Despite changing plots and wild twists, one of the constants of the four seasons of American Horror Story has been star Jessica Lange, who has now won two Emmys for AHS. The actress is back for this year’s Freak Show (premiering Oct. 8 at 10 p.m. on FX) to play the maestro behind the titular group of performers, an ex-German cabaret star named Elsa Mars. Lange, who has said that this will be her last AHS installment, talked to EW about about bringing the concept to co-creator Ryan Murphy, musical numbers, and what else is in store for this year’s epic Show.
EW: So Ryan said you brought this to him, right?
JESSICA LANGE: Yeah this had been in my mind for a long time. I have forever been fascinated and I photograph it a lot myself—small-time kind of carnival, sideshow, things like that. I mean I started kind of looking into freak shows. It is an amazing history and I’ve always been fascinated by a community of people living like gypsies, on the road and traveling from place to place and, in this case, heightened to the degree that they’re all extremely special.
So it was something I suggested to him a year or so ago. I had originally imagined it like a traveling freak show, maybe Dustbowl, with that kind of desperation. Ryan has set it in another time, which I think is clever, actually.
With the time setting and the return of Pepper (Naomi Grossman), it’s almost like a prequel a bit to Asylum.
Well, with that character, yes. For all the outrage at exhibiting freaks at the time, the fact is they had community. They had family. Some of them made quite a bit of money. They were extremely popular in Victorian times. Yes, they were being exhibited, but when you look at the other side of that, they were cared for. The most important thing—and I think this is what people don’t understand—is the idea of community.
I think what will be revealed with Pepper is that when these freak shows were finally closed down, in a lot of cases they were closed down without the consent of the performers. And a lot of these people ended up in asylums, alone and isolated. So you’ve got many facets to this topic.
You play Elsa Mars, a German lady. And you’re sort of the owner of the freak show and it’s on its last legs.
Yeah, it’s kind of that thing of the end of one popular entertainment and the beginning of another. As Ryan likes to say, “The end of one freak show and the beginning of another.”
And you arrive in this town and you discover conjoined twins Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson) and they become the new star of your show?
Yeah, that was a way a lot of these people were found. They would find them in hospitals or jails or wherever and recruited. So that’s how Sarah is introduced into the story. I hear something about her, she’s in the hospital, and I go there.
Is it a maternal relationship between Elsa and the twins?
Well, maternal would be putting it very generously. My character is very manipulative. She understands what’s needed, and she provides it. However, the thing I want to be very clear in this is that my character Elsa really loves these people. She truly cares for them, in her own selfish, narcissistic way. But they mean a great deal to her. It’s not just exploitation. She’s tough, and she’s mean sometimes, and all of that, but she really does love them.
Is she not as villainous as Fiona or Constance?
I don’t see her as villainous. She’s delusional—let’s put it that way [laughs]. But it’s fun to play a delusional character. But she came out of the Weimar Republic, out of that just the s–tstorm between the two wars in Germany and was at one moment a very successful cabaret performer and then everything dissembled. And this is ultimately where she ended up: in a freak show, small town circuit in the south in the early ’50s. So it’s been a wild ride for Elsa. I don’t see her as villainous. I see her as delusional, as narcissistic, as ruthless in her ambition. But her ambition is all tied up in her delusion.
I heard you get to sing again.
Oh my God! Singing, yes! In the first four episodes, I sing three numbers. Which is nuts!
How was that?
Well, actually, it was great. Ryan is a little more than usual playing a little loose with time and genre. So we’ve got a couple really big production numbers that I think if they work are going to be very unique.
You perform in the freak show?
And there’s a flashback?
Yes there’s a flashback to the cabaret, to the late 1920s, early ’30s.
Well, “The Name Game” performance was one of the highlights of Asylum, so I can’t wait for more Jessica Lange singing.
Yeah, well, you’re gonna get it, for better or worse!
And Kathy Bates basically plays your henchwoman/right hand gal, Ethel Darling.
Yeah that’s another character I kind of save. We have a long history and bond together. We’ve got some amazing characters I think this year. The actors, of course, are all great.
I heard the sets are phenomenal too. Ryan said you actually got emotional when you walked on.
Well I walked onto our big set, the big compound where all the tents are set up and the trailers and everything. I mean I told our art director it was like a poem. It was like you are inside this poem. Incredible. I’ve never seen a set like that.
Have you had to do any scary stuff yet, like deal with Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch)?
No. Ryan always keeps me out of that fray because he knows that’s not my favorite part. I think this is very different, certainly very different from last year. I mean, I don’t know where this is going, so there’s always that! But I don’t forsee any real slasher moments.
Has Ryan told you what the end of Elsa’s arc will be?
Yeah, he has. He just came up with it the other day.
And what did you think of his plan?
I thought it was kind of brilliant.
You had said previously this would be your last AHS. Has this made you want to sign up for another season?
I haven’t reconsidered. I’m just trying to get through this year, and I think this year, without a doubt, will be my favorite. In a way, it was an idea that I had wanted to explore for a while. I think just the richness of it and the time and the place and the characters. I just think it’s going to be unique. And I think, to my mind, what I’ve seen already and what we’ve done, it will far surpass anything we’ve done before.