Saturday, March 25, 2006


Jessica Lange
By Ann Roth

April 2006

She launched her career with a celebrated flop, then proceeded to surprise the critics with some of her generation's most searing performances. Renowned costume designer Ann Roth gets the scoop from a woman who has never shied from taking chances or stopped exploding expectations.

[Jessica Lange and Ann Roth are shown to a quiet corner table at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City. It's 3 p.m., and the lunch crowd has mostly dispersed. With the tape recorder whirring between them, they settle in for the following conversation.]

ANN ROTH: I was just remembering seeing you in Bordeaux while you were making Cousin Bette [1998]. Was that a great experience?

JESSICA LANGE: I wasn't all that thrilled with my work in it, nor with how the film turned out, but I had a wonderful time doing it. I mean, we were in that chateau, living out there among the peacocks and the exotic gardens. And we had a great cast. So any dissatisfaction is with my own work.

AR: I've heard you say that a few times in your life. Do you think that you could love 70 percent of your work? That's a number that keeps coming up for me. I feel like I got 70 percent of it right, whether it was exactly what I was after or something else. That's not a percentage that makes me happy, by the way.

JL: Well, sometimes the odds are against you-the director doesn't know what the hell he's doing, or something falls apart in the production, or you're working with an actor who's just unbearable and there's no chemistry. But there are also times when I feel I let myself down, and usually it was because I was distracted-I was thinking about the kids or my relationship.

AR: Did you have satisfaction with doing Titus [1999]?

JL: I did, because it was the first time I had tackled Shakespeare. And working with Tony Hopkins was great-

AR: I just have to interject here because I remember going over to your house and you were making a huge pot of soup. You had some kids there, your sister and her daughter were there, and it was a very Minnesota moment. [Lange laughs] But you were in the midst of doing Titus!

JL: For me, nothing has ever taken precedence over being a mother and having a family and a home. I've been thinking a lot about next year, which will be the first time in 25 years that I don't have a child at home.

AR: Do you already feel free thinking about it?

JL: No, I actually feel a certain trepidation. But, I'm thinking to myself, Now, just as an experiment, if I could work straight through for that year, the way I've never been able to approach this acting business because of not wanting to leave home and not wanting to drag the kids somewhere, what kind of experience would that be? Would my work get better? Would I discover something?

AR: Of course you would. And you will! Talk to me about Bonneville, the movie which you recently finished.

JL: Oh, it was great! It was the first film in I can't tell you how long that was actually a joy to do. I'd have to go way back to some of the great experiences like Sweet Dreams [1985] or Music Box [1989] or Blue Sky [1994] or Rob Roy [1995] to find anything that compared. It was exciting material and a great group of people. There was this collective energy between Kathy Bates and Joan Allen and me. The way it just fell into place and ended up being the three of us was perfect. Who knows, maybe the film will turn out well. It's an interesting story.

AR: Oh, it's a very good story. What tends to draw you to a script?

JL: It comes down to something really simple: Can I visualize myself playing those scenes? If that happens, then I know that I will probably end up doing it. The worst is when I talk myself into something. Sometimes you take things because you want to work with a certain actor, or you want to work with a director, even if the script or the part's not that great.

AR: Are there any roles that you regret not having done?

JL: Yeah. There are a few, but I hate to speak about them because it's not so nice for the person who ended up doing them-I mean, I'd hate for somebody to do that to me. But my greatest regrets are for the ones that I shouldn't have done.

AR: What's the regret for?

JL: That I wasted my time. You know what it's like-you're on set and your kids are little and they're back at the rental house or out having a little excursion. They're going somewhere, they're doing something, they're having fun; something happens in their life that day, and you're sitting on a set somewhere with a group of jerkoffs [laughs]. That was always the hardest for me.

AR: What can you tell me about making Sweet Dreams?

JL: That's another one of those films that were just blessed. I remember the first time I went out to Owen Bradley's barn, you know that famous recording studio outside Nashville, and I was so intimidated. I remember thinking, I can't do this, and I certainly can't do it in front of anybody. When I first started working on that project, he explained to me the difference between Patsy Cline's voice and most other country-western singers. He said that unlike the others, Patsy actually had operatic range.

AR: Oh, that must have made you breathe easier! [both laugh]

JL: Yeah. But boy, when I saw Walk The Line-what they did and how they worked on their voices-I was so impressed. I worked on my voice for Sweet Dreams but only to match my speaking voice to Patsy's actual singing voice. That was my way into that character. All I did for months before I started filming was drive around New Mexico in my little bathtub Porsche with Patsy Cline blasting on the tape player. It was so much fun, and it was a very liberating part for me to do because it made me open up.

AR: Well, you weren't Jessie in that role in any possible way. The bra alone-

JL: Oh, yes, another great touch of yours. [both laugh] But also, Karel Reisz [who directed the film] always made me feel so secure. I wonder how it is that some directors these days have no sense of how to make actors feel like they can do anything, and that it will all be all right. Actors can always alter their performance, but you've got to have the sense that no matter what you try, it's okay-even if you screw up.

AR: Yeah. You must feel welcome to do whatever. There's not that sort of cowboy approach of "Let's go crazy here" with so many young directors these days. How did King Kong [1976] come to you?

JL: I had been living in Paris studying mime with Etienne Decroux. And I came back to Minnesota during the Watergate scandal because I wanted to witness the downfall of Richard Nixon. That autumn, instead of going back to Paris, which I had intended to do, I went to New York and started taking acting classes. So I was taking classes and waitressing at night at the Lion's Head, and I was also registered with Wilhelmina modeling agency - although I never made any mony as a model. Then just before Christmas in 1975, the agency called me about this huge cattle-call audition for the film, and because they knew I was serious about acting and was taking classes, they were recommending I audition for it. The agency sent me and this other girl to Hollywood to try out. So I went out there, auditioned, and they gave me the part.

AR: Was it torture, or was it easy?

JL: It wasn't something I thought twice about. To begin with, it was just so much fun that they flew me out there. I was on the studio lot, and they got me a suite at the-what hotel was it? The Beverly Wilshire? I mean, I was a waitress living in a fifth-floor walk-up in the Village at the time.

AR: Who directed the film?

JL: John Guillermin. It was released right before Christmas. What's weird is that this last King Kong also came out right before Christmas. It was haunting because it brought back to me what it was like being in the eye of that hurricane in 1976 when our King Kong was released. Of course, my situation was very different from Naomi Watt's [star of the new King Kong], who already had a career, and who was already considered an evolved actress at the time of the film.

AR: What about Frances [1982]?

JL: This is a funny story. When I was taking acting classes, my coach said to me about Frances Farmer, "There's this book you should read, and if they ever get around to making a film of it, you should think about doing it." And then time went by-I did King Kong and returned to New York and was back studying acting and Bob Rafelson cast me in The Postman Always Rings Twice [1981]. ANd while we were shooting, the editor, Graeme Clifford, got involved with this script of Frances. Graeme told me he'd sit in the editing room all day watching me up there, and all the time he was imagining me as Frances. It was one of those years when everything just explodes; Shura [Lange's daughter] was born, I met Sam [Shepard, Lange's long-time partner], and I moved to California.

AR: You were married at the time, right?

JL: I was married, and Mischa (Mikhail Baryshnikov] and I were still together too. It was a horrible mess, and I'm not going to say anymore about that! [laughs] But yes, I got divorced that same year. Anyway, Shura was born in March of '81, and I started shooting Frances in October or November of that year. That was another long shoot.

AR: Now, what is this piece you're going to shoot in Nova Scotia?

JL: Sybil. Remember that book about the woman with 16 personalities? It's that. This young, very talented actress, Tammy Blanchard, is in it.

AR: When did that project appear?

JL: When I was shooting Bonneville in Salt Lake City. It's being made by CBS. TV is sort of the only way to go for an actress my age to make a descent salary; with independent films, you just can't.

AR: Do you like the script?

JL: I do. And if the director shoots it the way he wants to, which is really almost like a film noir or mystery movie, it could be very interesting.

AR: How long will you be there?

JL: Three or four weeks, and then I go to Mexico. After that there are all these possibilities:" Will Grey Gardens actually happen? Will Cheri actually happen? They're both great roles and movies I'd really like to do, but they're not mainstream pieces, so who knows what'll go on with them. And there was another project based on that book [The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, about model, photographer, and children's book author Dair Wright] that Julian Schnabel talked to me about that i would love to do.

AR: He's a really good director. I read an interview he did with Mickey Rourke for Interview recently, and you oculd tell he'd gotten an awful lot of understanding about the world we inhabit. Now, the new Wim Wenders film, Don't Come Knocking, which Sam [Shepard] wrote. Are you pleased with it? Have you seen it?

JL: I haven't seen the finished cut. But it's a very interesting film, and it's very Sam and very Wim. So I did that, and then i did Broken Flowers, and both were about men searching for their progeny. That kind of coincidence always surprises me. There's that "collective unconscious" out there that you're able to tap into. Like, I remember the year I did Country [1984] a few other films about families losing their farms came out.

AR: How about A Thaousand Acres [1997]?

JL: Not a good experience. The book was great, but the film was a disaster.

AR: So what else?...Were you a cheerleader growing up?

JL: Oh, dear God, no. I never fit in anywhere, Ann, and I'm telling you the truth. I try to go back and think, Okay now, where was it that you belonged? And I can't. I never felt like I belonged in Minnesota when I was growing up there. That's why I was out the door as soon as I turned 18. The only place I've ever felt was really my home is my cabin up north. Do you know that last line from A River Runs Through It?-"I am haunted by waters." There's something in the water up there that connects me to that place. But there's also this sense of isolation and loneliness about it that I've never been able to shake.

AR: Do you dislike that feeling?

JL: I don't mind it - I mean, I've lived with it my whole life. [laughs]