Tennessee Waltz

Photo: Robert Maxwell

“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.)

Yet Lange kept returning to the role. Following her Broadway run, she appeared in a better-reviewed production of Streetcar on the West End and then a much-praised performance filmed for TV. “There’s something about that character that gets under your skin,” she says. “She is so haunting in a way that it physically takes its toll on you.” Lange anticipated a similar experience in 2000 when she took on O’Neill’s morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London, but found that “it wasn’t the same.” (She was nominated for an Olivier for that role.)

Motherhood may have curtailed her career, but Lange believes it has deepened her work. When she uses emotional triggers to fuel her acting, “a lot of those—a lot of those—have to do with my children.” What about the current role of Amanda, the domineering mother? “Oh, yeah.” Before I can even get the next question out, she brusquely answers, “No!” Those specifics are private.

Others have played Amanda archly, as Katharine Hepburn did in a 1973 TV version: a mean woman with dangerous delusions. But Lange tends to get the audience on her side from the start, employing her trademark crooked smile. From her perspective, Amanda Wingfield is no bully. “Williams actually says it in the script—‘unwitting cruelty,’ ” she says. “She loves those children. I actually find her tremendously valorous. She has so many facets; she’s like a diamond. I absolutely believe what she says when she says she had seventeen gentleman callers in one afternoon. I think she had a glorious young womanhood.”

Lange is candid about some of her lousier recent roles. “I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut,” she says.

Lange is frank about some of her lousier recent roles. “I’ve never been able to keep my mouth shut,” she says, shifting in her chair, as she often does. “So if somebody asks me how I feel about Hush, I’ll say it’s a piece of shit.” In film, she adds, “I can get very distracted, I can get very lazy, and every once in a while I see how a performance has suffered from that.” But Lange isn’t making any more threats to quit. She’s already wrapped several movies she’s content with, including Don’t Come Knocking, a Wim Wenders flick co-starring Shepard, and Neverwas, with a “fascinating original screenplay” and Nick Nolte and Ian McKellen in the cast.

Still, she knows that plum roles for actresses diminish with age. Does playing Amanda, who clings so passionately to her lost youth, make Lange contemplate her own future? “I don’t see her as a character who’s obsessed with growing old,” she insists. Amanda’s fantasies are “her escape, it’s like a balm … ” She smiles disarmingly, pulls a hand toward her chin. But this reverie is interrupted: Menagerie director David Leveaux and associate producer Dante Di Loreto come bursting into the room.

“Hello, hello, here come my gentleman callers,” she jokes as she gets up to leave. “We were all going to come, the seventeen of us,” Di Loreto announces. “We’ve come to collect our lovely lady.”

Tennessee Waltz