Grey Gardens: Jessica Lange plays Big Edie

“Grey Gardens,” starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, premiered April 18th on HBO.

Jessica Lange used the documentary as a daily tool during filming to study the character of “Big Edie.”  “What the filmmakers did with the original documentary in the portrait of these two women was so fascinating, so haunting in a way,” says Lange.  “You fall in love with these two women who are so eccentric, so extraordinary and out of the realm of people that you know.”

Lange worked with dialect coach Howard Samuelsohn and studied the “Grey Gardens” DVD night and day to catch the cadence in “Big Edie”’s voice and her peculiar mannerisms, making it easier for her to slide into the character.  She met Albert Maysles and watched a more recent film of his entitled “The Beales of Grey Gardens,” a collection of outtakes from the original six weeks of filming that Maysles assembled into an accompanying documentary.

The part of “Big Edie” required Lange to sing several musical numbers, a challenge she met full-on, with no reservations or fear, although she does not consider herself a singer.  “If I was going to do this part, I was going to do it recklessly,” says Lange.  “I was not going to be intimidated or inhibited by anything, because I felt that would be untrue to the character.”  Lange gives credit to Bob Garrett, her “really great coach,” who made her believe she could sing.  For her rendition of the song at the end of the film, when “Big Edie” is in her 70s, Lange had the perfect blueprint of that performance, taken from the documentary, and could study all its details.  For the songs she sings in the 1930s, Lange had to imagine the style Edie might have used back then and chose a warbling kind of soprano.

As Lange says, “There was a lot to keep track of,” as “Big Edie” aged from 38 to 77.  In addition to learning singing and dancing routines, Lange had to adapt to the aging of her character and how that would affect the look and feel of the makeup and prosthetics.

“You have to do all this stuff with aging, you know,” says Lange.  “You have to think about what happens to the lips.  What happens to the muscular structure of the face as everything begins to sag?  Where is the voice placed when you’re in your 70s, rather than your 30s?  And on top of all that, we have an accent to do!”  Lange praises her support team of makeup, prosthetics, hair, wardrobe, choreography, dialect and singing coaches, all of whom turned the actress into “Big Edie” Beale.