The multifaceted actress shares the backstory of her new children’s picture book and previews her role on the new season of American Horror Story.
Actress Jessica Lange
Tavis: (Laughter) Jessica Lange is one of this country’s most celebrated actresses, with two Oscars and two Emmys and numerous nominations to her credit. For three years she’s been taking on various in the hit series “American Horror Story.” This season is called “Coven.” But she’s also a grandmother, and in that role she’s published her first book for children.
It’s titled “It’s About a Little Bird,” which she illustrated with beautiful, and I do mean beautiful, hand-tinted photographs.
Before we talk about the children’s story, first, a look at a scene from this season “American Horror Story: Coven” Which begins airing tomorrow night.
Tavis: So how you liking this TV thing?
Jessica Lange: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, what I like about it is that you’ve got this different character, different story each year, so that part of it’s been good, because it allows you the time, 13 episodes or whatever, 13 hours to develop a character, but then you don’t have to come back to it ever again. So that I like.
Tavis: What can you tell us, to the extent you can, about the character you play this season?
Lange: Well it’s no mystery. We’re dealing with witches. My character is the supreme of this coven, and it would be what I would say a wasted life. (Laughter) All the joys of power and talent and everything that were given her have been just kind of used for the most selfish, self-serving.
She’s at a point now in her life, confronted with her own mortality, where it’s like you want to put the brakes on the freight train and turn it around, but it’s too late, really.
So it deals with interesting – at least from my character’s point of view, kind of this moment in life where everything comes into question, and how do you proceed from there.
Tavis: Have you had one of those moments in your life, or is that moment yet to come, where everything is called into question for you and you have to figure out how to proceed from there?
Lange: No, I’ve had a few of those. (Laughter) I’ve had a few of those, and –
Tavis: How do you grade yourself on how you’ve navigated those moments?
Lange: Not so well. (Laughter) I’ve had, I think, two or three of those in my life where I really – really, things just like shattered, and you start to figure out well now what is this, where do I go from here? I don’t know who I am, even. I don’t know.
So that’s – yeah, and I hope I don’t have too many more of those up ahead. (Laughter)
Tavis: Are there lessons, though? It seems to me that those are the moments in our lives, and if we haven’t had those moments, just keep living. I grew up in a little Black gospel church, and we used to sing a song, Jessica, called “There’s a Storm Out on the Ocean, and It’s Coming This Way.”
If you live long enough, there’s a storm out there. It’s going to come your way at some point.
Lange: Yeah, yeah, it’s going to sweep over you.
Tavis: It’s going to sweep over you. So are there lessons that you’ve learned from those three tumultuous moments that you can maybe pass on to your granddaughters one day, along with the book?
Lange: Yeah. I think in times like that you have to go back to something that is, like, pure. Something deep, who you really are, in essence, and where you find your strength.
A few times I’ve gone into some kind of practice. One of the big ones was the study of Buddhism. Also just this idea of this last one – trying to recapture that girl that I was. Whoever that was.
So I do think it’s not in the external world that, like, solves these problems for you, and it’s not in that velocity that we embrace to get us through the day. But I think it really is in the solitude, and that safe place within, and surrounding yourself with that. My family has always been the balm for any bad times.
Tavis: I’m going to come back to that family and your granddaughters, for whom you’ve written this book and other granddaughters around the world, I suspect. Before I move on, though, because you’ve said something very fascinating now that I want to go back and pick up.
I want to be careful how I phrase this, because you’re not the first person, the first artist, specifically, to sit in this chair over 10 years of doing this show who has turned to Buddhism at various points in their careers.
That’s not to suggest that there aren’t artists who are Christians and aren’t artists who are agnostics and atheists and everything else under the sun. But I find that some of the most creative people I’ve talked to over the course of my doing this show have at certain points in their lives turned to Buddhism, whether they’re musical artists or –
Tavis: Obviously, our faith is an individual thing.
Tavis: But I’m wondering if there’s something to the fact that artists, from Tina Turner to Herbie Hancock to Wayne Shorter to Jessica Lange to Richard Gere and others who turned to this.
Lange: Yeah. Well, Richard’s a great practitioner, isn’t he, and has been for a long time. For me, because I was not raised religious – my family was – I’m Finnish on my mother’s side, so that, like, is a long line of agnostic or atheist.
There was no religious practiced at home, and nobody I really knew around me was religious, my family members. So it kind of left almost like a blank slate to find something at some point in my life, and I was fortunate enough to be in a place where there was a monastery nearby.
So I was able to study with some of the monks and the (unintelligible). What they said just had tremendous weight for me. It made more sense than putting my faith into, like, you know, one god or whatever, a practice that way.
This was really an internal practice of trying to learn these kind of – the dharma, the life lessons, and to find a way to see life in a new perspective. To actually look out at the world in a new and elevated way.
So that to me – it just, I don’t think – and I’m sure people find solace that way in their religions, especially if they’ve been raised in something. But since I never was, it was kind of like okay, now pick something. (Laughter) That was the one that made most sense to me, really.
Tavis: Speaking of picking things, one of the things that you picked, or maybe – you tell me, maybe it picked you – beyond your thespian chops is this wonderful gift you have for photography. Did you choose it, or did it choose you?
Lange: Well it’s interesting, because when I first started off I was with – when I say “started off,” when I was 18 and ran off, ran away from home, ran off to Europe, it was with a group of young photographers and filmmakers.
So I immediately sensed the power of imagery, and I loved it. Years later, I came back to it through collecting photograph. That’s the only thing I’ve really collected seriously over many years, and had, like, certain photographers that I just was in awe of.
Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans or Manuel Bravo. It was – so then I kind of surrounded myself with these iconic images, and at one point somebody gave me a camera, and I actually started shooting myself again, which I hadn’t done for I don’t know, maybe 20 years or so.
I just immediately was pulled back into the whole magic of it. That idea of photographing and then developing your own film, and then printing your own. It was, in a way, so the polar opposite of being an actor and being constantly observed and performing.
This was so anonymous and so private, and it was really – it was a great kind of – it just gave me so much joy to do. So that’s how it began again for me. I just started taking my camera with me wherever I was going.
I never shot on sets, but if I was traveling somewhere or on location, I would always have my camera, and I’d always be – it’s that kind of fly on the wall approach to photography, though. I don’t engage the subject. I like to sneak around, skulk about in the dark.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because you used a word that I want to go back to know, because there is something uniquely different about one whose life has been spent being observed, to your word, now doing the observing.
I have a number of books that are sitting in my dressing room right now that, on a coffee table. The famous photographs – or they’re not even famous; just the photographs of Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy, the greatest entertainer ever, I think, always being observed, but loved observing.
Tavis: I got a book in there from Jeff Bridges.
Tavis: Always loves being – his life has been spent being observed, but loves observing.
Lange: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Now Jessica Lange, being observed, but loves observing. What’s the – how do I want to phrase this? What’s the distinction, or what is the joy that comes from observing as opposed to being observed?
Lange: Well, I think because I go back to that thing about being so incredibly private. What I love about photography, and it’s the same thing I love about acting, really, is that it forces you, like, right into the moment, where you can’t be distracted, where you can’t be, like, thinking about other things or ahead of yourself or behind yourself.
Because if you’re really in the process of photographing, you are absolutely aware. You are looking. It somehow – the thing that it’s taught me so much is that the ability to see, to really look and to actually see what’s in front of you.
Then, of course, again, it’s similar in acting in that way is that that’s what begins to play into your imagination and where you want to go with that.
There’s a very, I think very particular – in my black and white photography that I do, there’s – one thing lends itself to the other. There is a certain kind of cinematic. I’m drawn to – I understand the power of light and darkness and what that does on an emotional level, and how that kind of creates a set, almost, a scenario, a story.
So that’s been – but mostly it’s that thing of being anonymous, and having this object between you and the outside world. In a way, you’re kind of hiding behind it, and yet you’re using it as this great tool to just, like, observe the whole life that goes on in front of you.
Tavis: I’m wondering how all this – I’m laughing on the inside, because I’m wondering how all this plays out when a photographer shows up to shoot Jessica Lange.
Lange: I hate it. (Laughter)
Tavis: I knew you were going to say that.
Lange: It’s just like even after all these years, it’s almost unbearable for me.
Tavis: Yeah. You may make it unbearable for the photographer.
Lange: Yeah. Well, I try (laughter), I try to keep in mind, because his terrible assignment too. So I –
Tavis: Yeah, I was wondering whether or not that made you an easier subject or a more difficult subject to photograph.
Lange: Yeah, no, it’s never been easy, but yeah, (laughter) I have more empathy now.
Tavis: I’m sure they appreciate that. Let me turn now, speaking of photographs – I’ll talk about the story in just a second, because it’s about a little bird. It’s based on a true story, which I’ll come back to.
Pardon my ignorance here – I did not know there was such a thing – I learn something doing this show on PBS every day. (Laughter) I didn’t know there was such a thing as hand-tinting black and white photographs, but when I saw what you had done with these photographs.
For those – maybe I’m the only person who didn’t realize this, but for those who are a little bit ignorant like me about hand-tinting black and white photographs, what does it mean? I see what it looks like. It’s beautiful.
Lange: Yeah. Well, it’s a process that goes back to the earliest photography, to tintypes, daguerreotypes. Of course it was all black and white, because that was long before there was any color technology.
What they would do in those days, they would sometimes just add a little touch of color here and there, like to the cheeks or to the lips or to a gold chain or whatever. You see it in even the earliest daguerreotypes.
When interested me in it is because I’ve collected photography, I’ve collected of what they used to call “real photo postcards,” which I’m sure you’d recognize if you saw, starting in, like, the turn of the century – the last century.
Of like photographs being made into postcards, which then you could send to your relative across the country, and this is our new house or a man would sent to a woman with a note.
Then from there came the tinted photograph, the tinted postcard, and it always had this kind of magical, almost fantastical quality to it, because it wasn’t real color, but it was color that was laid on a black and white photograph.
So when I started this little book, I thought well, I’m not an illustrator, obviously, but I’ve taken photographs of children. What I would really love to do, because it should be colorful; you can’t give a children’s book, kind of my somber black and white photographs.
So I started hand – and there’s such a thing as photo oil, and it’s not easy to find anymore, like a lot of the photographic processes, but you can still find it, and then you just shoot the photograph, you develop it, print it on black and white, and it’s all film, it’s not digital. Then you paint it like painting by numbers, almost.
Tavis: Other than the creative joy that it brings you to do that, since nowadays you can take a color photograph in digital –
Lange: I know. (Laughter) Or you can take a – yeah, take a color photograph and turn it into black and white (unintelligible).
Tavis: So why do that extra labor of love? Maybe that’s the answer.
Lange: Well, I think that is. Because digital doesn’t interest me. It’s too many steps removed from the actual tactile thing. I still read books. I don’t read online.
Tavis: I’m the same way.
Lange: I don’t have a Kindle; I don’t do that kind of stuff. I like to feel the thing in front of me. The whole process of (laughter) photography is so fascinating. There’s something magical still about it when I get in a darkroom, and you’ve shot a roll of film and you develop it and you look at your negatives, and there’s like imagery there. That always stuns me.
Or that when you print a photograph and you’re watching it come up out of the developer, and it’s magic. I can’t explain it. So this is really – because what I’m interested in is going backward rather than forward. I am more interested in the old techniques and the old processes than I am in what everybody’s doing now.
Lange: So in that way –
Tavis: Why, why, why, why?
Lange: Why? Because to me it has more soul, it has more life; it has, like, a history and a bottom to it that I don’t feel with other things. Now I’m learning how to print photogravure, which is one of the first photographic processes, and that in itself – you look at photogravures, and there’s, like, this kind of magical, mysterious life to it that I never see anything like that when I look at digital. I can – yeah, so anyhow.
Tavis: I asked that question, I pressed on that question of why because the answer you just gave is really far more philosophical maybe than you even meant it to be. Because I was just in conversation with myself the other day, and I said maybe it’s just me wanting to hold on to the past, and maybe for some reason I’m afraid of certain things in the future.
What I realized was it’s not any of that. I love living in the moment. I love planning for the future. But I find, to your brilliant point, that there are so many things – you were talking about photographs, but I find that there’s so many things in our world today that don’t have the soul and the spirit –
Tavis: – of the old stuff, the good stuff.
Lange: Yeah. I absolutely feel that.
Tavis: So much stuff is so lacking and bankrupt and empty and hollow.
Tavis: Maybe it’s just me preaching, but I don’t know –
Lange: No, I agree with you completely.
Tavis: I take your point about that. So now back to the story. We talked about the beautiful photographic work inside the book. It’s about a little bird, which as I said earlier is based on a true story. So tell me about this true story.
Lange: (Laughs) I woke up one morning with this – and again, it’s like one of these things. I believe in dreams, so something came in the night and it kind of was still there with me in the morning, and I sat down and I wrote this story.
I really wrote it for my granddaughters, just with the intention of giving it to them, making a little handmade book for them, illustrated with these photographs, about our lives together and everything.
But as I started writing it, this story came to me that I wanted to share with them about something that had happened to me, and it’s all true. When I was living and working in Rome one time, I bought a tiny little canary at a bird market on the streets in Rome.
I brought it home, and I was in Rome by myself because my kids had grown. They always came with me on location, but this time they didn’t. This little bird just kind of filled my life. It was like – it was such a wonderful companion, and when I say it filled up the silence, it really did.
So I had this thing with this tiny little bird, and when I got ready to leave, I had to come back to the States, I thought well, I’m going to take this bird with me. I actually called, like, the American embassy, “What do you have to do to get,” you know, they thought I was nuts.
Nobody obviously had any idea, nor were they going to take any of these questions seriously. So I decided, well, I’m just going to take him. I remember going to the airport that day, to the airport in Rome.
I was traveling with some other people from the film, and they just like – I’ll see you later, because if you get busted (laughter) for bringing this bird, we don’t want to be there.
I went into the bathroom, I took the bird out of its little box, its little basket that I had in my hand luggage, and slipped it into my pocket, which was warm and dark. That little bird stayed there. We went all the way through the airport, through customs, through passport control. This was pre-9/11.
Tavis: Pre-9/11, of course, yeah.
Lange: So you’re not being strip-searched and X-rayed to death. When I got on the plane – and he was fine, he was quiet. We got on the plane, I took him out of my pocket and put him back in his little basket so he could eat and drink during the eight-hour flight or whatever.
Then we did the reverse. When I landed, put him back in my – and then he was home safe. We got home together just fine. So that was the beginning of that story. Then the birdcage was actually how the story begins to evolve for the kids, because they discovered this birdcage in the old barn, and that is also true.
I was here in L.A. one time and saw this amazing birdcage in an antique store. The woman said, “Oh, you know, that was John Wayne’s birdcage.” I thought wow, how could she know that? But maybe she does. It doesn’t matter, I like the birdcage anyhow.
But I always thought that was kind of – I don’t know. So that’s how the story evolved, and it becomes about the wonder of children, which is another thing hearkening to what we were speaking of before.
Are we in danger of, like, destroying that for them, with all the technology that’s available to them? But that idea of imagination and discovery and wonder. So that’s the little story.
Tavis: Have Jessica Lange’s granddaughters given this a passing grade?
Lange: I think so, yeah. I think they’re kind of tickled and don’t really know what to think of it, but (laughter).
Tavis: They’ll appreciate it, I’m sure. They appreciate it now, but they certainly will even more so years down the road.
Tavis: I got a minute to go, and it just seems to me that this question is so there for the asking, so I’ve got to ask it. The joy of grandmothering for you is what?
Lange: Ah. Well, it’s the chance to do it again. That thing if your children are grown now. It’s a kind of I think in the perfect order of nature.
You have your children, you raise them, and just as they’re on that brink of leaving, then the next generation comes along and you’ve got this possibility of doing it again. So yeah, I think they are the redemptive force in nature.
Tavis: I think all the grandmothers watching are applauding that answer.
Lange: Plus it’s easier. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m sure they’re applauding that too. Jessica Lange can be seen on “American Horror Story,” of course, season three under way, and she can be read in her new book, her first book, a children’s book. It’s called “It’s About a Little Bird.” The story and the pictures by Jessica Lange.
Go on with your bad self. (Laughter) Story and pictures. It’s a delight to have had you on this program.
Lange: Thank you, it was lovely.
Tavis: I enjoyed having you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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