April 18, 2009 -- Drew Barrymore greets Jessica Lange with her pet name for the two-time Oscar winner.
"Mother darling!" Barrymore trills, with a gentle hug in deference to Lange's broken collarbone and bruised ribs, sustained during a fall at her Minnesota cabin last month.
Barrymore uses the term of endearment both in person and "all the time when she calls. That's how I always know it's her," Lange says.
It's the fittingly theatrical nickname Barrymore's character has for Lange in HBO's "Grey Gardens," premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The highly anticipated film is based on the 1975 documentary about the eccentric mother-and-daughter duo of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and their derelict, destitute existence at the family's once-grand East Hampton estate.
"These two women absolutely adored one another," Lange says. "When you think of them living together for 40 years, with most of those years in isolation — for a lot of those years my character never left the house. They entertained one another so well. They sing. They dance. They've got their makeup."
The movie spans four decades and chronicles the Beales' decline from society darlings to recluses who lived in a ramshackle house infested with feral cats and raccoons. In the film, Lange, 59, goes from glamorous, bejeweled, upper-crust songbird with thwarted showbiz ambitions to a toothless, tattered crone yearning for her kitties. Barrymore, 34, turns from adorable but rebellious debutante to an oddly imperious, often ornery misanthrope who pines for the fame she never had.
Variety calls Barrymore's and Lange's performances "marvelous." The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, praised Barrymore for managing "to magnify the persona until we can see inside Edie more clearly" and Lange for bringing Big Edie "into focus more sharply than the documentary did."
It's the product of painstaking preparation, says director Michael Sucsy.
"Little Edie has a confidence about her as well as a constant nervousness, and Drew fed that into her character. Her energy matched Edie's," Sucsy says. "Big Edie is in bed a lot of the time, and the world revolves around her. Jessica is a very grounded woman, and she brought that to the character. She doesn't have a flighty vibe about her, and that felt right. Both actresses got down the women's mannerisms, how they twitched their hands. They became the Beales."
This project is a pivotal one for both women and a high-profile production for HBO. It's Lange's first notable film role since her supporting role in Bill Murray's 2005 dramedy "Broken Flowers." As for Barrymore, it's her chance to prove that there's more depth to her acting than the chipper flower child — who talks out of the side of her mouth — from "Charlie's Angels" and "The Wedding Singer."
Barrymore says she was "desperate" to play Little Edie because "you don't often read characters that are that fleshed out and have that long of a time span you get to play."
After pursuing, and landing, the part, Barrymore spent a year and a half working with a vocal coach to perfect Little Edie's unique way of speaking.
"I knew it wasn't something I would be talented enough to step into a few weeks before (shooting)," Barrymore says. "I'm like a valley girl who is in opposition to Edie, so I knew I had to take a lot of time to become her, learn her mannerisms, change my facial structure to make it like hers. I just wanted to be her."
So did Lange. To embody Big Edie, a society wife who loved being the star attraction by belting out tunes at parties, Lange did something she feared: She sang.
Lange likens the experience to "pulling hen's teeth. I've never sung before. So much of (Big Edie's) self-identity is tied up with being a great singer.
"To understand the spine of the character, you're either going to have to take a cheap shot and let someone else do it, or you're going to have to try it yourself."
Their roles reverse as Barrymore becomes the proud matriarch. "She did so well. I know what she was going through. I'm the worst singer on the planet, and the last three movies I've been in, I sang," she says. "I cried when I heard her. I was so happy for her. The whole point of these women is —"
"— they didn't shy away from things," Lange finishes.
As unexpected as Barrymore and Lange's friendship might seem, it comes across as heartfelt — and touchy-feely, much like their appearance at this year's Golden Globes. The two couldn't be more opposite. Barrymore, who has dated actor Justin Long, runs her own production company and just directed her first film, the fall release "Whip It!" Lange, who is in a long-term relationship with playwright/actor Sam Shepard, is a mother of three who loves taking pictures and released the book 50 Photographs last year. For this interview, Barrymore is glam in a black and white Narciso Rodriguez frock, while Lange goes low-key in jeans and a fuchsia jacket.
They hug gently when they first see each other, so they won't aggravate Lange's injuries. "Normally, I like to touch a lot," Barrymore says.
"No hurting!" jokes Lange, who has her right arm in a sling. "It's not just the collarbone. It's the scapula and ribs and everything."
The actresses had never met before filming but bonded while spending time near the actual Grey Gardens estate — which has been refurbished — before shooting started. Their connection, Lange says, was "quite immediate."
Adds Barrymore: "You can't fake that kind of intimacy and chemistry and desire to be in each other's company. If we didn't have that kind of love, this movie would not have worked, period. This is a love story. So thank God we loved each other."
Sense of isolation
Barrymore and Lange shot the film in Toronto, where a replica of Grey Gardens' façade was built. They spent four to six hours a day having their makeup and prosthetics applied.
"For me, it was a disaster from the beginning," says Lange. "My face, my whole structure, is so different from Big Edie. She had such a long, narrow face and this aquiline nose. I could never look exactly like her."
Barrymore turns to Lange: "Yeah, but you don't look like you at all."
Replies Lange: "Well, that's good."
Both women had the same goal.
"We just cared so much about looking as authentic as we could," Barrymore says. "I had 13 (prosthetic) pieces. She has 13 pieces, a neck, teeth. We had contacts. We had noses. I still love the beanbag boobs."
Lange: "They hung down to my waist."
Barrymore: "I used to play with them."
They kept to themselves, indulging in bouts of girl talk in between scene setups. Barrymore says she was so "freaked out" about getting Little Edie right that she refrained from speaking to the crew so they wouldn't hear her real voice.
"I cut myself off from the world because I wanted to understand what it was like to be isolated. The only person I had — the only person Edie would have had — was her," Barrymore says of Lange. "So I'd be knocking on her door at night with a bottle of wine, 'Hellooooo,' or we'd be dancing around the room. On set, we'd be cackling like hens in the corner."
They made a choice to play the Beales as real women, as opposed to local sideshow freaks. Lange's Big Edie clings to her home, even after her husband leaves her for another woman, because it's where she feels most comfortable. Barrymore's Little Edie pursues her dream of singing and dancing in Manhattan, but after her married lover dumps her, she comes home to her mother and their menagerie of felines. Her hair falls out. And she never leaves.
"We decided not to play these women like crazy. You can't play crazy. And I don't think either of us ever believed that they were," Lange says. "But some things are completely inexplicable, like how did they finally end up living the way they did?" (Big Edie died in 1977, and Little Edie died in 2002).
Indeed, the conditions of Grey Gardens were so foul that Onassis had to step in and pay for the cleanup after newspapers published photos and stories.
"These women did not bathe and they lived in squalor, with garbage up to their necks and with raccoon pee," Barrymore says. "If you've ever smelled raccoon pee, which we had the fortunate pleasure of doing on set, we couldn't make it through the shot. We're coughing and gagging. "
In every other aspect, though, Barrymore says she understood Little Edie. Playing a hermit who emerged as an unlikely icon after the documentary was released weighed on Barrymore.
"I knew if I didn't pull it off, there probably would be, at a minimum, death threats. When I saw the movie, I drove to the beach afterward and just sat there for hours listening to opera on my iPod," Barrymore says, looking at Lange. "I was there, every day, watching you — but watching you in the movie, I was so blown away by how wonderful and amazing and powerful you were."
Lange looks almost tearful. The two women smile at each other and exchange a kiss.
"Of course I felt the same. We both worked incredibly hard," Lange says. "We made these characters believable. Drew made my work better. It's as simple as that."