Jessica Lange
Photo: Tim Grant/
The strange saga of Edith Beales—a mother and daughter who fell from the pinnacle of New York society into a life of squalid poverty in a crumbling Hamptons mansion—is one so compelling and darkly funny that it's been told first as a magazine exposé, then in the Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, and yet again in a Tony-winning musical of the same name. In Grey Gardens' latest incarnation as an HBO biopic (airing April 18, 2009), Jessica Lange stars as the imperious, controlling Big Edie (with Drew Barrymore as her dreamy-oddball daughter, Little Edie). The two-time Oscar winner, who turns 60 this year, chats with O about family, art, and becoming reckless.

O: How did you find a way to relate to a woman who was the fabulously wealthy aunt of Jacqueline Onassis yet somehow became a destitute recluse?

Jessica Lange: The Beales marched to their own drum, and, unfortunately, they were not raised to look after themselves. We had an amazing trove of photographs to draw from—Big Edie's wedding at Saint Patrick's Cathedral was the event of 1917. Thousands of people stood in the snow just to catch a glimpse of her. I took that image as my starting point.

O: Your character ages from her late 30s to her late 70s during the movie.

Jessica Lange: Sitting for four hours in a makeup chair being prodded and poked and glued—there were times I wanted to go screaming out the door. I also dreaded having to sing—Big Edie had a high, trilling, operatic voice, and I've never sung in my life. But when I took this part, I was determined to be reckless. At this point, I have nothing to win or lose.

O: How did you and Drew Barrymore interpret the bond between the Edies?

Jessica Lange: They fed off each other; they couldn't be away from each other. Luckily, Drew and I had a natural affection and chemistry as soon as we met. We're very different: I'm recalcitrant and solitary and moody, and she's present and alive and outgoing. But we're crazy about each other.

O: Your three children have left the nest. How does that feel?

Jessica Lange: So much of my sense of who I am is tied to mothering. When they left home, I fell into a huge, empty, black hole. Your children are grown and your career has slowed down—all the stuff that took up so much attention is gone, and you're left with expansive time and space. You have to reimagine who you are and what life is about. Photography was a blessing because it filled my time. If I had to start over, I'd pursue photography—probably to the exclusion of acting.

O: Really? You would rather be a photographer than an actress?

Jessica Lange: I do love acting. But to work as a photojournalist would have been extraordinary.

O: What is your personal ambition now?

Jessica Lange: To be happy. I regret those times when I've chosen the dark side. I've wasted enough time not being happy.