Our 12-seater plane is about to land when the pilot announces a delay—military aircraft on the runway. Even from an altitude of 1,000 feet, we can clearly see the tanks and armored personnel carriers below.
Jessica Lange nervously fingers wooden prayer beads. Small planes spook her at the best of times. These are not the best of times. And this is not a movie set.
Lange is about to touch down in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that has been at war with itself for the past seven years. As many as 3.3 million people reportedly have died, the highest number of fatalities in any conflict since World War II.
Few pampered Hollywood celebrities would even consider an assignment like this one. But the two-time Academy Award winner (Tootsie, 1982, and Blue Sky, 1994) sought out the task—as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador—of first witnessing, then telling the world about the carnage in central Africa.
Two months before this visit, hundreds of civilians were massacred in Bunia by tribal militia members as ill-equipped U.N. troops remained in their compound, watching helplessly. And only a few days ago, 22 women, elderly people, and children were hacked to death in a village just outside the town.
"Sam didn't want me to go," she says, peering through the cabin window. Sam is actor, director, and playwright Sam Shepard, her partner of 21 years and the father of their two teenage children, Hannah and Walker. "I was afraid, too. But it's important. Middle America has no idea what is happening in the Congo."
Lange knows Middle America. She was born there and she still lives there. Spurning Hollywood and New York, she resides in tiny Stillwater, a town on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. She grew up some 125 miles away in Cloquet, a town whose sole pre-Jessica-era claim to fame was the nation's only gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
"My activist leanings come from growing up in Minnesota, a liberal state," she tells me. "My parents always impressed on us that it was important to help the needy. I watched my grandmother raising other people's kids. And the Vietnam War helped politicize me. I took part in all the antiwar demonstrations."
While studying art at the University of Minnesota, Lange briefly joined the Students for a Democratic Society, the group that popularized the slogan "Make love, not war!" Dropping out of school, she traveled around Europe with Spanish avant-garde photographer Paco Grande—her former photography professor at the university. They married in 1970 and lived in Paris for four years. Resettling in New York in 1974, Lange worked as a waitress, then as a model, and then, against all odds, won the lead role in producer Dino De Laurentis's 1976 remake of King Kong.
Stardom followed, but Jessica never lost her activist streak. She produced and starred in the 1984 movie Country, which revealed the plight of American farm families facing government foreclosures. She even testified before Congress on the issue. In the early 1990s, she flew to Romania to expose the cruel warehousing of orphaned children.
So, she says, when UNICEF came knocking early last year, "I said yes immediately."
Lange made sure she was properly briefed for this trip by reading what she could and talking to U.N. experts. She also called actress Susan Sarandon to learn about her experience as a special UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.