Jessica Lange Went to the ‘Brink’ for ‘The Great Lillian Hall’

There’s a reflective quality to Jessica Lange’s role in “The Great Lillian Hall.” Michael Cristofer’s TV movie for HBO follows a legendary actress, known for her captivating presence onstage as well as her genuine love for her art. But unlike the actress she plays, the current star of Paula Vogel’s “Mother Play — A Play in Five Evictions” is not suffering from dementia.

“We take it just up to a certain point. I didn’t have to really delve into the profound effects over time,” Lange told TheWrap. Rather than a drama about a woman losing her memory, “The Great Lillian Hall” is about someone right on the cusp of that loss. The decision to not fully dive into the grim realities of the disease came from Cristofer, who “decided not to go there.”

“I think it was a great decision,” Lange said. “You see her coming up to the brink of that and her struggle of trying to keep going, do what she’s always done, do what she loves more than anything in the world and the struggle, the courage and her fortitude and perseverance. Those were the main elements that I really had to find with this character.”

The Great Lillian Hall
Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange in “The Great Lillian Hall” (Photo Credit: HBO)

Lange’s performance in “The Great Lillian Hall” has been called “a masterclass in acting” as well as a “tour de force.” Part of that electricity has to do with Lange’s performances with her co-stars, Kathy Bates and Lily Rabe. Bates portrays Lillian’s longtime personal assistant Edith, who quickly pieces together Lillian’s diagnosis and makes it clear that she won’t let her friend embarrass herself. As for Rabe, she plays Lillian’s daughter Margaret, a woman with a complicated relationship with her highly successful mother who is unaware of the diagnosis.

The friendship between Lange and Bates goes “way, way back,” according to Lange. “Not just working together but we see each other whenever we can if we’re in the same city. She’s a dear friend,” Lange said.

While that intimacy helped contribute to her electric scenes with Bates, the power of their partnership goes beyond their many years knowing each other.

“There are certain actors — and Lily is another one. Lily’s just a jewel. I love working with her — where nothing has to be said. There’s a kinetic energy. There’s an ease of being together,” Lange said. “In a way we all work in a similar fashion. It’s all grounded in some kind of emotional reality. That makes it much easier when things don’t have to be discussed or explained.”

Though the emotional and often trippy “Lillian Hall” could rank as a deeply challenging role for other actors, for Lange, it doesn’t even make the list. Frances Farmer in 1982’s “Frances” came to mind when asked about her most challenging roles. “She was such a huge character and so emotionally violent and tragic,” Lange said. ‘Big’ Edith Bouvier Beale in 2009’s “Grey Gardens,” Patsy Cline in 1985’s “Sweet Dreams” and Joan Crawford in 2017’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” were also mentioned by the star.

“I love doing biographical films because they really open a world that otherwise you probably wouldn’t know about,” Lange said.

However, the roles that have haunted her the most only exist onstage. Lange dubbed Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” her “favorite part ever, of all time and forever.” Lange also starred in the film adaptation of the play from director Jonathan Kent, which is yet to be released. She also said she wished she had “more opportunity to work on” Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“I never felt completely satisfied with the work that I did,” Lange said. “[Blanche DuBois] is a bottomless well, so if you didn’t age out of parts like that, you could keep doing them for the rest of your life and there would still be discovery. That’s how I feel about Mary Tyrone. You could play that character from now until they put you in the ground, and you still wouldn’t get to the bottom of that wealth.”

The Great Lillian Hall
Lily Rabe and Jessica Lange in “The Great Lillian Hall” (Photo Credit: HBO)

Looking ahead to her professional future, Lange said that she was open to collaborating again with “American Horror Story” and “Feud” co-creator Ryan Murphy, though she doesn’t currently have anything in the works. As with all her projects, it comes down to the part.

“I played some wonderful characters for Ryan in the first four seasons of ‘American Horror Story’ who were really crazy, wild, wonderfully written, beautifully developed characters, and then doing Joan Crawford for that first season ‘Feud.’ So if there was if there was something of that caliber, of course,” Lange said.

But aside from possibly hosting a gardening show, Lange has made peace with the possibility her illustrious career may be starting to come to an end.

“It won’t bother me, let’s put it this way, if I don’t work again for a while. I treasure the time that I’m not working, where life is simple and you can take time to do ordinary things that, when you’re working, there isn’t the opportunity for,” Lange said. “There are a couple of things that I’m still wanting to do, parts that I’d like to play, projects that we’re working on, in development or whatever. But realistically, there’s not that much still ahead. At the age that I am, there aren’t endless characters to play.”

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