Jessica Lange: 'I believe we're on the precipice'

Jessica Lange is back in the West End, reinventing her Broadway role in 'A Glass Menagerie'. But she's more keen to talk of her family and her despair over the Iraq war. By Michael Coveney

Friday 26 January 2007 01:00

"I'm amazed how many films some people have done," says Jessica Lange, tossing back her tousled blonde hair and stretching out on a comfortable sofa in the residents' bar of the Covent Garden Hotel in London. "I mean, I've only made 25 films in 30 years. So I now realise there's an awful lot of stuff I didn't do."

This is one way the twice Oscar-winning actress - for the supporting role of a soap-opera star in Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman in 1982, and for the mentally unstable wife of Tommy Lee Jones in Blue Sky in 1994 - rationalises her status as a leading lady and an active mother. And she won't itemise the films she missed out on. Because the actress who took the role went on to win an Oscar, right? "Right!" Cue guffaw and sexy curling-up act on the comfy sofa.

You couldn't imagine Lange behaving this way at the Dorchester or Claridges. She's one of those stars who retain their allure while appearing to be just a little low-maintenance. She lives in the real world but travels with a chauffeur. An on-the-record enemy of Botox and all the deceptive wiles of cosmetic surgery, she is now an irreducibly attractive snub-nosed 57-year-old with the fewest of facial lines and the post-middle-aged bonus of an interesting neck and character-marked hands.

She has good taste, too. For a start she's married to Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor who makes even Brad Pitt look a bit of a dog. And she knows - and likes - Bob Dylan (Sam's a big rock and blues muso buddy of Dylan, and an honorary north Londoner), whose latest album is her constant companion: "It's uncanny," she says, "how each album absolutely connects to that exact moment in your life, whatever your age or experience. He's my idol. So is Che Guevara."

Whoa there; this might be too much information already. Next stop, George Bush - but he's definitely not on the dinner-party list: "Being at the mercy of that President for the next two years is going to be really frightening."

A passing West End producer calls at our table and pays suitably deferential respects. Lange is utterly charming with people she doesn't know. Then the minder arrives, the chap who's been ferrying her around London to look at apartments. She sends him away with a lovely smile. She thinks she will end up in Kensington, but Shepard is always going on at her about Hampstead, where he lived in the early 1970s to get away from a New York flop, drugs and his nearly ruinous affair with the high priestess and poet of punk Patti Smith (they remain good friends, for the record).

Lange is missing New York and her three grown-up children, but she seems comfortable for the time being in the West End, where she opens in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie next week. But where - and why - did all that movie work go?

The actress spent a great deal of time with the children as they grew up. Parading down red carpets is not really her designer bag. Even more unusually, she has of late relaunched a not-very-packed stage career that began (and more or less finished) in Paris 30 years ago in a festival of new work at the Opéra Comique ("And I don't even sing, for God's sake"). Yet she is undoubtedly an elite American actress, right up there in the same class - in my view - as Joanne Woodward and Meryl Streep.

How dressed-down she is, how ordinary, and yet how oddly appealing; and what a remarkable bundle of paradoxes. She's a reluctant star, a shy siren, a maternal bohemian, a sensual ice-maiden of Polish and Finnish descent, a political and metropolitan sophisticate rooted in the woods and farmlands of northern Minnesota.

She'd pitched up in Paris with her first husband, the Spanish avant-garde photographer Paco Grande, who kindled her enthusiasm for wielding a camera; she is soon to publish a book of photographs that she describes as " mysterious and emotional". Until then, she had worked in New York as a waitress and model.

She married Grande in 1970, had an affair with Bob Fosse, the director of her first film, All That Jazz, in 1979, and was divorced 1981. That was a crucial period in her life, as her career took off in The Postman Always Rings Twice and she had her first child (with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov) in New York. In the following year, she played the distraught and destructive Hollywood legend Frances Farmer on film, meeting Sam Shepard on set. She has been with Shepard ever since.

They have two teenage children, both now in college. They have made films together, most recently Wim Wenders' generally reviled Don't Come Knocking, but he has never written a stage role for her. "I tell him it's about time he did, but he never gets round to it. I guess he will one day..." and she trails off in wistful laughter. Shepard keeps a farm in Kentucky - he's really a cars and horses kind of guy - and the couple have recently moved back to New York since Lange's mother died in Minnesota.

The family had lived in Minnesota after prolonged stretches in New Mexico and Virginia. "I made a decision," Lange says, "that I was going to raise my children outside of the industry. I didn't want them inundated with that entire thing about film-making."

The tea and fruit scones arrive and she tucks in with gusto. She's about to re-invent the character she played on Broadway two years ago, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. The play was Williams's first success and his most directly autobiographical play. Amanda is a genteel remnant of the old South, trapped in her memories and trying to manipulate her gauche daughter into a romantic liaison with "a gentleman caller". The play is recounted in past and present tense by Amanda's son * * Tom, the character based on Williams, who is on the brink of an escape into the artistic life.

In New York, Lange's performance met with mixed reviews from the local critics but was much admired by a few London reporters, including this newspaper's Paul Taylor, who described it as "an exquisite study in the drawling self-deception and oppressive nostalgia of a faded Southern belle". The production by David Leveaux, which overcame the last-minute replacement of the actor who was to play Tom (Christian Slater stepped in), was impressively muted and poetic. Lange's Amanda was steely, self-absorbed, dream-like, floating on a sea of lace jonquils, casually cruel.

The production at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue may see a new take on the drama, as Rupert Goold is now directing and Lange was unhappy with the New York reception. Indeed, her publicists in London are trying to pretend that New York never happened: "It's a new production," snaps one apparatchik, as if we were all now supposed to forget that the producer Bill Kenwright had invited London critics across the pond in the first place. But it is hard to see how Lange can alter her initial performance too much without damaging its special, febrile delicacy and its bottled dynamism, qualities that eluded even the excellent Zoë Wanamaker when she played the role for Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse 10 years ago.

"I love London, and I love London audiences," Lange says, a little pointedly. "I've had two great experiences in London..." - those were her visits here as Blanche DuBois in Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire in 1996 and as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night in 2000 - "... and two not-so-great experiences in New York." She doesn't really know why this should be, but she is wearing the same lucky piece of jewellery she wore as Amanda in New York in this version, and the same Parisian perfume that she has worn for all three great roles.

These Williams and O'Neill characters are all to some extent delusional, injured creatures, a temperamental strain that Lange has gloriously encompassed on celluloid in her performances as the iconic showbiz victims Frances Farmer and Patsy Cline. But she has also plugged straight into hard-core sensuality, not only in that breakthrough performance in Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) opposite Jack Nicholson - who famously said: "Few are the men who do not want to fall at the feet of Jessica Lange" - but also as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Julie Taymor's brilliant and bestial Titus (1999).

When she's finished with Williams, she hopes to continue working with Kenwright on a Christopher Hampton film of a novel by Colette. She will then return to Hollywood to make Grey Gardens, a bizarre domestic story of the ruined aristocratic cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, a mother and daughter who were both called Edith Bouvier Beale and were discovered in self-destructive squalor and poverty at the ends of their lives. The material has yielded a Broadway musical hit, but this project predates that. Lange is to play the old crone, opposite Drew Barrymore.

What will this tell us, I wonder, about her country and its role in the world? In a way, I wish I hadn't put this question. She's off - and she's not toeing any PR line. "George Bush really has whipped up the most poisonous scenario of neighbour against neighbour over the war in Iraq. It's disgusting. I can't tell you." But she does. "There were times when it was really lovely to be out there and against the war. But then I had anti-war stickers on my car and some big fucking pick-up with an American flag tried to drive me off the road. It was scary and I was scared."

I suggest that her mood was the result of her rather soft, hippie-liberal Democratic anti-patriotic fervour, and that perhaps she would be a whole lot worse off if President Bush wasn't defending her "way of life" and "civilised" (read privileged) values against the Islamic threat. The suggestion, I have to say, does not go down well. "What? What are you saying here? I thought you were a nice person. My anti-war work started four years ago when the drums were beating. The few of us who really spoke out at the time took such a beating in the press - even the liberal press - and on CNN; I was on a CNN news programme with an arms inspector who had been in Iraq, and we were treated like shit. Everything he said - and it was all factual - has come to pass.

"There was talk at the time of blacklisting - it was the McCarthy era all over again - and a horrible, poisonous atmosphere. Now we are into an escalation of the war, and it's Vietnam all over again. It's gone beyond right or wrong. It's just become lunacy and danger. Especially now they're talking about Iran as the third front. You begin to wonder why we bring children into this world. We're on the precipice. No question."

Lange has worked for five years as an ambassador for Unicef, joining a roster that has included the likes of Peter Ustinov and Roger Moore, but she is refreshingly honest about the impact she might or might not have. " It all depends on when they call you up and whether you can do something, or travel. I'm always happy to do fundraising, press or field trips. I've travelled to Mexico, the Congo and Russia; it's all about when they call on you." On her most recent such trip, she did some fantastic, highly personal work with children infected with HIV.

Lange never wavers in her commitment to family. "Nothing has changed the direction of my life as much as having children," she says. Hers, of course, are now let loose on the American campus system. "I am in a cleft stick at the moment. My last child has just left home. And we've moved back to New York. We've come to a dangerous spot, in more ways than one. Everything Al Gore is working for now [on environmental issues] is worthwhile and worth paying attention to." Really? "Oh yes. I don't have a car any more, for instance." She arrived at the hotel, of course, in a chauffeur-driven car.

Lange is an enigma, an actor who teases with her mixture of seriousness and sexual flippancy. Her role in the great Williams play is similarly elusive: dominant, dependent, bizarre, contained. Is that Jessica Lange? Will she come alive again on stage? "It's you out there, and that's it. You are much more responsible every night than you are on a film set. You can't say, 'Oh, you should have seen what I did!' That's why I love the stage.

"But I love my family more. Nothing has changed my life as much as having children, and nothing is as important to me as the place where I came from, in those old Minnesota woods."

In spite of all her contradictions, Jessica Lange remains touchingly from-the-heart. Amanda in The Glass Menagerie is an offbeat eccentric in some ways, but the actress playing her this time is no less sentimental, if a mite more hard-headed, in a wayward but emotionally centred sort of way. She would rather be with her children any day of the week, even as they grow into adulthood. "And I still really hate that stupid bastard George Bush!" she cries.

'The Glass Menagerie' is at the Apollo Theatre, London W1 from 31 January (08708 901 101)

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