Skip to content

Jessica Lange, Actress and Activist

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.

For days, Lange shuttles from one hospital camp to another, witnessing the aftermath of the war's atrocities. "I need coffee and a cigarette," she says one morning (she allows herself two smokes a day), after visiting a hospital that treats the war wounded. "Last night, I woke up after a couple of hours and couldn't get back to sleep. So many awful experiences these people have been through. It's difficult to believe that we are all living on the same planet."

In a small, dimly lit ward at the Panzi Hospital—near the Rwandan border—Lange meets 18-year-old Cecile. The girl limps on crutches, a large surgical pin from her knee to her ankle. "What happened?" Lange gently asks. The skinny teenager responds in a voice so low it's hard to catch her words. "Soldiers forced their way into our house and beat everyone in my family. They tied my arms, and with other girls I was taken to the bush. They kept me for two months as a wife. Then the Mai-Mai [a rebel group] attacked us. In the fighting, I was shot several times in the leg. I couldn't walk, and the Mai-Mai captured me. After a week, they threw me in the bush and ran away."

The following day, the teen was found lying helpless in the jungle by a local farmer, who carried her to his home. A passing U.N. patrol refused to take her to the city for medical aid. "They said it was too dangerous for them," Cecile says.

But after several weeks, with the help of individuals who took pity on her, she arrived here. "Doctors took three bullets out of my leg. They said my bones are shattered, and they don't know if they will mend."

Throughout her heartbreaking story, Cecile fidgets with her fingers. Lange, unconsciously emulating her, balls a handkerchief in her hands.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?" she asks the young girl.

"I'm hungry," Cecile says.

Lange falls into stunned silence. In many underfunded African medical facilities, patients must rely on their families to bring them meals. Cecile has been relying on the charity of other patients for food.

"Oh," says Lange, blinking rapidly. "I'll get it. What would you like?"

"Anything," Cecile smiles shyly.

Before leaving the hospital, Lange quietly pays for the teenager to receive food and clothing. She also buys sewing machines for the girl and other young rape victims at the hospital, so they can earn some income.

As we fly from one war-devastated town to another in the Congo—distances are too vast to drive here, and rebels control most of the roads—Lange immerses herself in a Buddhist text, highlighting passages as she reads. She became interested in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, in her 20s. "I didn't pursue it then, but about five years ago, I began seeking out a teacher, and I found one at the Gyuto Tibetan Monastery in Minneapolis," she says.

It is, perhaps, the Buddhist focus on compassion that has guided her continued relationship with her former husband. Following their divorce, Paco Grande progressively lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa—a particularly harsh fate for a photographer. "I don't want to discuss it," she says. "Paco has his dignity. We had seven years together during that pure time of youth. He is a great and dear friend of mine, and I love him with all my heart."

It was Paco who encouraged her interest in photography. And when Sam gave her a small Leica camera 10 years ago, "I immediately started shooting documentary photographs and people."

Still, as we visit a nutrition center for kids in the DRC, Lange stops a local news photographer from trying to get a particularly powerful shot. In a cramped room, a severely malnourished infant is being weighed by a nurse in a hammock-type scale. Shooting through a window from outside, the photographer misses the shot—and asks for the wailing baby to be placed back in the scale. "I don't think so," Lange says firmly. No one contradicts her.

"The child didn't need to be put through more pain," she explains to me later. "I can understand why a photographer wanted the shot, but we need to balance the humanity of the moment."

In a hospital in the town of Goma, Lange meets 70-year-old Maria, a tiny, wizened woman with a devastating story. Her five sons and their families were burned to death in their homes. Her husband was killed as he tried to escape. Her three daughters were murdered in front of her. "When I leave the hospital," Maria says, "they will give me a hoe, some seed, and food for one month. But I have no place to live, no land to plant. Nowhere to go."

"I'm amazed at the spirit of these people," Lange says. "It's overwhelming to witness the tremendous humanity of the people here, in the face of such unspeakable pain." She doesn't understand why the international community seems to be ignoring this bloody African war, which also happens to be one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. "Why should America care?" she asks. "Because it's a humanity issue. When people suffer and others can alleviate that pain, it's our responsibility to try."

As Lange prepares to leave the region, she packs a small piece of solidified lava in her luggage that was given to her by a young doctor, so that she won't forget his country. "I'll keep it with my piece of the Berlin Wall," she tells him.

She looks tired climbing into the U.N. plane one last time. The fine lines on her face are more visible than normal. "I hope I have the European approach toward age," she muses. "As a woman ages, every line and wrinkle on her face and body should tell a story. It's why I've never considered cosmetic surgery. The idea that beauty can only be synonymous with youth is an obsession that has been forced on American women."

At last, we are flying home. For Lange, that means a Victorian house on several acres in Minnesota. "It's large, but we always seem to end up in the kitchen," she says.

The enormous fireplace has seen as many as seven dogs curled up in front of it. "But now we're down to one, our big yellow Lab. We have canaries and finches, too." Her favorite place to unwind, however, is the family cabin in a remote part of Minnesota near Duluth. "There is no place I'd rather be," she says, her face visibly relaxing. "The cabin is in the deep woods, on a hill overlooking a small lake. There is no sound except nature, which can be amazingly loud when you really listen. We can hear coyote, timber wolves, bear. I get up at 6:30 a.m., take my coffee, and sit on the dock and watch the hawks, eagles, loons, and blue heron."

Of her relationship with Shepard, she says, "He and I don't agree on everything, but we have a real affinity, and a shared history. He doesn't involve himself in politics as I do, although he follows them. He's a very honorable man, with great reserve and strength. One of the things I love about Sam is he's a man I can learn from. I couldn't be with somebody who wasn't that way."

Although the couple have been together for more than two decades—they met while filming Frances in 1982—they have yet to marry. "We talk about it from time to time," she says. "But we've never felt the necessity. Paco was my only official marriage. Sam and I have a marriage of the spirit."

Despite the security of home, Lange says she will return to the Congo within a year. "I want to see the women and girls, the young boy soldiers I met, to know how they're doing," she says.

She also plans to raise relief funds in the coming year and address the U.N. Security Council on the issue of children in armed combat.

"Yes, violence exists in other places. But in the DRC there is an absolute crisis," she says. "How can these issues not be relevant to our lives? We have to think of ourselves as citizens of the world first, and then citizens of a smaller place second."

To help victims of violence in the DRC, call 1-800-4UNICEF or visit UNICEF's website.

Jan Goodwin is author of Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World (Plume Publishing, 2003).


*The name of this award was originally the Impact Award. In 2008, the awards were renamed as the Inspire Awards.