Jessica Lange‘s young granddaughters, Ilse and Adah, recently asked her to speak to their girls’ group about her life. At first, she wasn’t sure what to say. Then she realized the message she wanted to deliver to her grandkids’ generation. “The one thing I’ve always felt is that I’ve never allowed myself to be restricted,” Jessica says. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do, and no one could tell me there was something I couldn’t do.”
That’s been the case for Jessica, who turned 70 this year, ever since she grew up as the rebellious daughter of a traveling salesman and a teacher in Minnesota. “We moved around a lot — I went to eight different schools,” she recalls. “I was always the new girl in town, the outsider looking in.”
Yet she used that outsider’s perspective to observe a wide variety of people and learn how to inhabit them. She won Oscars as a lovelorn soap-opera actress in Tootsie (1982) and a bipolar military spouse in Blue Sky (1994) and three Emmys for wildly diverse characters on American Horror Story and Grey Gardens. Soon she’ll tackle the role of a smothering mom with Munchausen syndrome by proxy in Netflix’s The Politician (due out September 27). It’s produced by Ryan Murphy, who’s been responsible for Jessica’s career renaissance by casting her on AHS and as Joan Crawford in Feud. “I like playing characters who are out there on the edge,” she says. “They can explode any moment or fall off the precipice.”
It’s a mental state Jessica can sadly identify with, as she’s long battled depression. “I’ve never been a sunny personality,” she says. “I’m a solitary person.” But she’s used it in her art: “You draw on grief, sadness, rage — those things in your own life,” she says.
In her later years, Jessica has learned to lighten up, at least in her home life, if not on screen. Having children helped — Ilse and Adah’s mom, Shura, 38 (with ex-boyfriend Mikhail Baryshnikov), and daughter Hannah, 33, and son Samuel, 32 (with her late longtime companion, playwright Sam Shepard). “It opened my heart, made me a different person,” Jessica says. “I loved being a mother more than anything else in the world.”
That is, until she became a grandmother. “It’s even more fun — there’s the chance to do it again,” she says. “It’s the perfect order of nature: You raise your children, and then the next generation comes along. They are the redemptive force in nature. Plus, it’s easier!”
Even as she admits that “ageism is pervasive in this industry — it’s not a level playing field for women,” Jessica has managed to suppress her rage. “You can choose not to let things affect you negatively,” she says. “I’ve always had such a quick temper. I realize now it’s such a waste of energy.”
With that epiphany came a hard-earned peace of mind: “In recent years,” she says, “I’ve come to grips with the idea that you can actually choose to be happy.”
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