The stars of ''Grey Gardens'' dish about their HBO film

By Tim Stack
Updated April 10, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Grey Gardens is inspired by the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about the Beale women, relatives of Jackie Kennedy who eventually isolated themselves from the outside world. How did this project come about?
Barrymore: I had to campaign a lot. The director [Michael Sucsy] heard my name and I think wanted to run in the other direction. I worked to prove that I could do this. Of course, I called and stalked Jessica. I was like, ”I’ll move in with you. We can live together and we can really see what it’s like!” And she was like, ”Okaaay.” [Laughs]
Lange: I had fallen in love with these women a few years earlier. I had actually thought about developing it as a piece at one time, but then nothing came of it. And then this project kinda came up out of the blue.

You both age about 40 years in this film. How long did the makeup take?
Barrymore: When we did from the neck up, it was four hours. When we had to do the body, it was in the six-hour range.
Lange: It was still never enough for me. I wanted to be completely transformed into this woman, but I couldn’t do it. You still have your own face to deal with, no matter how much stuff you stick on it.

Eventually, the pair was discovered living in utter filth. Why, do you think?
Lange: It’s a great mystery. How do you pile cat-food cans ceiling-high in your living room? Why don’t you put them in a garbage bag? It’s not that hard. You wonder, what disconnect did they have?
Barrymore: I think about how much they had done for them, being women of society and privilege. And when everyone went away, they didn’t know how to take care of themselves.

The documentary is something of a gay cult classic. How do you feel about portraying gay icons?
Barrymore: I felt that pressure since day one. A lot of my friends act [Little Edie] out and put head scarves on and quote her all the time. Every time they would do it, I would actually get a little bit sick to my stomach and nauseous.
Lange: We really wanted to do right by these women. It wasn’t like we were trying to camp it up.

Big and Little Edie are tragic, but also incredibly amusing. Did you ever just start laughing during shooting?
Barrymore: We would pinch each other’s fat suits. I think they found a great deal of humor on top of their inner pain.
Lange: They entertained one another day and night for going on 40 years. You can’t say that about a lot of people. They found each other infinitely interesting.
Barrymore: [Laughs heartily] We were a good couple!