Jessica Lange remembers when Ryan Murphy told her she’d be singing a David Bowie song in an episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show set in the 1950s.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh no, we’re way off track,’” she laughs. “And then I thought, ‘This is brilliant.’”
Such is the typical progression of events—are you out of your damn mind gives way to ah, this is genius—when you work with Ryan Murphy, the bold, bonkers, and genre-bending mastermind behind FX’s hit American Horror Story franchise, in addition to past successes including Glee and Nip/Tuck. He’s changed the landscape of the medium by making scorched earth of its conventions and building his own anarchic TV funhouse on the land.
It’s a way of working that Lange has become particularly accustomed to, having finished her final of four seasons as the star of American Horror Story, winning two Emmys in the process and hoping to vie for her fourth for her performance on the most recent Freak Show incarnation.
It’s a tenure that’s seen her effortlessly navigate the delirious maze Murphy constructed for her, first as boozy steel magnolia Constance Langdon in Murder House, then as the terrifying Sister Jude in Asylum and the fabulous Supreme witch Fiona Goode in Coven, who doles out bitchy one-liners as expertly as her spells.
Lange calls her final American Horror Story, Freak Show, her favorite of them all. As Elsa Mars, she was the misunderstood matriarch and maestro of a sideshow that becomes entangled in a series of murders, uncovering damning secrets as the mysteries get unraveled.
With her time on American Horror Story at its twisted happily ever after and awards season firmly underway, Lange spoke to us about why her final season on the show was the highlight, why she’s stepping away from the franchise, and how the Freak Show season was even her idea.
(In an article published this month, she also spoke to The Daily Beast about comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner.)
Plus, she talks about passing the American Horror Story baton to Lady Gaga, who will star in the next installment, Hotel. Yes, she talks about the headlines that were made when she was first asked about it at a recent press conference. And yes, her answer is fabulous.
Now that the show is finished airing, we’re in the midst of awards season, and the new season is about to go into production—how do you feel now that your four years is over and you’ve had some time to process it?
It was such a great experience. I loved it. I loved every season, some more than others, of course. I think my favorite was this last season. What I loved most about doing these four years was working with Ryan Murphy, working with this group of kind-of repertory actors, and yet doing something completely different every year. And I appreciate so much the characters that they wrote for me. They were great, great characters that had so much to do.
Will you miss it?
I’ll miss it, but I think in some way I had never intended to do more than one season, and then reconsidered and decided to do three more. But, you know, I felt like I had come to the end of it. I’d love to work with Ryan again sometime on a different project. I loved the characters that I played. Especially, like I said, this last season. It was an extraordinary experience.
What made this last one your favorite?
I think a combination of things. First of all, the character, because this character was enormous. I got to do so much with her. With going back into her history, I was very fascinated with this ’20s and ’30s Germany, between the two World Wars, that period of time that Cabaret takes place. It’s a fascinating time historically. And I loved that my character emerged from that, the whole sordid history that she kept secret. It was just a lot to play, and to be able to do those musical numbers.
I mean, on top of everything, you sang.
To sing David Bowie and Lana Del Rey. Like, wow, it just keeps getting crazier and crazier. The accent. It was just a huge trajectory, this character. But my favorite of all was this idea that we really were like a troupe. I think everybody felt that. It had a very carnival atmosphere all the time, and it felt like we were an ensemble, that we were a troupe of misfits. There was something just great about that. And meeting these people like Rose [Siggins, “Legless Suzi”] and Mat [Fraser, “Paul the Illustrated Seal”] and Erika [Ervin, “Amazon Eve”] and being able to get to know them over time and work with them. It was an extraordinary experience. I just found it—I don’t know—magical, in a way.
Is it true that you actually brought the idea of doing a Freak Show season to Ryan?
Yes. Well, I had always been fascinated with circuses and sideshows, traveling carnivals. All of that. I thought it would be great to explore the traveling sideshow in the ’30s. My idea was every episode would take place in a different small town, but of course that became impossible. I mean, when it was at its height during the Depression, this was the form of entertainment for rural America. Then Ryan, I think in his very brilliant way, decided to run it up against the beginning of TV. It was the end of one freak show, the beginning of another freak show. (Laughs)
It’s very poetic.
We moved it up from when I had proposed and I think it worked much better. You had these two worlds kind of colliding, the end of a popular entertainment and the beginning of another. Any time you see something at the final note, the end moment, there’s something inherently tragic about it already. I did a lot of research, and knowing that these people who were referred to as freaks and were exhibited at freak shows, when they came to an end they weren’t necessarily better off. There was the whole moral thing of exhibiting freaks for public entertainment. But when that ended, a lot of these people were institutionalized. And within the carnival community, obviously there are many viewpoints on this. But they had communities, they had income, and some of the early ones I started reading about, they were world famous. So there are two sides to the coin, obviously. By putting it at the tail end of this era, there was so much poetry in the way the steps were done and the costumes, it was just all in a state of decay.
A lot of the things that you’re talking about are highly relevant today, with reality TV and the way we treat those stars?
I think that was Ryan’s point. That the freak show became television, kind of.
It might not be as explicit as it was then when we actually labeled these people the “freak show.” Now we’re dressing it up under the name “reality TV” as if it’s more humane and classy, when it may not be at all.
I am not a fan of reality TV. To me, it is just like another form of exhibition. Yeah. Enough said about that.
Do you think that Elsa was a villain? Or the bad guy this season?
You know, the one thing that we should be very clear about is that she did have a deep and abiding love for these people, and that was her redemption, really. She, obviously, was amoral. But again, coming up from where she came and the idea of survival and how she learned to survive, you have to take that somewhat into consideration. So I didn’t see her as a pure villainess. She did care so deeply for these people and really did take care of them—in her own way, limited emotionally that it might be. But, yes, I never wanted her to do harm to them. That was the thing that I argued for throughout the course of the season. That is the one thing that redeems her. She deeply cares for them and their wellbeing.
So then how did you feel about her final scene with Ethel, where she kills her?
That’s where it crossed. There was that whole thing of Ethel threatening to do them all in, and that was the trigger, where she decides to kill Ethel. She’s not an honest woman. It’s not a question of truthfulness or anything like that. But it was, in some way, again her way of protecting the other ones. So I’m not saying that was an altruistic thing. It was her own survival, too. But, yes, she was capable of murder.
Did Elsa do anything this season that really shocked you? That you were truly surprised when you got the script that she would commit that act?
That was probably the biggest. We went around with that scene—Kathy and I and the writers—and talked about it over and over and over again to get it to the right tipping point. That would’ve been to me the most egregious. I had to find a way to do that. I think she truly loved Ethel. She said, “You were like my sister,” and she actually meant it. But it comes down to her survival, and the survival of her troupe. Her little group there.
You mentioned the musical numbers earlier. What is it like to shoot those? I can only imagine how strange and fun and scary…
All of that. It was all of that. It’s amazing, because when he said she was a cabaret singer I assumed we’d be doing period songs. Then he gave me the first number to learn, which was “Life on Mars.” At first I thought, “Oh, no, we’re way off track.” And then I thought, “This is brilliant.” It was great to learn. I studied David Bowie’s music videos, who I have to say is an absolute genius. To learn the songs, I’m not a born singer, but it’s great because it kept pushing me.
Learning the songs is one thing. But you had to then perform these elaborate production numbers.
Yes, then there’s the fact that I had to do it as a performance, which was really wonderful to step out on stage as a performer. I’d never done that before. It was just a great way to make myself do something that I’d never imagined doing. So again I’m grateful to Ryan for giving me that opportunity. Because when would I ever perform on stage doing these musical numbers? And I loved them. I loved the two David Bowie songs I did. And Lana Del Rey—they’re great pieces. It was really challenging. And when I went into the recording studio, I was absolutely terrified. But it was so much fun to do. Kind of liberating in a way.
The new season is about to start filming and the lead torch is being passed to Lady Gaga. You were asked about it at the Paley Center panel, how you felt about her taking over, and people were trying to read into what you were saying by what you were not saying.
What did I say? I don’t remember.
You didn’t say much…
The question was, now that she was going to do it would I be interested in coming back to work with her or something.
Which was an interesting way to phrase that question.
It was a near-impossible question to answer. It reminded me of what Gertrude Stein supposedly said on her deathbed. When she said, “What is the answer? For that matter what is the question?” That’s how I felt. What is the question?
So the more clear question would be: How do you feel about her leading the show in your absence?
She’ll be surrounded by all those great actors. The same ones I had the great opportunity to work with. I have no idea if she’s an actor or not. But I’m sure it will all work out. I don’t know what the season is, what they’re doing, what the premise is, who the characters are. But all I can say is she’s going to have good writing and she’s going to have great actors to work with. It’s a good start.