If fans of American Horror Story worry that the miniseries’ second installment won’t match the operatic and kinky frights of last year, let EW paint you a little picture: It’s only day 2 of shooting on the FX series, which this year is appropriately subtitled Asylum, and star Jessica Lange is in a nun’s habit spanking the bare bottom of her bound and shackled costar Evan Peters with a cane.
For those who didn’t watch the first season (in which Lange and Peters actually played a mother and her ghostly son tormenting their yuppie neighbors), fret not; AHS: Asylum launches a completely new story line set in 1964 at Briarcliff Manor, an institution for the criminally insane run by the Catholic Church and Lange’s Sister Jude. The Emmy-nominated actress looks like a wicked Maria von Trapp doling out medieval whupass in her office to Peters’ Kit, an inmate who attempted to escape. Before the camera rolls on this July afternoon inside an epic Paramount Pictures soundstage in West Hollywood, Lange storms about in a circle, her long black robe whooshing behind her, like she’s a prizefighter just waiting for the bell to go off so she can unleash holy hell on her opponent. When that moment comes, costars Sarah Paulson and French newcomer Lizzie Brocheré — both playing residents of Briarcliff — cower in the corner of the head nun’s office, grimacing at the torture. At one point, Paulson’s Lana turns to Sister Jude and, in a severe understatement, notes, ”You’re so twisted.”
Twisted doesn’t even begin to describe the corkscrew of a plot that encompasses season 2 of AHS, set to premiere Oct. 17 at 10 p.m. ”We are going Ryan Murphy-style all the way to the crazy house,” says Paulson, referencing the show’s co-creator. Adds Chloë Sevigny (Big Love), who plays sex-obsessed inmate Shelley, ”When I read [the scripts] I was like, ‘This is nuts.’ Then when we did the table read, and we read it aloud, there was something more grounded about it. But it’s provocative, and that makes it fun to watch.” Last year, AHS — which averaged 4.4 million viewers and is up for a whopping 17 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie — followed an L.A. family battling ghosts within their Victorian abode. But season 2 is a full and complete reboot. While some actors from the previous season (Lange, Peters, Paulson, Zachary Quinto, Lily Rabe) will be back, they will be playing entirely different characters — doctors, patients, nuns — in this new mental-hospital setting, making AHS the first notable TV anthology since Tales From the Crypt. ”I think Ryan’s doing something with American Horror Story that hasn’t been done on television recently, which is create a repertory company of actors,” says Quinto, who plays Dr. Thredson, a modern-thinking psychiatrist who clashes with Sister Jude. ”To have the opportunity to come back and play characters that are totally different is so appealing to me.” Murphy says that this has been the plan from the very beginning. ”Every year of the show is a different miniseries, and there will be several chapters,” explains the producer. ”You need as your leading man or leading lady an institution to haunt.” Adds co-creator Brad Falchuk, ”To me, last year was a family drama. This is our version of a workplace drama.”
But the folks on this series aren’t threatened by stapler shortages or drunk co-workers making out at the holiday party. The employees/residents of Briarcliff will actually be dealing with [SPOILER ALERT]…aliens. Yes, you read that correctly. And Nazis, and a serial killer named Bloody Face who wears a mask of his victims’ flesh along with a black nightie and opera-length gloves. You also read that correctly. ”I don’t think people tune in to the show because they want My Dinner With Andre,” jokes Murphy. ”I think they want to be scared. I’m just writing what I would like to see. I’m scared of aliens and I’m scared of Nazis and I’m scared of nuns. So it’s the perfect stew of horror and fear.” According to those involved, this gruesome gumbo will have you watching from behind your couch. Says FX president John Landgraf, ”I think this season is going to be the scariest thing anybody has seen on television.” (And yes, that includes Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.)
AHS: Asylum‘s gnarly tale begins in present day. Newlyweds Leo (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine in his acting debut) and Teresa (Step Up‘s Jenna Dewan Tatum) are enjoying a ”haunted honeymoon tour” and plan to make their last stop at the now-deserted (or is it???) Briarcliff Manor in western Massachusetts. The romance of the outing is quashed by the aforementioned serial killer/snazzy dresser Bloody Face, who takes a liking to Leo. ”It is absolutely terrifying. Very gruesome,” says Levine. ”And what’s great about the fact that it’s on FX is that you can go too far. You can do really unorthodox, crazy things that people are going to talk about.” Just don’t get too attached to the singer — on a show like AHS, everyone’s fair game.
Once the blood starts flowing in the modern day, we flash back to 1964, where viewers will meet Lange’s Sister Jude, a scarily stern woman of faith (and fan of corporal punishment) who’s running the show at Briarcliff while grappling with some very un-nunlike personal demons. ”She’s got a lot a lot a lot of bad history behind her and secrets that would threaten her if they came out,” says Lange. ”After a particular incident in her life, she turned to God and became a nun.” Flashbacks reveal that Sister Jude used to be a girl gone wild named Judy who drank and slept her way around Massachusetts. Despite her devotion to the big man upstairs, the nun also has a penchant for red lingerie and vivid fantasies about her superior, Monsignor Timothy O’Hara (FlashForward‘s Joseph Fiennes). ”Clearly she’s attracted to the monsignor for his grace and religiousness,” says Fiennes, who previously worked with Murphy on a failed 2008 FX pilot called Pretty/Handsome. ”And the monsignor might play with that, manipulate that.”
In many ways, the inception of Lange’s character started nearly 40 years ago, when a 7-year-old Murphy rode in the backseat of his mother’s un-air-conditioned Ford Pinto, sandwiched between his younger brother and a nun. ”I was raised a very strict Irish Catholic,” he explains. ”My mother would volunteer to take one nun with us on vacation. They would actually sleep in the same bed as my brother and I on the vacations, and I would ask them a lot of really deep questions. ‘Are you sad you never had a boyfriend? Are you sad you never had a kiss? Tell me about God — do you speak to him?’ So I’ve always been interested in the inner life of nuns, and I wanted to do a period piece.” (Falchuk has a somewhat less personal connection to the nun concept: ”I’m a Jew. I don’t know enough nuns. [But] I saw Sister Act and it freaked me out.”)
Lange, who earned an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the monstrous, narrow-minded mama Constance in AHS‘ first season, was first approached by Murphy to return during production last fall. Despite feeling some burnout from the rigors of a TV shooting schedule, she signed on after Murphy convinced her that Sister Jude would be more than just God’s faithful bride. ”If I were playing a straitlaced nun, start to finish, I can’t say that would interest me too much,” says the actress. ”What’s great are the extremes. To go from where she was and where she’s getting to, that’s what’s going to be interesting.”
Sister Jude serves as the Nurse Ratched to Briarcliff’s troubled inmates, many of whom were committed for leading lives deemed unnatural by 1960s society. These include Shelley the ”nymphomaniac” (Sevigny), and lesbian journalist Lana (Paulson), a reporter close to revealing Briarcliff’s secrets until her schoolteacher lover Wendy (Clea Duvall) commits Lana after being threatened with exposure by Sister Jude. ”I was really interested in the idea of people being punished because they’re different, which I guess is a running theme in my work,” says Murphy. ”It’s about the oppressed. More than that, this season is really about asking the question of who is crazy and who is sane.”
Kit’s sanity, in particular, is up for debate when his African-American wife (another 1960s taboo), Alma (Skins‘ Britne Olford), goes missing after they are — by his account — abducted by extraterrestrials. Believing that Kit is local murderer Bloody Face and Alma is his latest victim, the police arrest Kit and remand him to Briarcliff for an evaluation before standing trial. Teases Murphy, ”The question you will have when you watch the series is ‘Did aliens kidnap his wife, or did he make the whole thing up?”’ Whether they’re hallucinations or reality, viewers will see these aliens. And should expect to be terrified. Says Murphy, ”I did not want to do E.T.” Think more of a spiderlike creature with eight legs and enough chutzpah to chew scenery opposite a two-time Oscar winner — before the end of Asylum, Sister Jude will come face-to-face with an alien. ”I heard that,” says Lange with a giggle. ”How do you play that?”
Rounding out the Horror show are the Raspers, mutated humans created by Briarcliff’s malicious head physician, Dr. Arden (Babe‘s James Cromwell). ”People think he’s a Nazi,” explains Murphy about Arden’s past. ”Is he or isn’t he — that’s the question.” Making the case that he is: When Dr. A isn’t ordering call girls for a little kinky nun role-play or flirting with Sister Jude’s sunny, simple protégée Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe), he likes to perform gruesome experiments on the patients. Says Murphy of the Raspers, who live in the forest outside Briarcliff, ”They’re really scary because they’re a mixture of typhus and syphilis and gonorrhea and leprosy.”
So for those of you keeping track at home, the new season of American Horror Story features randy nuns, a psychotic (possibly) Nazi doctor, diseased woods-dwelling mutants, aliens, and the lead singer of Maroon 5. But what would a demented nun-run asylum be without a demonic possession or two, and an exorcism? (For the record, Murphy wants Catholic groups just waiting to be outraged by his show to know this: ”We show people who are really devoted to Catholicism and believe in its powers. For the most part, the religious people in the show are making an attempt to do their best in a very difficult world.”)
With such a complicated and epic season of AHS ahead, it’s helpful that the series shoots on the Paramount lot within feet of Murphy’s other shows, Glee and new fall NBC sitcom The New Normal. ”First of all, I don’t do it alone — I have really great writing staffs,” says the producer, who co-runs Glee and AHS with Falchuk, and Normal with former Glee writer Ali Adler. ”I just kind of bounce around and spend concentrated spurts of energy. But I work seven days a week. My schedule is such that I start early and I end late.”
Murphy’s mind is so active, it’s not surprising that he already knows what American Horror Story‘s season 3 would be, should FX give him the green light; he’s currently ”researching it” just in case. But more important, he knows how season 2 will end — and it may not be as bleak as season 1. ”This year has a very happy ending,” promises Murphy, ”and then you get slapped with a shock.” Sister Jude would certainly approve.