MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Lange has gone stark raving mad.
It's not as if she hasn't danced on the edge of insanity before, most notably in the film Frances and the Tennessee Williams drama A Streetcar Named Desire. But these days the 63-year-old actress is fully embracing her inner maniac, a move that's paid off with two Emmy wins, first for the sweetly delusional Big Edie in HBO's Grey Gardens and then as master manipulator Constance in the first season of FX's American Horror Story.
She's back for more Horror, this time as a sadistic, misguided nun who becomes a patient in the asylum she runs. It's all part of the Oscar-winning actress's ongoing desire to find characters struggling with both mental capabilities and loneliness.
"It's a potent combination to play," Lange said during a break from shooting the TV series. "There's nothing that appeals to me more than playing madness, and that I do know how to dip into."
In the past, aging actresses such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made the transition from glamorous star to off-the-rails monster, but their attempts often veered into camp. Lange, on the other hand, is doing some of the finest, most delicate work of her career, bringing to life damaged characters for whom you feel sympathy, even as they're stealing neighbor's babies or delivering electroshock treatment to innocent reporters.
"Obviously your days as a leading lady are limited. You have that one little window of time from your mid-20s to your mid-40s," she said. "I supposed you could define the parts that come your way afterwards as characters and you become a character actor. But I always felt from the beginning that I was a character actress. I mean, I never played just the girlfriend or the wife, except for maybe Tootsie, but that was so well written it didn't really fall into that category."
Lange's career has always been hard to describe.
She has the looks of a sex symbol, but aside from being tied up as King Kong's date, she has never traded on her beauty for stardom. She has two Oscars (for Tootsie in 1983 and Blue Sky in 1995), but there are few blockbusters on her résumé. In fact, the Horror series, while unconventional for its extremely dark storytelling, may be the most mainstream project she's ever done.
"I understand that this has given me a whole new exposure that I probably wouldn't have otherwise because I've mostly done small, independent movies that have a very limited audience," she said. "This is the greatest audience I've probably had for a long, long time and it's also a younger demographic, so that's good, I guess. I don't know what that ultimately means, but, yes, I'm glad people are looking at the work."
Lange hasn't done her career any favors by spending most of her heyday living in a small town outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, where she raised her children with playwright Sam Shepard. (The two separated in 2010.) She still maintains a family cabin in northern Minnesota.
"It's everyone's favorite place to be, and it's home," she said. "It's exquisitely beautiful, a kind of magical place. My most primal identity, I think, is from that part of the world."
Lange seems quite content to call television a home as well, having already signed up for a third season of Horror. The fact that co-creator Ryan Murphy has made Lange a creative partner is a first in her career. Does she want to be a '40s lounge singer in some flashback scenes? Done. Would she like to play an alcoholic for the first time? Bottoms up. In exchange for giving her creative input, Murphy is pushing Lange like she's never been pushed before, which is just fine with her.
"I feel at this point, I can take any chance I want and go as far as I want, because judgment doesn't matter to me anymore," she said. "In the beginning it does matter, the slings and arrows and the 'Oh, my God. They said that really?' Now the only thing that I care about is: Is it thrilling? Am I doing something I haven't done before? Have I found some vein of truth?
"It's a different way of working, I guess. I don't know if it has much to do with age, or with how long I've been doing this."