Two-time Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange has played opposite Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Harris, a giant gorilla and Sam Shepard.
She has appeared in films written by David Mamet, Tennessee Williams, Larry Gelbart, Beth Henley and Sam Shepard as well as films directed by Bob Fosse, Bob Rafelson, Sydney Pollack, Costa-Gavras, Martin Scorsese Tony Richardson and Sam Shepard.
She has been romantically linked to Paco Grande, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sam Shepard.
But she’s never done Shakespeare. Until now.
Jessica Lange makes her Shakespearean debut with Titus, an adaptation of Titus Andronicus by celebrated Broadway director Julie Taymor.
Portraying Tamora, the sexy yet deceitful Queen of Goths, Lange stars, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Alan Cumming as Emperor Saturninus, in this seething tale of war, religion, rape, murder, racism and bloodlust.
I sat down with Lange to chat about the film, the Bard, the sex life of 1,600-year-old barbarians, but not Sam Shepard.
It seems odd that this is the first time in your illustrious career that you’ve ever done Shakespeare…
I was offered a couple of things. I just didn’t feel the timing was right. For one reason or another, I couldn’t do it. I never had that insane actors’ urge to do it though. Isn’t that terrible? I hate to admit it, but I really didn’t. I know with some actors that is really what they’re always yearning for, striving for. But I never did. It never really presented itself anyway, and I never really went after it. So when this came up, I read it with a certain amount of trepidation.
How difficult was conquering the language and rhythm of the Elizabethan tongue?
Actually when I started to play it, I was amazed how easy the language became because it’s so brilliant, so perfect, so intelligent. Which makes it actually much easier to speak than poorly-written language, which is usually what we have in films, you know?
The great thing about this language and this play is that I think, in some way, it is more accessible. I actually had a reporter ask me why we didn’t use Shakespeare’s language, why we didn’t actually use his text. He had assumed that we had re-written the language.
How did you research the role?
Sometimes you see Shakespeare performed and you get the feeling that the actor has no idea what he’s actually saying. Well, I don’t know how you could do it without knowing what you are saying.
The thing about doing Shakespeare is that you have this poetry, but what I feel about this play is that the language is more accessible. It doesn’t have that kind of beauty and poetry that, say, Hamlet does. So, for me, it was a great place for me to start with Shakespeare. The language didn’t feel that kind of impossible. It didn’t feel that difficult.
And actually once you really understand--and I think what you have to do--I’d take one of Tamora’s speeches and go through it--I mean I would do this with every line--and I would say, “What am I saying?” With every single line. I would understand it completely. He uses words that are no longer used. He uses a syntax that’s very different from modern language. I think if you just do the language sometimes you don’t know what you’re saying. I don’t know how you can act if you don’t know what it means.
The one thing I discovered with this was how easy--and this was what I didn’t know--how easy it was to kind of filter the emotions through the words.
Although you’ve only taken a few roles in the last decade, the quality of projects that you do tackle seems to insure your longevity in an otherwise fickle industry. What is that special thing about a particular film that attracts you?
What have I done in the last three years? I’ve done one film. The measure has never been whether it’s commercial. I’ve made a long career of noncommercial films. It really has to do with “Does it have artistic merit?” Basically that’s what always matters to me.
What attracted you to Titus?
I was so tired of doing dishes. I got to leave Minnesota and spend six months in Rome. It was great.
It was a combination of things. One was, of course, the material. I actually liked the play when I read it, even though I know that a lot of scholars discredit this play. I think it was written when he was young, and--this is just all my kind of supposition--but it has a kind of youthful enthusiasm. He hadn’t thought through a lot of stuff; there’s big holes in the plot, and the reasoning of it is not terribly clear, but there’s a thrust of energy in this play and I like that a lot.
And then, of course, I wanted to work with Julie (Taymor) because I thought “Even if we fail miserably, even if it doesn’t work, it’s at least courageous and it’s unusual and it’s not a run-of-the-mill, boring movie. It’s not ordinary.” I was taken by (the Broadway play) The Lion King and her visionary approach to directing. The idea of creating this kind of visual life that was so imaginative, so new, and so unusual in today’s market of filmmaking. Everything is so straight and ordinary and dull and unimaginative that I thought, “Even if she screwed up terribly, at least it would be something different.”
And then of course there were the actors. As soon as she told me Tony Hopkins was playing Titus and Alan Cumming was playing Saturninus--I’ve always been such a huge fan of Tony. I’d seen Alan on Broadway in Cabaret and I thought it was one of the most mesmerizing performances I had seen in a long, long time.
What about the character of Tamora made you want to play her?
She’s the one that sets all the tragedy in motion, really. I mean, in reaction to what Titus does to her, which is to sacrifice her oldest son. And she pleads and she pleads with him. I got to that first scene when the script was sent to me and I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”
I thought it was so beautiful. Here’s a woman who, with her most primal, maternal strength, is begging for the life of her son. And she does it on three levels.
First as a human… and he denies her. And then it’s parent-to-parent: “If you understand what it’s like to have a child, spare my child.” And he denies her again. And then it’s on the level of invoking the gods: “Do something noble. Rise above the human.” And he denies her again.
My favorite line in the play is when she says “O cruel, irreligious piety!” You know: “What’s done in the name of religion? What’s done in the name of this ridiculous law? You deny humanity for the sake of this religious ritual?” And really, I mean, even in the beginning, I think she’s completely and totally justified.
Justified, maybe. But certainly not nice.
Even though she’s despicable. Even though she’s monstrous at times. I like this kind of bigness in her. Her wantonness. And this kind of voracious desire and appetite for life and sex. There was something big about her, and I thought it would be fun to play a character like that. I can’t think of when I might have played a character like Tamora.
This woman was portrayed--and maybe because it was written 300 years ago or something--but she was just as powerful, just as forceful, just as conniving, and could be just as destructive as any man. I’m not saying these are qualities that we should strive for--that this is what equality is all about. But I like the fact that she is not written as being any lesser than her adversaries. She is a tremendous adversary.
And she oozes and seethes with raw carnality…
I love that part of it. When I played it, I was 49. Here’s this woman, who at this point in her life, has this great, voracious sexuality and uses it. I love that idea when she says to him, “If you advance the Queen of Goths, a handmaid I will be to your desires, a nursemaid to your whatever, a mother to your youth.”
So she’s doing all the kind of archetypal female roles in that she’s mother, she’s lover, she’s seductress; it’s kind of mythical in a way. And I love that quality and the fact that she has this strength, sensuality and sexuality and there’s absolutely no modesty about her.
How did you reconcile yourself as a person and an actress with this immodesty-- especially with regards to overt sexuality and nudity?
Anytime they ask you, “Will you do nudity?” it’s… god, it always sends shivers down my spine. You go, “How can I do that? How can I do that?”
When we did the scene where Saturninus the Emperor and Tamora are in bed together, we thought about how we were gonna do this. Alan Cumming, being very English, had absolutely no reservations about doing anything nude (laughs). So I thought, “How can we design this in such a way that I can actually do this without horrifying my children?”
Remember the iconographic Lebowitz photograph of Yoko Ono and John Lennon? The man is almost fetal in the way he’s curled next to this reservoir of a woman. That’s how we thought we could do this, because Alan’s smaller than I am, this woman Tamora becomes this kind of well. And he’s like succoring, he’s taking comfort in this.
The next scene was very hard for me--the scene after him lying on top of me--which I am so grateful to him because you couldn’t really see anything. But when we wake up the next day and all the messages have been shot into the house. He’s naked of course--being English--he’s naked reading these letters. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll just have the covers up to here and I’ll be reading the letters, too.” Then I thought, “Ugh.” You know? If you’re gonna go down this route, you just have to do it, because I mean, what? All of a sudden, she’s modest? Is she the kind of woman who would bring the sheets up over her because her boys are in the room? No. So I just had to go for it and… ugh. I don’t want my kids to see this movie. (laughs)
In her relationship with Aaron the Moor, do you think Tamora is merely using her sexuality as a tool for her Machiavellian designs, or is she genuinely attracted to him?
I think she loves to f*ck Aaron. (laughs) I think she even enjoys the Emperor, too. That’s my theory.
What’s great about it is the complexity of that relationship because they use each other. She can’t do it without him and he is using her to become all-powerful in a way. He obviously wouldn’t be ruling the roost if he weren’t sleeping with the Empress. She is cognizant of that and uses him because she knows he is the one who is going to mastermind the whole thing and who has the absolute ruthlessness and heartlessness to carry it out. Then she doesn’t have to do it. She can just lay back with the Emperor and Aaron’s going to do all the dirty work.
It’s refreshing to see a mature woman--hell, a woman over the age of 30--presented as a sexual being.
Well, you know, the thing is… whoever made it an edict that women over 35 aren’t just as sexual? And who says that you can only show youthful sexuality? You know all sexuality is interesting, whether it’s at 16, 18, 20, 25, 40, 50…