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 "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 misguided nun who becomes a patient in the asylum she runs. It's all part of the Oscar-winning actress' ongoing desire to find characters struggling with both mental capabilities and loneliness.
"It's a potent combination to play," Lange said. "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 is doing some of the finest work of her career, bringing to life damaged characters for whom you feel sympathy.
"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 may have had 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 may have two Oscars ("Tootsie," "Blue Sky"), but there are few blockbusters on her resume. The "Horror" series, while unconventional, 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 has signed up for a third season of "Horror." Co-creator Ryan Murphy has made Lange a creative partner. 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?
"American Horror Story: Asylum" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.