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Jessica Lange, Back In Black For 'Horror Story'

Oct 17, 2012
Originally published on October 17, 2012 7:09 pm

To speak with Ryan Murphy about his show American Horror Story is to hear this declaration repeatedly: "She classes up the joint."

Murphy is referring to his star, Jessica Lange, who recently won an Emmy for her role in the show's first season. If you've been a fan of Lange's film career, from Tootsie to Frances to Blue Sky, you might wonder why this treasure of the American theater, this two-time Oscar winner, is slumming in a lurid cable TV horror show.

"I was at a low point in my life," Lange laughs, recalling when she decided to take the role. Murphy had developed the character with Lange in mind, after seeing her play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.

"There's something when someone is writing specifically for you," Lange says. "And I could tell that he understood the kind of character that I love to play. Somebody's who's on the edge, who's teetering on the ledge."

For his part, Murphy says he wanted to expose Lange's talent to a new generation who hasn't necessarily seen her films. Murphy has no fewer than three shows on TV right now — Glee, The New Normal and American Horror Story.

"I've always loved horror, and I think it gets a bum rap," he says. "People think it can't be artistic or about something, but I really disagree. I think it always is about something."

So, for example, the first season concerned a contemporary couple whose dream house becomes a nightmare. Horror scholar Drew Beard says a haunted house is a perfect metaphor for the foreclosure crisis and its aftermath, during which so many thousands of Americans have felt haunted by their homes.

"Your ownership of your house is up in the air, because these other forces have this claim on the same walls and floors and doors that you do," he observes.

Beard is impressed by Murphy's decision to completely jettison the original haunted house storyline and start from scratch for Season 2. It takes place in an insane asylum in 1968, with some of first season's stars playing brand new characters.

"When I was in college, I used to go to all the Orson Welles movies, and I used to love seeing all those people in completely different parts," Murphy says. "And I thought, how wonderful that must have been for him, to call up his great pal and say, 'Hey, kid, we're writing you something.' "

So Lange, for example, has gone from playing a nosy next-door neighbor to playing a nun who runs the asylum with an iron wimple. Murphy says part of this season's horror comes simply from setting it in a metal institution 40 years ago.

"If you were a woman, your husband could have you locked up for liking sex too much," he says. "Or you could be locked up for being a lesbian. Or you could be locked up for having an interracial romance."

All of those themes are in play in the new season of American Horror Story. And Murphy is also interested in telling a story about clashes between science, bad science and religious extremism. Lest you take all of this too seriously, though, be forewarned: There are also aliens and Nazis.

Grand guignol theatrics aside — and there are plenty — Murphy says his project is not just to tweak TV storytelling conventions, but to put forth what he calls feminist horror, and to showcase his star.

"I can't wait until she goes insane," he purrs.

"Me too!" Lange chimes in.

"That's my favorite thing that I'm living for," he says. "We have a very great last episode that I told her about."

But he's not giving away any other secrets.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

One of the most critically acclaimed shows on cable television returns tonight, after a long wait, and it is not "Mad Men." It's "American Horror Story," which tied "Mad Men" for the most Emmy nominations this year.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the new season of "American Horror Story," like "Mad Men," also takes place in the 1960s.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: OK, the similarities basically end there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: This period piece is set in an insane asylum run by a grim-faced nun. It's like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" written by Stephen King. The set is a warren of tiny dark rooms, with carpenters and electricians piecing together a creepy mental ward fitted with crucifixes, iron cots, and restraining devices.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

ULABY: Actors shamble around, faces made up to look livid and bruised. One guy's strapped into a painful-looking harness.

Is that a stunt thing or is that a straightjacket thing that you have on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stunt.

ULABY: Soon the stuntman's dangling several stories above the asylum's spooky stairwell. But the show's best source of chills does not need special effects. That would be its star, Jessica Lange.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

JESSICA LANGE: (as Sister Jude) Elfred, get your hands out of your pants.

ULABY: So why is a treasure of American theater, a two-time Oscar winner, slumming on a lurid TV horror show?

LANGE: To be perfectly honest, I was at a low point in my life.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Lange was reportedly separated from Sam Shepard, her partner of almost 30 years. Around that time she was offered a part on "American Horror Story's" first season as an uncanny Southern lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

LANGE: (as Constance Langdon) You should stop unearthing while you're ahead. It only brings a haunting. We have a responsibility as caretakers to the old lands, to show some respect.

ULABY: The role was written for Jessica Lange because the show's creator saw her play Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway.

LANGE: There's something when somebody is writing specifically for you. And I could tell that he understood the kind of character that I love to play, you know. Somebody who's on the edge, who's teetering on the ledge.

ULABY: "American Horror Story's" showrunner, Ryan Murphy says he wanted to expose Lange's talent to young people who never saw her in "Tootsie" or "Frances" or "King Kong." Murphy has no fewer than three shows on TV right now: "Glee," "The New Normal" and "American Horror Story."

RYAN MURPHY: I've always loved horror and I think that it gets a bum rap. People think that it can't be artistic or about something, but I really disagree. I think it always is about something.

ULABY: For example, owning a house.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: The first season of "American Horror Story" concerned a modern-day couple who find themselves trapped in their dream home.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

CHRISTINE ESTABROOK: (as Marcy) It's a classic L.A. Victorian built around 1920 by the doctor to the stars at the time.

CONNIE BRITTON: (as Vivien Harmon) It's just fabulous.

ULABY: A haunted house is a perfect metaphor, says horror scholar Drew Beard, for the recent foreclosure crisis.

DREW BEARD: Your ownership of your house is up in the air because these other forces have this claim on the same walls and floors and doors that you do.

ULABY: And it was audacious, says Beard, for show creator Ryan Murphy to completely jettison the original haunted house storyline and start afresh with the insane asylum. And Murphy did something else surprising. He brought back some of the first season's stars and cast them as brand-new characters.

MURPHY: When I was in college, I used to go to all the Orson Welles movies. And I used to love seeing all those people in completely different parts. And I thought how wonderful that must have been for him to call up his great pal and say, hey. Hey kid, we're writing you something.

ULABY: So last season's high school shooter is now a helpless mental patient. Jessica Lange's gone from a nosy next door neighbor to a nun running an asylum with an iron wimple. Series creator Ryan Murphy says the horror in this season's "American Horror Story" comes partly from setting it in a mental institution in 1968.

MURPHY: If you were a woman, your husband could have you locked you up literally for liking sex too much. Or you could be locked up for being a lesbian. Or you could be locked up for having an interracial romance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: In just the short time I've been here I have witnessed appalling things. Candidly, I'm shocked.

LANGE: (as Constance Langdon) It's a madhouse, doctor. What did you expect?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I expected some form of treatment, therapy. Sister, your hospital still administers electroshock therapy to treat homosexuality. It's barbaric. Behavior modification is the current standard.

LANGE: (as Constance Langdon) Tomato, tomahto.

ULABY: The show takes on science and religion but there's also aliens and Nazis. Having Jessica Lange on board means it gets taken seriously. So, creator Ryan Murphy could call up actress Chloe Sevigny, hot off a prestigious HBO series, and offer her a role.

MURPHY: And I said, I know you're going to think I'm crazy, but it does star Jessica Lange. So, right there, like, we're a classy joint and number two...

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: ...I really want to see you play a nymphomaniac who Jessica shaves you half bald in the first episode. And Chloe was like, say no more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

CHLOE SEVIGNY: (as Shelly) You think I'm full of shame and regret for what I've done now, Sister? You could shave me bald as a cue ball and I'll still be the hottest tamale in this joint.

ULABY: Murphy says this season is feminist horror and a true showcase for Jessica Lange.

MURPHY: And I can't wait till she goes insane.

(LAUGHTER)

ULABY: Me, too.

MURPHY: That's my favorite thing that I'm like living for. We have a very great last episode that I told her about.

ULABY: But he's not giving away any other secrets.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.