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American Horror Story’s Jessica Lange on Singing, Insanity, and Working With Ryan Murphy

Jessica Lange. Photo: Getty Images

There might not be any actor working in TV right now who is more game than Jessica Lange. Last season on American Horror Story, she was a hilariously demented Tennessee Williams type, and this year she’s every Catholic school kid’s dream: the mean nun declared loony and chased down by a bad Santa. And Lange clearly loves tearing it up as the haunted Sister Jude, whose bad habits include getting blitzed, caning, and fantasizing about her monsignor. In last night’s episode, she made like she was on Glee. (Judy, Judy bo boody … let us count the ways we love this strange show.) Lange, who is again nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG award (she won both plus the Emmy last year), phoned us from her cabin in Minnesota’s Northwoods to talk about — what else? — “The Name Game” and why she suspects she might be a little mad herself.

I guess we should first talk about “The Name Game” —

 … which was insane. I loved it.
Did it work?

It so worked.
I didn’t know! I thought, Have we crossed a line? Are we gonna actually be able to pull this off? It’s wild. I’m glad you liked it. I’m glad I didn’t completely humiliate myself. [Ryan Murphy] wanted very much for me to look like Dusty Springfield.

How did it come about?
Well, I had said to him early on — because we did that one little flashback of a musical number establishing that she had been a singer in a band in the forties — I said, “Let me do one more number. Just because everything we do is so grim.” It’s so much fun to sing even though I’m not a singer. So he said all right, and then out of the blue came this.

What do you think it means, Jude having this vision?
I mean, who knows how Ryan’s mind works? But I think coming out of the idea of losing one’s identity in one of these places, that whole system of warehousing human souls, no longer knowing who you are … I guess came this! [Laughs.] I also think everyone felt by episode ten, like, Jesus, we gotta have a little lightness in here. And actually it was great, and I had so much fun learning that number.

Evan Peters looked like he was having a ball.
I think he really had a good time. He’s a wonderful dancer, isn’t he? And he had that whole thing down, that naughty boy thing he was doing. One of the things that I’ve loved this season is that whole troupe of extras we’ve had. I asked them one time if when they came in to audition, if they were expected to have their character intact. Did they have to show the producers something? And for the most part, they did. So to see the work they did, which was so rich and textured and specific, and then to see them all doing this number? Let’s just say it was the most fun we had. I think we would all agree on that.

You asked to sing and dance, and Ryan said sure. Anything else you want to ask for in season three?
I just kind of blanket asked this year: “Can I sing? Can I dance?” But I’ve made no requests for next season yet. I don’t know the foundation. I know he’s got a place, a time, moving back in forth and time … it’s all percolating as we speak. Once I know, then I’ll think on it.

Are you generally excited or nervous to hear his plans?
Oh, not nervous. He hits on areas that are absolutely fascinating to me: the idea of madness, the idea of betrayal. And when he did tell me my character this season would go from one extreme to the other, from being the very rigid, ideological, blind pedagogue nun to someone who is completely mad and then at the end is redeemed, I mean, for an actor? That’s kind of a dream come true to go from A to Z and then halfway back again. I didn’t know Ryan before we started this last year, but he does know, or he instinctively understands, what interests me as an actor. And maybe it’s not that much of a mystery, maybe every actor is the same way, but he writes to the things that I love to do. At this point in my life, that’s a tremendous collaboration. Having been doing this for 35 years and then to find somebody like Ryan who says, “What would you like to do?” Early on he said to me, “Have you ever played a great drunk scene?” and I said no. And he said, “Have you ever played a drunk?” “Well, no.” “Do you want to?” “Yes, yes, yes!”

What do you like about playing someone mad?
I don’t know what comes first, you know, the pony or the cart, but I know when I’m playing those scenes that you kind of turn it over to another power. You’re not designing anything. You’re not trying to manipulate the situation. Which leads me to believe there is a strong vein of incipient madness in me. [Laughs.] I can just remove myself, and it feels like something else comes and takes over. The behavior is all there. I don’t have to think about it. It was kind of an exciting way to work actually, because like I said, it might be saying more than I’m willing to admit, but there seems to be a very strong natural insanity somewhere along the way.

You’ve been strapped down and electrocuted, whipped butts, tussled with a very scary Ian McShane. Was there anything you were uncomfortable doing?
The only thing I did say after the second caning scene was, “Okay, I’ve done it. I really feel like we’ve established it. There’s nothing more we have to investigate here. I’m done. I’ve done two of these scenes; I’m not going to do anymore.” And that was fine. They didn’t write any more for me. But I think that’s about it. One of the things with my character, except for the scene with Ian, I’ve been able to avoid getting physically violent. The emotional violence is far more interesting to me to play than, you know, getting stabbed or whatever. I was thankful for that.

It’s crazy that Eunice and Arden are gone and there are still three episodes left.
Yup, they’re gone. They’re really gone. They start dropping like flies from now on. But yeah, I think people are going to be surprised by the ending. I was.  

What’s left for Jude now that her enemies aren’t a factor?
She certainly goes further down the rabbit hole, almost to the point of being irredeemable. But something happens. Ryan felt very strongly that he wanted this character to somehow, not have a happy ending, but … I don’t know, I think he really liked this character. He had sympathy for her, and he wanted … to give her a moment of some kind of peace at the end.

Jessica Lange on Her AHS Singing Scenes