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FX's American Horror Story has decided to get an education...in witchcraft. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's anthology series' appropriately subtitled Coven (premiering Oct. 9 at 10 p.m.) is set at Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a New Orleans institution for witches that masquerades as an all-girls private school. AHS mainstays Jessica Lange (above) and Sarah Paulson play mother and daughter as well as magical mentors to a group of young spell casters, including The Bling Ring's Taissa Farmiga and We're the Millers' Emma Roberts.
Lange, whose character Fiona is called a ''Supreme'' witch for her powerful abilities, loved relocating to New Orleans for Coven. ''There's a magic to this place,'' says the actress. She adds, ''Yesterday I came out of my house and there was a tour going by; I heard the tour guide talking about witchcraft, so I stopped and thought, 'Oooh, maybe I can get some information here.' Research!''
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On screen the teen witches don't always get along. But Precious star Gabourey Sidibe (back), who plays human voodoo doll Queenie, says that's definitely not the case off camera. ''It's pretty fun. I'm older than all of them,'' she says with a laugh. (At 30, Sidibe has more than a decade on Taissa Farmiga, front.) ''But sometimes I can ignore that fact. And Taissa is sort of my boo. I call her TT.''
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Denis O'Hare, who played Larry the Burn Man in season 1 of AHS, returns for season 3 as mute butler Spalding. Ryan Murphy warned O'Hare (above with prosthetic makeup specialist Mike Mekash) the part was wild. ''We were working on The Normal Heart, and at one point he approached me and he says, 'I have a part for you. It's really weird. You're not going to want to do it.' I had him explain it to me and it was indeed really weird but I did want to do it.''
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Denis O'Hare has one of Coven's most startling transformations as Spalding. The final look is one part aging fashion designer, one part creepy perv. ''We looked at a lot of sources for this. The first thing that comes to mind is [Rocky Horror's] Riff Raff,'' says O'Hare. ''We just kept exploring with the costume designer Lou [Eyrich] and we ended up with a very elegant, distinguished-looking freak. Except for his nails. And my teeth are going to get worse.''
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This year, the series is being shot on location in New Orleans. But much of the production occurs on soundstages standing in for Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. ''There is a bloodline that descends from the Salem witches,'' explains executive producer Tim Minear. ''When a girl starts to reach puberty, you might start to evidence some power. The families will often send their girls to this school to learn how to control their powers and also learn who and what they are.''
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Sarah Paulson (left), who plays Robichaux headmistress Cordelia and daughter to Fiona, and Taissa Farmiga share a happy moment on set. Meanwhile, Farmiga, who didn't appear in AHS' second season, says her return to the franchise — this time as Zoe, a timid new student — ''felt like back to normal, like this is where I'm supposed to be.''
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Emma Roberts' character Madison, a movie star (and witch), pulls out the cloak and dagger — and a faux human sacrifice — to welcome a new student. The actress says her current challenge is perfecting Madison's spell-casting gesture. ''I've been walking around my house and doing these weird witch hand movements, just thinking how embarrassed I'd be if anyone saw me,'' she admits. ''But I'm literally looking at things pretending like I can move them. I've tried flicking the wrist, just holding my hand there, I've tried some slapping motions. I haven't found it yet.''
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Emma Roberts' aunt is Julia Roberts, who not only appeared in Murphy's film version of Eat Pray Love but also co-stars in his HBO adaptation of the acclaimed play The Normal Heart. ''It was really funny because I told my aunt I was doing American Horror Story, and she was like, 'It looks like we're both employed by Mr. Murphy right now.' She was on the set of The Normal Heart. Yeah, he's good to us Roberts girls.''
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Sarah Paulson — who takes on the role of school headmistress Cordelia — had no learning curve when it came to playing Jessica Lange's daughter; the duo costarred in a 2005 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. ''To me, the mother-daughter relationship is one of my favorite in the world to explore,'' says Paulson, ''and to get to do it with her [again] is extraordinary.''