Jessica Lange reunites onscreen with hubby Sam Shepard in Don't Come Knocking

Jessica Lange has been a film stalwart for thirty years. She began her career in the first remake of King Kong in 1976 and has blazed a trail on the silver screen ever since. Don't Come Knocking reunites Jessica with her husband, Sam Shepard, and Shepard's longtime collaborator, director Wim Wenders. Don't Come Knocking is the story of an aged western actor coming to grips with the people he left behind. Jessica stars as Doreen, a spurned waitress left to raise her son for twenty lonely years.

There's a long history between you, Sam Shepard, and Wim Wenders. Were you involved from the beginning?

Jessica Lange: I was aware that they were writing, but I didn't have any input into it at all. I think the waitress thing was something I knew about. Sam and I used to go to the race track at San Anita. They had the greatest waitresses there. They all looked like time had forgotten them. I think we probably both had that in mind with this character. That it was somebody visually and emotionally lost in time.

Have you ever been a waitress?

Jessica Lange: I have been a waitress, and I was a damn fine waitress too, let me tell you.

Have you ever rediscovered a lost love?

Jessica Lange: I had run into a lost love, but nothing that resonated like this story.

And what happened?

Jessica Lange: I was kind of indifferent. Everybody's lives had changed, moved on. It was a curious encounter.

How do you prepare for a character like this?

Jessica Lange: I always work out a back story. I'll create a journal which takes me right up to the moment of the character's entrance into a story. I like to do that because it's my one kind of lame stab at writing. I have no desire to write and I don't think I could, but I do create these journals for my characters, who their families were, where they grew up, what their experiences were. It's kind of fun, because it's the only time I engage in that kind of make believe.

Do you show the journals to Sam?

Jessica Lange: It's just for me.

What does she do in the twenty years in between?

Jessica Lange: I think this woman came to terms with how to survive this heartbreak, and to my mind she made a very deliberate work. It wasn't in her character to be angry and vindictive and to get overwhelmed. At a certain point, she absolutely gave up on the idea that she would ever see this man again, and devoted her life to raising a child, which a lot of single women do. I thought a lot about being a single mother and raising a son, especially a son that didn't know his father and didn't know who his father was. So there was that whole back story that I created.

Did Howard [Sam Shepard] make a big mistake leaving her?

Jessica Lange: Howard made a huge mistake (laughs); which is part of that scene, the fight scene when she finally explodes at him. The night before we were doing that scene I was thinking about it and I thought, at the end of this scene I'm going to go over to him and I'm going to kiss him, I'm going to kiss him really hard, and then I'm going to slug him. And that's just for all the years you wasted.

Does it help to actually be in a relationship with Sam?

Jessica Lange: Sure, I know some couples don't like to work together, but I've always found it easy working with Sam. And in this case, it's a little different than just working with your partner because he also wrote it; so I'm speaking his words. But, as soon as you start saying those trigger words, just because you're in a heightened emotional state anyhow, it brings up a whole well of emotion that you're not even aware that you're going to touch on. Something there makes it richer.

What's like working with Wim Wenders?

Jessica Lange: It's very comfortable on set; he has a tremendous kind of calm. He has with him people that he's known for a long time that work really well with him. You don't get a sense of tension or stress when you're on his set, it's very nice. And he's so laid back that you feel like you can do anything. You also have the confidence in him as a director that if you're way out of line, he won't embarrass you. It was nice. I liked working with him very much.

Does he allow any improvisation?

Jessica Lange: There wasn't a lot of improvisation on this because we had Sam's script. I find improvisation is good if you have a basic outline, where the writer doesn't do a lot of dialogue or a lot of language and you need more to get where you want to go. But Sam, because he's a playwright, you have a lot of language there to deal with. So it's not like we needed to. Wim gave you as many takes as you wanted. But he was also very clear; he had an eye to what he wanted. Either you were satisfied or he was satisfied.

What was it like working with Gabriel Mann? You two have an interesting mother - son relationship?

Jessica Lange: The scene in the alley with Gabriel, I'd never met him before we shot that scene. That scene wasn't supposed to be scheduled until further on in the shooting. Wim had to shoot it because he had nothing else to shoot that first day we were in Butte [Montana]. It was kind of terrible because you're expected to do a scene with your son, who you've never met before, and it's supposed to be this incredible confrontation; calling you on you're very moral fiber. Somehow it worked out, his emotions are very close to the surface always, it's kind of like a raw nerve. I just found working with him nice, things kind of fell into place. I can't imagine a young actor being thrown into a scene with Jessica Lange. (Laughs)

Did you know you were intimidating?

Jessica Lange: No, I didn't. I'm feeling it now. It's kind of embarrassing. He was great, that's all I can say. I think if he was nervous about it, it didn't show once we started playing it. Maybe sometimes those things work to your advantage. You're kind of caught off balance.

Talk about shooting in Montana? Butte is such an interesting place.

Jessica Lange: That town, that place, all those locations are like another character, like a mirror image of who these characters are; translated to a landscape, basically. It is alienated, it's desolate, it's lonely, it's remote, all of those things, and obviously Wim wanted to set the piece there. I think the place informed the characters the way the characters informed the place. And to work on the actual location I think is great. This thing of going to Canada and pretending you're in New York, it's terrible, because there is a sense that you get from the place that is so important to the piece and to who you are in that place. Butte's a weird place; it's a lonely place out there.

Do you go back?

Jessica Lange: Yes, I still have my cabin there.

Just curious, have you seen the new King Kong?

Jessica Lange: No, I'm not interested.

Don't Come Knocking is in limited theaters in Los Angeles in New York now, opening wider nationwide very soon.

Cinemark Movie Club
Julian Roman