.Yes, find one for me.
You once said, “I used to have a lot of political ideas about marriage that don't matter to me anymore.” And I am curious, as you and your partner, Sam Shepard, have never been married, what you meant by that and what you think of the current political debate over gay marriage?Hmm. I can't remember what that was in response to.
I read it on a blog that someone has about you.Really?
Yes, JessicaLange.Blogspot.com, which I of course thought was you and then quickly realized it was some fan who had pulled a lot of quotes from articles about you.Good lord. Is that legal?
I don't know. You might look into it.Yes. Well I think they are referring to the fact that I have never been a great believer in marriage. I was married once when I was very young. I have been with Sam for over 25 years now and the institution of marriage doesn't mean that much to me. I never felt that some legal document was going to make my relationship more meaningful or more valid. I have raised three children with him and have never felt compelled to get married. In fact I decided not to marry. But I think it is really such a personal choice, and if we are talking about gay marriage, if it is meaningful to somebody then they should be allowed to do it. Period.
You were obviously very critical of President Bush, and I am curious what you think of Obama now and how he is doing?I was having a conversation with someone just yesterday because they were also incredibly passionate during the Bush administration and it was like, you know, I made myself so crazy for those eight years. I lived in such a state of rage, which is a terrible way to live. But I so objected to what this man was doing and how he was running the country, and his wars and everything, that I kind of made myself nuts. I campaigned very hard for Obama because, I mean, the choice between him and McCain and Palin [laughs], I would have had to leave the country. I don't think I could have done another eight years of that. Now I feel like I can kind of [exhales] relax a little bit. I don't have to be so maniacal. If they don't get bullied by this small, crazy Republican subset, I think there is a lot that can be done that needs to be done. I am really hopeful. The one thing I do know is that he is extremely intelligent and I also think he knows what he is doing. So hopefully he will get done what needs to be done.