Jessica Lange Discusses ‘American Horror Story: Coven’

Jessica Lange American Horror Story Coven Interview
Jessica Lange participates in "American Horror Story: Coven" panel at the FX 2013 Summer TCA press tour. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Invision for FX/AP Images)

By Fred Topel

Filming had just begun on season three of FX’s critically acclaimed, award-winning anthology series American Horror Story: Coven when the cast and executive producer Tim Minear took part in the summer Television Critics Association press event in Beverly Hills, CA. But the small amount they’d shot, exactly who they’re playing, and how the characters interact with each other this season was being kept pretty much a secret, with only a few basic details dished out. And when Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett were asked about their characters, Minear stepped in to say, “I’m going to have them not give away too much about their characters this year because we’re trying to keep some things close to the vest. If you’ve heard something online, it’s probably not true. We’re at the very beginning stages of shooting the show, and we’d like to keep a lot of the surprises on the screen. And I’d like to keep my job.”

“All of these women are playing very iconic, very strong female characters,” added Minear. “Not all of them are witches. Some of them are witches. But I think that if you look at this panel and this is just part of the cast, and the cast is off the hook. It’s amazing. If we could have gotten George Cukor to direct this pilot, we may have done that. FX is often thought of as kind of a boys’ network, but I think when you look up at this murderer’s row of actresses, you can see that this is in fact going to be the most friendly place for women on television this year is American Horror Story. Friendly until we start, well, the thing we do.”

The plot: “Coven tells the secret history of witches and witchcraft in America. Over 300 years have passed since the turbulent days of the Salem witch trials and those who managed to escape are now facing extinction. Mysterious attacks have been escalating against their kind and young girls are being sent away to a special school in New Orleans to learn how to protect themselves. Wrapped up in the turmoil is new arrival, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who is harboring a terrifying secret of her own. Alarmed by the recent aggression, Fiona (Lange), the long-absent Supreme, sweeps back into town, determined to protect the Coven and hell-bent on decimating anyone who gets in her way.”

In addition to taking part in the American Horror Story: Coven panel, Oscar/Golden Globe/Emmy winner Jessica Lange also sat down with a small group of journalists for a more in-depth look at this upcoming season of the popular FX series.

Jessica Lange American Horror Story: Coven Interview

Can we expect any big surprises like “The Name Game” or another musical number?

Jessica Lange: [Laughing] “Wouldn’t that be delightful? I honestly don’t know. I mean, I’m sure there are going to be some lively little surprises there, but I don’t know if they’ll be of a musical nature or not.”

What did you think when you read that last year?

Jessica Lange: “You know, it was such a funny thing the way that came up because we were dealing with such dark, dark, material – you know, the thing of insanity and mental health and the incarceration and the warehousing of human beings. I mentioned to Ryan [Murphy], and this is the great thing about being in a show that’s as fluid as this, that it’s not all there on the page from the beginning. I said, because I’ve done a little snippet of a musical number as a flashback as the second-rate lounge singer that I played, I said, ‘Can I have another musical number?’ and out of the blue came this, which I thought was absolutely brilliant because it comes out of her despair and her madness and that thing of being, you know, the question do you know who you are? Then, boom! You’re into this kind of crazy, Dusty Springfield musical number and it was so much fun to do.

The most fun about it was watching all of our extras, all the actors that played the inmates throughout the year. I mean, how much fun everybody was having and how great everybody was in it. Yes, it was a great treat. I hope there’s something like that in store. Like I said, I doubt if it’ll be another musical number. I think I probably exhausted my talent in that area.”

Are you astounded every single year? Do you know what you’ll be doing a year from now?

Jessica Lange: “No, I’m not sure yet. It will depend a lot on what the storyline will be. But they keep coming up with new things. I mean, it’s pretty amazing.”

Is there anything you wouldn’t do? It seems like you get to do so much in these sordid roles.

Jessica Lange: “I don’t want to do the overt, violent stuff. I mean, as long as it has some kind of emotion. That doesn’t set well with me. I’ve made that pretty clear.”

Since you’ve been a regular, is it easier or harder to have a new cast come in every year versus working with other regulars?

Jessica Lange: “Well, I do work with the same [actors]. This will be the third year working with a lot of these actors. Some of them skipped the second season and are coming back, some are. But, this group of actresses is pretty spectacular. [Laughing] I’m waiting to see if we get any men.”

In regards to witchcraft and working in New Orleans, is there anything that creeps you out or scares you being in the city and learning more about voodoo?

Jessica Lange: “I think there are areas that you don’t want to tempt. I think you need to have a kind of genuine respect for tradition and for those dark arts. I wouldn’t want to come up against anything. There’s something about this city that I’ve always loved and there is something about it that people have such a deep and profound respect for that place. I mean, the people who live there, and have such a tremendous passion about their town. That in itself is kind of, I don’t know. I’m in awe of it in a way.”

What are your favorite places in New Orleans since you love it so much?

Jessica Lange: “I love the river. I love being in the Quarter and I love the parks. There’s something quite magical about the place, I think. I love the trees and the flowers, and the smell at night.”

Where have you spent time in the Quarter? Have you been to all the old places?

Jessica Lange: “I’ve been to a lot of them. I try to avoid the ones that are most popular from a tourist’s point of view. I mean, for obvious reasons. They’re not as interesting. They’ve been tricked out for the tourists. Yeah, the Napoleon House is a great old place.”

Had you worked in New Orleans a lot prior to this?

Jessica Lange: “No. The first time I spent time there I was actually shooting in Baton Rouge. I was doing a film called Everybody’s All American. Every time I had a moment, I’d run down to New Orleans, of course. Then over the years I’ve made pretty good friends there. I’ve had a photography show there. I’ve had a show of my own collection of photographs at the Ogden Museum there. I’ve come and gone. I’ve worked with a photographer there making photograph viewers. It’s a very interesting city, not just for the film industry that has come but for a long tradition of arts and photography.”

Could you talk about getting to play Sarah Paulson’s mother? Can you see where that relationship is going, given the history of the characters you’ve both played in the past?

Jessica Lange: “Again, we don’t know where it’s going or what that’s going in there. I think, to a certain extent, I may have failed the character in that way. We have to see where it’s going.”

Did you ask for that dynamic to be changed?

Jessica Lange: “No. That was something that the writers and Ryan and the creators came up with this year.”

Will you have a close relationship with Jamie Brewer?

Jessica Lange: “Yes. She’s back. I mean, not as my daughter this time. Yes, she’ll be there and we have a unique relationship again.”

What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?

Jessica Lange: “I think maybe The Exorcist. I remember that one haunted me for a long time. Or I remember when I first saw Night of the Living Dead, when you walk out on the street and it’s like, ‘I know who you all are.’ Yes, I think probably The Exorcist. I’m not a horror film junkie. I haven’t seen a lot of them.”

Did you have a lot of Frances moments in your head shooting last season’s episodes?

Jessica Lange: “Yes. I mean, every once in a while when I do the shock treatment, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I better research on this and see what happens.’ Then I realized, ‘No, I have researched this and I know it.’ All those things are still in the body somewhere.”

You haven’t gotten to describe what type of witch you play. Could you elaborate if she’s a good witch or a bad witch?

Jessica Lange: “It’s fluid; it shifts. I hate to say it because I don’t know what direction it’s going to go yet, but I would imagine there’s a lot of darkness to all of it.”

What are your costumes like this year?

Jessica Lange: “I’m very glamorous this year. Very glamorous, yes.”

You have this sort of eternal youth. Where does that come from?

Jessica Lange: “I don’t know. I’m happy and I think maybe that’s partly it. I think the idea that I’m at a…I like to think of it as being at the third chapter of my life and it opening up and maybe being the best chapter. Who knows? But I want to embrace it with all the kind of enthusiasm that I had when I was young. I want to see where this next adventure, not necessarily, I’m not talking about work now but the next adventure of my life takes me. It could take me in a completely different direction.”

Do you just let it happen?

Jessica Lange: “Yes.”

Do you have some sort of plan or path set out?

Jessica Lange: “No, this one I want to go back to the way I did things when I was 18, and that was just by saying yes to everything and having no kind of predetermined idea about what it was going to be, and just seeing where the adventure could possibly take me.”

That sounds like a great life lesson. Do you share that with other people if they ask you for any advice?

Jessica Lange: [Laughing] “Well, I don’t know. People usually don’t ask me for advice.”

They should. You’re so inspirational.

Jessica Lange: “But I do want to try something maybe completely different from anything I’ve ever done before. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep acting. I may just do something unique, 180 degrees from what I’ve been doing for the last 35 years.”

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American Horror Story: Coven premieres on October 9, 2013 at 10pm.

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