Her hair windswept, her energies scattered, Jessica Lange sits in what seems to be the only occupied room of the busily remodeling Ritz-Carlton Hotel, looking less like an Oscar-winning movie star than a pregnant Cloquet, Minn., girl who just got off the train.
Which she did.
"Everything has been so incredibly mixed up since we got here," Lange sighs softly. The "we" refers to herself and her constant companion, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard, also the father of the child Lange is expecting in mid-January.
"My daughter [4 1/2-year-old Shura, fathered by ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov] came down with a fever this morning, and we didn't want to put her on a train and drag her around, so her best pal in New York is staying with her. Then when we got to the train station, no one was there to meet us. So we take a cab to the hotel, and this place is just topsy-turvy.
As Lange tries to settle in to talk about her new film, the Patsy Cline bio "Sweet Dreams," forces continue to conspire against her peace. The phone rings, even after she's asked that calls be held; room service arrives, and minutes later, a publicist and a photographer zero in on the room.
"They're already on their way up the elevator, so I'll stop them at the door," says a shirtless and shoeless Shepard, emerging from the bedroom where he has been tapping away on his portable typewriter.
Turning them away, but accepting the food, Shepard locks and bolts the door. He and Lange laugh a lovers' laugh.
He disappears into the bedroom again as Lange talks about her new movie, which has been dismissed by some critics as a domestic squabble film that's more about Cline's tempestuous marriage than her all-too-brief career as one of country music's brightest talents before her death in a plane crash in 1963.
"One of the dangers, of course, is to be compared to 'Coal Miner's Daughter,' which was a strict biography of a country-western star," Lange says.
" 'Sweet Dreams' was written as a love story. Music was an important part of it -- no one wanted to exclude the importance of Patsy's music because that played such a large part throughout their life. People might go there expecting it to be a biography of Patsy Cline and it's not; it was never written that way or filmed that way."
Lange's performance in "Sweet Dreams" has been praised, and she did manage to obscure her natural beauty by putting on some weight and hiding under various dark wigs. She also did a terrific job on the Northern Virginia accent ("not southern, and not a mountain accent, just sort of a weird little pocket") through research tapes and an accent coach. Lange even uncovered some new depths in her speaking voice, though she wisely left the singing to Cline's original tracks.
"She had such a powerful, unique voice, there was no way I imagined I could do the actual singing myself. I studied some films where the character also sings and a couple of times the actress' voice didn't match the singing voice. I wanted to make real sure that the transitions were absolutely believable. Otherwise you have such a jump in reality."
Admitting that she wasn't a "fantastic fan of Patsy's before I did the film," Lange seemed surprised at the existence of a Cline biography (Ellis Nassour's, published in 1981). "When I was doing my research, I asked if there was anything available, but nobody ever mentioned that to me. Working with the Robert Getchell script that existed was really the basis" of her interpretation of Cline.
"When I did 'Frances' the harrowing story of actress Frances Farmer , the script was so incredibly helter-skelter that almost everything I brought to that part came from outside . . . "
"When I got to doing this, there was not that much information available. I talked to Patsy's mother, her daughter, her husband, people in the Nashville area. But it's amazing how, after 25 years, the memories become very vague. It was real hard for me to pin people down and get absolutes. So I took the voice that was written in the script and based it around that."
While Lange left the vocals to Cline's ghost, her lip-syncing provided a workout. "I sang my guts out, I really did. If you're just mouthing the words, you don't have the same kind of vocal strain, the same flush, the energy is absolutely different. I would have the playback turned up so loud that Patsy's voice completely overwhelmed mine . . . I would be singing at the top of my voice but hearing hers. It was an odd little transcendent jump in reality."
Lange concedes some basic connections with Farmer and Cline, particularly the challenge of gaining not only acceptance but also credibility in fields traditionally controlled by men. "In each case, it is a similar climate. The thing that interests me is the reactions of Frances and Patsy are very different -- that's what became intriguing . . . It didn't occur to me in those definitive terms that these were parallel situations, because the characters reacted to them so absolutely opposite and were affected by them so differently."
With Cline, Lange had another connection -- as a career woman who is also a mother. "I sympathize with Patsy and that whole dilemma," Lange says. "That's one of the hardest things for me in my life, trying to juggle both those things. I know what she was talking about -- being away from the kids too much, missing them when you go away . . . I've never been able to resolve it. The sense I got from the script is that Patsy, who was on the road a lot, never resolved it either; it was always a source of conflict and pain. Luckily, I sometimes have six months or a year where I'm just constantly with my daughter, like a 'regular mother' that's home at night and every day, and goes to school and picks her up . . ."
Unlike Farmer or Cline, Lange seems very much in control of her life. She has come a long way since her ill-fated debut in the remake of "King Kong," carefully choosing her projects and existing outside the normal, strobe-lit Hollywood channels (when she's not on locations, she's usually with Shepard and her daughter either at her New Mexico cabin retreat or on her Minnesota farm).
Control, she explains, is "determined by how high the stakes are. If I had been in Frances' shoes, I probably would have gotten out a lot faster than she did. The thing about Patsy that I love, and one of the deciding factors in doing the part, was that she met things head on, she didn't make anything overly complicated. There was nothing neurotic about her . . . If she felt something, it kind of moved through her. She was like a child in that way."
Lange's role in this movie's production was simpler as well. "It's nice just to do a part where you come in as a hired hand, because I'm no more involved with it than that. I was sent a finished script, and just had to say yes or no and show up on location. When the day's over I can go back to my other life. With 'Country' which Lange produced as well as costarred in with Shepard it was almost two years of struggle, a long stretch to be wrapped up in that one thing. I'm proud of this film, but I don't have the emotional investment in it that I did in 'Country.' "
Lange makes it clear that her emotional investment between now and January is in her repeat role as a mother. She has purchased the rights to Jayne Anne Phillips' "Machine Dreams," a novel about the coming-apart of a West Virginia family for which she is trying to write the screenplay herself. "Instead of just turning it over to somebody and saying, 'Can you shape a movie script?' I figured why not do that first step myself because that way I can make sure that the elements that got me interested in the book were transposed to it. It's a brand new thing, and it's a very odd kind of fulfilling and yet ultimately frustrating thing for me," not the least because Lange, heeding the typing going on in the bedroom, can already predict the critical reaction.
"I imagine if the script is well received, there's that group of people who will say it's good because . . . If it doesn't work out, it's going to be the opposite -- well she obviously didn't get any help." This makes her laugh. "You can't win . . .
The film version of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" looms as a late spring project ("The later the better for me," Lange says, patting her belly. "It's going to take me a while . . .") Her costars in the prize-winning play about three wacky southern sisters will be Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek. One envisions Spacek and Lange connecting not only as farm girls but as country music stars (Spacek, of course, played Loretta Lynn, a Cline disciple, in "Coal Miner's Daughter"). Maybe we could do a remake of 'The Dolly Sisters,' " Lange says lightly. She had been asked to do "Crimes of the Heart" when it was first being done off-Broadway, but "I was pregnant with my daughter at the time and I thought, 'Too bad, I'll never get to do this part.' But four years later it's come around as a film. I'm anticipating this part very differently than anything else I've ever done, and I think it's because it will be an ensemble of actresses and that's real exciting."
"It's great that through the years now, I've established a certain amount of credibility," Lange says, quickly adding, "I'm sure I'd have a lot more credibility if 'Country' had been a huge box-office success, since that seems to be the criteria for your bankability. It's all very weird, the business end of it. But I don't mind going along. I don't have any great aspirations. I'd like to continue acting, though not more than one film a year, because my family's too important to me. Maybe sometime I'd like to direct. I don't know.
Lange says she'd like to work with Shepard again. "He's real easy for me to work with, though it depends on the parts. It was beneficial in 'Country' because these people were supposed to have been married for 15 years. When you walk on a set for the first time and you're supposed to play opposite a total stranger and make it believable that he's been your husband for 16 years, that you have three children and this whole life together, then you really have to work at creating that aura. With Sam . . . there was a whole relationship, so we could deal more in the nuances . . . "
So maybe she and Shepard and "Sweet Dreams" costar Ed Harris and his wife, Amy Madigan, could update "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"I'm through with remakes," Lange protests, underlining it with another gentle laugh.