Some things clearly get better with age — including ”American Horror Story;” with its third season, ”Coven,” the FX hit is sharper, funnier, and more popular than ever; EW sneaked into Miss Robichaux’s for an inside look at life among the witches; Warning: Spoilers ahead!
It’s a pretty balsy move to chop off the head of an Academy Award-winning actress. But American Horror Story, the ever-changing, ever-shocking anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, does not lack for swagger. It’s a Monday morning in November on the New Orleans set, and witches Fiona (Jessica Lange) and Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) are standing over a cardboard box containing the decapitated head of the immortal sadistic society maven Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates). Bates cries out, “Heeelp meee!” while Lange and Paulson, who play mother and daughter, can’t help but break character and crack up. “You’re gonna be here alllll day,” Lange drawls at the Misery star, who — to create the effect for the Nov. 27 episode — is lying on a table with a box over her head. But Bates doesn’t seem to mind the tight quarters. (“Hey, Betsy!” she calls to the boom-mic operator chirpily from her prone position.) Later she says with a laugh, “I’m just hoping that they don’t chop me into too many pieces, ’cause I’d like to stay on the show for as long as I can.”
You can’t blame her for wanting to remain in this Coven. The witch-centric show has become one of the most talked-about series of the fall, and the highest-rated installment of FX’s franchise to date, with 7.4 million viewers. Where season 1 of AHS saw haunted-house owner Connie Britton gettin’ it on with a man clad in a full-body rubber suit and Asylum had Lange playing a nun in charge of a mental ward where visitors included aliens and Anne Frank, Coven (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) centers on the students and teachers of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. The school is a haven for descendants of the Salem clan, whose bloodline is dwindling in part due to an ongoing battle with the voodoo witches, as well as an organization of witch hunters called the Corporation. So in addition to learning how to master their powers, the sorceresses have had to contend with a frat-boy Frankenstein, zombies, and a mute butler with a baby-doll fetish. “It’s a Grimm fairy tale pushed to the very outer limits of our imagination,” says Bates. But there’s a message inside this madness, explains Angela Bassett, who plays vengeful voodoo queen Marie Laveau: “We’re touching on issues of race and ageism and youth.”
The concoction has certainly proved seductive to viewers. Ratings are up a whopping 75 percent from last season at a time when most series are seeing their numbers drop. Says Twentieth Century Fox Television chairman Dana Walden, “This season the show broke into that category of zeitgeist. People are talking about it — it’s in the air.” It likely helps that Coven‘s tone is decidedly more playful and its look more glamorous — these devilish witches wear Gucci — which was a conscious choice made by producers after the brilliant but bleak Asylum. “I just think it’s more inviting,” says Murphy. “A lot of people loved Asylum, but it was sometimes something to endure rather than enjoy. So I wanted Coven to be slicker and more fun.” Adds Lange, who’s been in all three seasons of AHS, “It’s been wonderful to be able to play humor — to have somebody as sharp-witted [as Fiona].” EW spent two days deep inside Coven‘s house of horrors for an intimate peek at TV’s wickedly wild hit. All aboard the crazy train!
”To me, the more insane, the harder, the more challenging, the better.”
Frances Conroy has the Robichaux witches in stitches. It’s early afternoon on Coven‘s soundstages, located in the lower Garden District, and the actress’ eccentric character, Myrtle Snow, who speaks in high-snob and rocks a wild mass of crimped red hair, is leading a circle of spell casters, including Cordelia (Paulson), Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Misty (Lily Rabe), Nan (Jamie Brewer), and Madison (Emma Roberts), in a ritual called the Sacred Taking. The women, clad in red capes and mantillas, clasp one another’s hands in the living room of Miss Robichaux’s and listen to Myrtle wax on about their ancestors. “Can you imagine those poor Salem witches, traveling all the way down here in covered wagons without a proper charcuterie platter or bidet? Absolutely savage…” Take after take, the actresses burst into laughter at Conroy’s grandiose delivery.
Whether you’re watching at home or on the set, it’s clear that everyone on Coven is having a freaking blast. And that, in fact, is part of Murphy’s sales pitch for luring big-name talent. “I just say, ‘I love you and I want to write something for you that will be one of the most fun things of your career and you’re going to love doing it. Will you please just sign on the dotted line?'” he explains. It’s an offer that works, even (or especially?) on Oscar-caliber actresses who may not be getting the juicy big-screen roles they once were. When she’s not having sex with a minotaur (R.I.P.), Bassett’s Laveau gets to luxuriate on a throne made of bones in the back room of her hair salon and proclaim things like “She done messed with the wrong weeeetch.” Meanwhile, Bates tears through Madame LaLaurie’s vitriolic speeches like a raptor. “I love going to work,” she admits. “Every scene has something exciting in it for me to do, and part of the fun, too, is reading every new script. I never know what’s coming.” Says Bassett, “I think one of the really satisfying things about the show is that more is more. More is best!”
This is a show where you can begin playing a teenage witch with a lethal libido and then, seven episodes in, have a three-way with two formerly dead, now-resurrected pals. “After I read the first script of season 3, when I found out I had a killer vagina and I rape this boy, I literally had a mini freak-out in my room,” remembers Farmiga. “But then I calmed down. I was like, ‘All right, sweet.'” At this point most of the cast knows that being involved with AHS means going big or going home. “I’m really an actress who wants to have a peg leg and a black tooth,” admits Paulson, whose character has had a sex scene with snakes and been blinded by sulfuric acid. “To me, the more insane, the harder, the more challenging, the better.” Says Gabourey Sidibe, who plays human voodoo doll Queenie, “You sign up knowing that you’re going to do something cool and knowing that you’re going to stretch as an actor…and my stretch was masturbating for a minotaur.”
”If you’ve already died, can you die again? That’s like the American Horror Story riddle.”
The next day, Denis O’Hare (otherwise known as Miss Robichaux’s mute doll-collecting butler, Spalding) arrives on set to chat with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and to take memento photos of his character’s creepy lair. Sitting outside the bedroom, O’Hare says he didn’t learn about Spalding being bumped off until he read the script. “On a character level, it’s cool,” he says. “But on the practical level, you’re like, ‘Does this mean I’m out of a job? Do I pack up?’ But I respect Ryan and Brad’s sense of trajectory and know they’re going to take care of the characters in the proper way.” (Thankfully, O’Hare will stay employed: The actor later found out that Spalding will return as a ghost.)
Upstairs, in the main studio, Jessica Lange is hunched facedown over a toilet. While Fiona has enjoyed years as the coven’s most powerful witch and therefore leader, a new Supreme whose identity is the main mystery driving Coven has arrived and begun sucking the life out of her, causing her health to deteriorate and her hair to fall out. As she prepares to fake-vomit, Lange — wearing a patchy blond wig and a black robe — remarks drolly, “Oh, we have so much fun!” Her costar in the scene, Emma Roberts, stands nearby clad in a red silk nightgown and studded designer heels. “Nothing says witch bitch like Prada,” observes costume designer Lou Eyrich. Murphy was intent on having every character sport a “signature” look, so Eyrich worked with him to give each witch a distinct style. “We decided Marie’s signature piece is the pantsuit,” she explains. “Madison was a fur. Fiona was black sunglasses and black dresses. Nan was pilgrim chic. Misty was Stevie.” (That’d be fashion shorthand for upcoming guest star Stevie Nicks.)
Lunch comes around 3 p.m. and is served buffet-style on an empty soundstage on the lot. Over steamed broccoli and chicken, the cast screens episode 5, “Burn, Witch. Burn!” Cheers erupt as Farmiga’s Zoe defends the group from a pack of zombies by tearing into them with a chain saw. (Farmiga later says that the scene is her favorite AHS moment so far.) Lange walks through the lunchroom in full Supreme mode, sunglasses on, pausing only for a quick moment to sprinkle salt on her food. Roberts and her costar/real-life boyfriend, Evan Peters, who plays the undead frat boy Kyle, also step in for a few minutes to watch.
Filming on location in New Orleans means Coven‘s cast and crew have a lot of together time. Says Rabe, “I’ve always had a lot of close relationships on our show, but there’s definitely a group thing happening that’s quite lovely and comes with the location mentality.” For example, Farmiga’s boyfriend and sister are in town, so she’s arranging a swamp tour this weekend and has invited her AHS family along. To celebrate Halloween, the cast and crew went bar crawling, with Roberts dressed in a vintage pink leotard as Jazzercise Barbie. Still, there’s one person the actress has yet to hang out with in New Orleans. “I’m desperately trying to run into Channing Tatum, to no avail,” she says of the actor, who is in town shooting the sequel to 21 Jump Street. Seems even witchcraft has its limits.
After lunch, Farmiga, Paulson, Lange, Conroy, Roberts, and Rabe assemble for a scene in the living room. Paulson’s white contacts, which give the actress’ eyes that disturbing burned-by-acid look, make it impossible for her to see, so Farmiga often leads her around the set by the hand. Roberts, who doesn’t have any lines in the scene, sits on the couch and plays Candy Crush on her phone, which everyone decides her character would do anyway. This will likely be one of the last shooting days where all of these actresses are together, since AHS tends to get a tad deadly in its final weeks. “In episode 10, characters start dropping like flies, and I have to start making the bad phone calls,” says Murphy. “Then the actors are like, ‘But I needed my mortgage money! Keep me on till 12!'” It was that kind of tension that quashed the Coven spin-off Murphy hinted at earlier this fall. “We were starting to break episode 8 or 9, and we were like, ‘Well, we can’t kill that person off because we need them for the spin-off.’ As soon as those words were said, I was like, ‘There is no spin-off,'” explains Murphy. “It took away from the joy of the show. The reason the show is successful is no one is safe ever.” Most of the actors still have no idea how Coven will end. “Maybe we’ll all die,” says Roberts. “Although if you’ve already died, can you die again? That’s like the American Horror Story riddle.”
”I think four years doing something is a sufficient amount of time.”
A week later, Ryan Murphy sits in the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel. He’s in town to film the final act of his HBO adaptation of the play The Normal Heart, but at the moment the only person commanding his attention is his 10-month-old son. Murphy’s husband, David Miller, has stopped by with their child to say hi, and the beaming dad is concerned with making sure baby Logan is swaddled up enough to go outside. The powerhouse producer (who’s still working on Glee with Falchuk as well as a pilot for HBO called Open) admits that fatherhood has mellowed him. “Largely because I’m so tired,” he says drily. “But, yeah, I tend to be a little more paternal with things than I was.” He’s more open to delegating, praising his AHS writers’ room — which includes Tim Minear (Wonderfalls) and James Wong (The X-Files) — as “a room of superstars.” But Murphy’s fingerprints are still on every detail of AHS. “We go through five or six drafts on this show every script just to make sure it’s so good,” he says. “I’m doing casting through email. I choose every wardrobe piece. Then we refine it and refine it and refine it.”
While he may want to obsess over Coven, he has to start shifting his attention to a fourth season of AHS, which was recently greenlit by FX for 2014. Every actor EW spoke to said they would be up for another season. “If it’s as intriguing and satisfying as this season, then we’ve certainly got to entertain that possibility,” says Bassett. But one thing’s for certain: Next year will be Lange’s last Horror outing. The actress wants to do other things, and the schedule is a grind. “It ends up being a lot of time during the year being committed to something,” she admits. “It’s like doing a stage play, between the rehearsal and the run. This is a six-month commitment every year. I want to have more time to myself, I guess. I think four years doing something is a sufficient amount of time.” Murphy is cagey about what he’s planning for next year but will begin dropping hints within Coven around episode 11. “It’s not contemporary” is all the co-creator will say. “It’s either going to shoot in New Orleans or it’s going to shoot in Santa Fe.” Then inspiration hits for a show involving one of New Mexico’s most famous residents. Jokes Murphy, “What if it’s American Horror Story: Shirley MacLaine?” Well, MacLaine’s 1989 Inner Workout video is pretty terrifying.
Ryan Murphy’s Dream AHS Cast
With this season’s additions of acclaimed actresses like Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Gabourey Sidibe, it’s clear that Ryan Murphy can draw great talent to American Horror Story. So who is on his wish list for future seasons? “Well, every year I go to Reese Witherspoon,” says Murphy. “I want her to play something really twisted and f—ed up. But she’s always booked.” Also on his dream roster are Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Chiklis. Plus, Murphy is hoping original AHS stars Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton can shoot guest spots on Coven before it wraps in January. “I’d love to figure it out,” he says. “Dylan wants to come back, and I’m trying to find a way to bring my Connie Britton in. She certainly has the hair for it — that red hair will pop against those white walls!”