"We went to visit him at his little house in Key West,” says Jessica Lange, recalling the day she met playwright Tennessee Williams 25 years ago. As she speaks, Lange distractedly stirs red vitamin-C powder into her Evian—she can’t afford to catch a cold these days. “It was really like being in the presence of some demigod. I think he was very happy. Every morning he got up at 6 A.M., walked across his little patio, and sat in his little studio, and he would work until noon. He was very disciplined.”
Ever since she was in junior high school, the 55-year-old actress has been enthralled by Williams and his “bottomless” characters. She’s played Maggie once and Blanche DuBois as often as she could, and last week, she began previews in another Williams role, manipulative matriarch Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. It’s more than just another part for Lange, an actress who’s often had a long-distance relationship with her own profession: Between jobs, she’s taken stretches of time off to raise her three children, shuttling between ranches in New Mexico, Virginia, and Minnesota. But this summer, she and her longtime partner, Sam Shepard, put the Minnesota house on the market, auctioned off the antiques, and plunked themselves down in the West Village.
This isn’t the first time Lange has uprooted her family for Williams: In 1992, she played Blanche on Broadway. But this time she’s here for good. “It’s been quite a while now I’ve wanted to be back in the city,” she says. “That cycle was finished. It felt to me like something was coming to a close.”
New York, after all, is where Lange’s career began. She settled on the Lower East Side in 1972, having abandoned an arts scholarship in Minnesota to drift cross-country, sixties-style, with her then-husband, photographer Paco Grande. “We were living on the Bowery for $100 a month,” she says. “I think the first gallery had just moved down to Soho.” Lange dabbled in photography and conceptual art (making Formica boxes at one point) and studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau’s teacher. But her modeling caught the eye of Dino De Laurentiis, who cast her as King Kong’s love interest—a bimbo gig that famously nearly killed her career in utero.
But Lange kept her aspirations high; the heady company undoubtedly helped (boyfriends Bob Fosse and then Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had her eldest child, Shura). A romantic lead in Tootsie won her an Oscar and gave her the clout to star in Frances, a biopic about Frances Farmer, which established her reputation for playing strong, strange women: doomed singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, a nymphomaniac Army wife in Blue Sky (another Oscar), sexpot Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice opposite Jack Nicholson (who called her “a delicate fawn crossed with a Buick”).
Since her forties, Lange has shifted toward playing unhinged mother types in productions like Titus, Cousin Bette, and the as-yet-unreleased Prozac Nation. “People sometimes say, ‘Why do you play such tortured, crazy women?’ ” says Lange. “I disagree. I think they are survivors, who have some tenuous hold on some real world that they have to stay in. I’m interested in the frailty and the vulnerability of a character.”
Blanche DuBois must have seemed like a perfect fit in 1992. But when the actress, who had virtually no stage experience, took on A Streetcar Named Desire, critics complained that her performance was too muted, that she practically whispered onstage. Some blamed the voluminous Barrymore Theatre, which is exactly where The Glass Menagerie will open. (Although the controversy this time around is likely to center on Christian Slater, who replaced Dallas Roberts in the role of Tom four days before previews.)