It may be a cliche, but blondes Jessica Lange and Taylor Schilling did have plenty of fun when they sat down for a conversation at Variety’s Actors on Actors studio. The stars of “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and “Orange Is the New Black” discovered they’ve got more in common than just their hair color. Here, they reveal what they’ve learned about their craft, and how best to perform it — whether on screen, on stage, or on location in Ireland.
Taylor Schilling: What was it that brought you to TV? This is the first television show you’ve ever done, right?
Jessica Lange: I’ve done films for TV. I did “Grey Gardens” and we did a production of “Streetcar Named Desire,” but I’d never done a series. I had never thought about doing it. But I think it was just one of those moments where I wanted to do something really different. And Ryan Murphy just called me at the right moment. The right time of day, the right day, the right month. And he’s very seductive in that way of convincing you. And the truth is, it’s been great. I’ve done four seasons. And what I loved about the concept of it was every year was a different character. Different situation, different story, different time. So that’s why I signed up for four seasons, because they were different. Because how many episodes do you shoot?
Lange: Thirteen, that’s what we do too. So, there’s something kind of wonderful, isn’t there, about having that period of time to create this character?
Schilling: What I’ve found is that there’s enough time in that to really settle in. What I think is interesting — because I think the writers know that it will be watched in a chunk, as opposed to individual episodes — there is this vast arc that you can explore, that’s very subtle and can be very intricate. And I think that’s embracing the medium in a way that’s exciting creatively.
Lange: I don’t know how your writing went as you went along, but we never knew from one episode to another what was going to happen.
Schilling: I think it’s so terrifying. I have fought against that. That has become something that I feel like I have taken how frustrating it was and used it to my advantage, because I think there’s something you can embrace, that actually becomes a part of the process.
Lange: I think so, too. Because I think that adds to that sense of exploration and the realness of it. With a film you get the script you read it, you know act one, act two, act three. And you know where you’re going with the character and how you get from page one to page 120. But in this, we literally never had any idea.
Schilling: Was that a difficult transition? How did that feel different from what you’ve done in the past?
Lange: Like you, I really embraced it. I loved the chaos of it. I kind of like working in chaos as it turns out. It’s much more interesting than you know.
Schilling: I’ve always found that if I’m going to read for someone, and I’m just learning this about myself now, I want time to really explore it. Or it’s just like, “Give it to me and then that thing that happens in-between is really magic.” But if I have some weird nebulous in-between time to think about it too much or have an idea.
Lange: Yes, the ideas are what kill you, I think!
Schilling: Every time I have an idea about anything, I mean it’s just quack. Quackery! It’s such a bad thing.
Lange: What I’ve really loved about this process is the spontaneity of it — the chaos and the creating it in the moment where you don’t plan the scene ahead of time, because you haven’t had time. You’re still catching up to where you’re supposed to be. What happens in that process, the actor’s process or whatever you want to call it, is the imagination comes to the fore, as opposed to the mind trying to figure it out. And the imagination just under duress has to, just like a child, make it up on the spot. And it’s kind of wonderful because you surprise yourself a lot of times.
Schilling: It’s so interesting that you say like a child — I’ve had this experience in doing this, there’s something very akin to almost just playing pretend.
Lange: It’s make-believe!
Schilling: Yes! Today I’m going to be a princess, or today I’m going to be in this bizarre situation. Especially coming from school — I went to acting school for a while, but then I dropped out and I did my own (training). But there were a lot of academic ideas of what it meant to be an actor that I’ve tabled.
Lange: Those are deadly.
Schilling: Isn’t it?
Lange: Yes, I think so.
Schilling: I think that they’re very, very bad. And the more I unpeel myself from those, the more interesting and exciting the work becomes.
Lange: I think the more it becomes childlike, in a pure state of really imagining, of not knowing where you’re going with it, I think makes the work more interesting. It lends a kind of almost danger to it. That ups the stakes somehow and I’ve just found doing these four seasons that it really pushed me into exploring acting in a way that was new for me and it was exactly what I needed because in one way I get bored very easily. And it forced me to work in a way I hadn’t done for a long time. And I felt that something new was explored, for myself. Whether or not the work was good or not, it didn’t matter. It was just something about the way I was doing it that became thrilling again.
Schilling: Over the course of telling the story, were there parts that were more challenging for you last season?
Lange: Because the character I played in this last season had this past life as a German cabaret chanteuse, I had to perform four musical numbers. I’m not a singer.
Schilling: You had everyone fooled though. You do know that. You’ve had everyone fooled for a long time.
Lange: I’ve watched people who are natural singers and I’m always in awe of that, because it does not come naturally to me. It was one of these things where I thought, “This is what makes acting interesting,” where you’ve got to push yourself into an area that you would normally not even entertain the notion of. So in that way it was the performing, not just singing, I mean actually standing on stage and performing. That, to me, was the most harrowing experience of this season. And what about you?
Schilling: This broader thing of sometimes not knowing what’s going to come next and almost negotiating with myself of letting go of ideas. If there’s been a theme to what has been difficult as an actor in this process, it’s becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and living on that razor’s edge. There’s nothing more exciting than feeling like there’s a surprise that happens. I feel like I’ve learned a little bit more about making room for that in this process. The most challenging scene is there’s a lot of unbraiding of old ideas in this character, where she is shedding a lot and not necessarily knowing what she’s finding, which I can very much relate to. I think it’s a very human experience. But oftentimes there are some moments where she’ll take a razor-sharp turn, and then to trust that you don’t have to know what you’re going to find there, you just have to leap and then more is revealed. Does that make sense?
Lange: Yes. How do you feel the show has changed your career, or just your whole being?
Schilling: It’s such an interesting question, you know? I feel like what is really exciting about this job, this show, this character, is that I’ve never really felt so engaged with a group of actors so regularly. And that’s such a joyful experience. That makes life so fun. Because I think I do well when I’m working. I do better when I’m working. That has been a very new experience for me to consistently, over 2½ years now, feel very engaged and very satisfied. And there’s confidence that comes with that, and a boldness. That’s something that’s changed a bit in my work.
Lange: It’s great isn’t it, working in a kind of a repertory company? Because you have a level of comfort and a level of trust that you know them, you know how they work, they know how you work, and you can keep upping the ante. Because there’s never that moment in the back of your head where you’re working with somebody you’ve never worked with before and there’s that little part of you that’s going …
Schilling: … Are they going to catch me?
Lange: I do think working the way we do in these series, especially when you know your main actors are the same, there is something kind of wonderful about that. It does feel a little bit like home, doesn’t it?
Schilling: So much. It’s very similar, I feel, to creating a company in a theater production. And then the safety and the knowing-ness.
Lange: There is an almost psychic connection. I remember doing “Streetcar” with Amy Madigan and she was playing Stella. We had worked together for many weeks. And it’s the first time I ever went on stage with no clue as to where I was — it was this kind of instant amnesia. You’re standing there, and you’re thinking, “There’s no way I can get out of this.” There was that moment where she looked at me, and it happened in a hair’s breath, in a split second, and she could see that something had gotten completely haywire behind my eyes. All she did was invert my line and feed it to me, and I knew exactly where I was. And I thought, “This only happens when you have that kind of great familiarity with someone.” They know you, you know them, there’s a level of trust. And it allows you to make braver choices.
Schilling: So balancing comedy and drama, what does that mean to you?
Lange: I used to feel the more tragic, the more insane, all of that was the true test. As I’ve gotten older and maybe it’s because I’m a slow learner, I’ve realized without the comedy, it’s too overwhelming. You need that, and in “American Horror Story” we’ve always been able to do. I’m sure you feel the same way in your show that without that, you’re just sunk. It’s been a great lesson for me, because I realize the two can run parallel. They can feed off each other.
Schilling: You know, it’s so interesting that you say that. I think I had never thought of myself as being capable in any capacity, really, of comedy.
Lange: No, me either. I’m the least funny person in the world.
Schilling: I’ve beat you for that, significantly, especially in social situations. But Jenji Kohan, who created our show, started to really push me in that direction. People watch what we’re doing and start to write more for the specificity of us. I’m learning to value it more. I still sometimes really crave those scenes where we can just go bonkers and hog-wild into something deeply depressing and broken and everyone is becoming completely unglued. But that’s not where this completely lives. I do think that one doesn’t exist without the other, because that’s also what life is.
Lange: You have to have those moments where you can actually laugh. One last question for you: As actors, the idea of location has always been the thing that makes part of it really interesting to me because I have a kind of restlessness. Do you enjoy traveling?
Schilling: That’s one of the most interesting things that we’ve talked about so far. It’s one of the reasons I think might be an actor.
Lange: I think so, too, because you’re constantly on the move. It’s like gypsies. And there’s something wonderful about that.
Schilling: I really can’t imagine anything else. And then I seek that out in my personal life as well.
Lange: Is there a place that you like where you’ve actually been on location or working?
Schilling: One thing that I’ve learned so much more about is how deeply a location informs this character. And the space. And the story and even the way the crew sits in the space. And what you’re getting: learning to let that all live in the scene and in the space of the character, because it’s very real. I’m always fascinated by where things end up shooting. And what weird things happen where you end up being. I had a really interesting experience shooting in Ireland on the West Coast on Connemara.
Lange: Oh, my favorite part of Ireland!
Schilling: We were shooting a lot outside and it was such a visceral experience with the land.
Lange: It’s very magical there.
Schilling: That very raw nature. And more than anything I’ve ever done, I felt like that was part and parcel with the work.
Lange: That’s part of the great thing when you take a role is that it’s really like an immersive course in time, place and history, isn’t it?
Lange: It’s great because you’re learning about something that you might never have known or never had taken the time to study and then living in that place. I love working on location. Because you are just there.