Ryan Murphy on 'Freak Show': 'This season, once you die, you're dead'
By now, avid TV watchers know that each season of American Horror Story is an entirely new plot but with much of the same group of actors. Each installment also most importantly stems from the brilliant and imaginative minds of co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. For EW‘s Fall TV Preview, on stands now, Murphy offered up some details from the New Orleans set of AHS‘s latest installment, Freak Show—about the titular group of entertainers in 1952 in Jupiter, Florida—which premieres Oct. 8 at 10pm on FX.
EW: Where did this come from? I know it’s something you and Jessica talked about it right?
RYAN MURPHY: It’s something that Jessica she had always talked about it. Jessica’s a photographer so she had always been interested in that carny world. If you look at her photography, she’s always interested in the lost and the forgotten and the beautiful survivor of it all. We talked about it like every couple of weeks. She sent me a book actually. I once I started investigating it I really loved the idea of it because I felt it was such a ripe world. The carny world, the freak show really ended for the most part when television began. So one freak show replaced another so that was always the idea.
I always was very interested in Tod Browning’s Freaks. I loved that movie and Carnival of Lost Souls so there’s a lot of horror tropes to pull from and admire. It’s also our biggest year so I think it took a while and it took success for us to earn the money to do what we had to do. We had to build an entire city. We built an entire huge compound and then we had to build the interior of all those buildings on set. It’s all period. And it’s all based on [production designer] Mark Worthington’s immaculate research. Jessica went she first walked in said she was brought to tears. She kept saying, “It’s like a poem. It’s like a poem.” It’s a very romantic, sad place.
So what can you say about the gist of the plot for this season?
It sort of dovetails with a time in our culture where different people of all different kinds of life start to stand up for their civil rights. The performers have put up with centuries of abuse which is all true and are getting to the point where we’re not going to take it anymore. We’re not going to take it from the town, from the law. The carnies historically were always thought of as lower than thieves, lower than vermin. They were not allowed to sit in certain parts of diners. They were not allowed in movie theaters. They were really ostracized from society. They were thought of as the dregs. So that’s going on as Elsa is trying to keep the sideshow going and it’s not working until she stumbles across two girls, conjoined twins played by Sarah Paulson, who may or may not be responsible for heinous activities that have gone on in the town. Then suddenly become her new headliners and of course that begins to attract people far and wide to see this incredibly odd and special girls.
We’re doing conjoined twins in a very interesting way that I’ve never seen done before. What we’re doing with Sarah is one body, one actor, two heads. It’s really a technological and acting marvel for Ms. Paulson. I think people will really be blown away by. We kinda have created this technology to make it work so it’s something that’s never been done and I was really interested in the challenge of that.
So how does that work?
Basically Sarah has two different heads. So when she’s playing Dot she has on a fake head so she can look at that fake head. And we lock out the frame and we’re measuring everything and there’s CGI and then we take off the head. Then she changes her headband and then she plays Bette the other sister. Then with computer graphics we put both performances on one body. She’s playing two different people. But it takes quadruple the time just to do a scene with an ordinary two actors in a room. It’s a lot of work. But it looks so great. I’m so proud of it.
What’s the deal with Jessica’s character Elsa—is she nice? A villain?
Last year, I think her part was more villainous for sure. This year, the thing about Elsa is she’s a very benevolent soul in that her sideshow has been going on since the ‘30s. What she’s done for 20 years is she goes around to hospitals and jails and rescues these “freak” circus performers who are going to be shipped away to asylums and she signs the waivers and she becomes their guardians. So she loves them and takes care of them. She’s sort of like the mama of all of them. She’s trying to do anything to do this freak show going because where are these people going to go. In her way, she relates to them and feels like she’s one of them as well. She’s playing a German ex-pat who had a career in Germany and came here after the war.
What about Ethel and Jimmy Darling, played by Kathy Bates and Evan Peters?
Well Ethel is basically Elsa’s right hand woman. She helps run the camp and she’s sort of the guardian of the law. She had a real tragedy in that she was a real circus star in the ‘20s and 30s and then she had her baby and she became a down and out drunk and Elsa saved her from the drunk tank. So she’s so indebted to Elsa she’ll do whatever Elsa says so she’s sorta like Elsa’s henchwoman. And Jimmy is the big man on campus and is the male leader of the group until Michael Chiklis’ character comes, the strong man, and they begin to battle for power under Elsa.
Chiklis and Angela Bassett play married couple Dell and Desiree. Can you describe them?
Well they show up at Elsa’s freak show because all their freak shows have closed. There’s nowhere else to go and they’re desperate for work and they don’t know what else to do with their lives. Angela Bassett plays a three-breasted woman and Michael is a strong man who is also running from the law because it turned out he did a series of disastrous events.
When you pitched that to Angela, was she like, “Cool?” What was the reaction?
I believe she said “Okay” and then she wanted to know when her fitting for the prosthetic was. She sits in that make up trailer proudly with her three-breasted prosthetic on.
Emma Roberts plays character named Maggie?
She’s a fortuneteller with a crystal ball who’s a complete con artist. She shows up at the camp to help them and it ends up terribly bad.
Do she and Evan have a romantic relationship on this show?
Yes they do.
What about Frances Conroy and Denis O’Hare?
Denis is a con man who’s in collusion with Emma. And Franny plays Gloria Mott and Finn Wittrock (The Normal Heart) is Dandy Mott and they’re palm beach wealthy society and Dandy is desperate to join the freak show and the circus. And Franny plays the mother who’s horrified and will do anything at all costs to keep him away from these people.
Why does Dandy wanna join the freak show?
He relates to them. He feels like a freak inside even though he’s a beautiful man. But they’re quite fabulous.
And John Carroll Lynch is the villain?
Yes he plays Twisty the clown. Twisty the clown is a murderous clown and he’s furious that the freaks have shown up in a town where he the most evil clown of all time has retired and he’s out to make their lives a living hell. I’m fascinated by the whole clown phobia thing because I personally don’t have it. But whenever we shoot those scenes half the time a third of the crew has to leave because they’re so afraid of him. There’s a real interesting thing that people have with being terrified of clowns So we decided to go head on at it and we tried to make him the most terrifying clown of all time.
What does he look like?
He’s wearing a mask on the lower part of his face and there comes a point in the season where takes the mask off and when you see what’s under the mask you will faint in terror.
This year has Patti LaBelle. Tell me about her role.
Patti LaBelle plays a friend and coworker to Franny Conroy. Patti plays someone who knows what’s going on in this town and she tries to stop it. She was awesome. She hadn’t really acted that much before. She’s amazing. She’s another person in the long lexicon of people who have been on the show that I just personally am a fan of. So I just called her and said, “I love you will you do it?” I like to do that every year. Diana Ross your call is coming is all I’m going to say!
Does she sing?
Oh no because it’s a straight dramatic part. It’s the opposite of what people expect.
But is there singing in this?
Yeah in a very specific way. It is a freak show. There are visual marvels. There’s circus acts. There’s musical acts. And Jessica’s talent on the show is she’s a chanteuse so she does croon a tune for her sideshow.
And what about Gabourey Sidibe? She’s Patti’s daughter?
Yes. She is somebody who has gone to New York and become a society girl and she comes back to find out why her mother is not returning her phone calls.
Are you jumping time periods again?
Yeah we see like in the ‘30s like what Jessica Lange was doing in 1932 Berlin. We see a young Kathy Bates. We see what the circus and cruelty was like in the 1920s.
And is Halloween a two-parter as usual?
It sounds like it involves Wes Bentley’s character.
He plays a mythical creature named Edward Mordrake. Edward Mordrake is a very famous horror myth. It was a man with two faces. A normal face and then a face on the back of his head that would whisper evil things and force the forward facing entity to commit horrible crimes. And Wes is doing several episodes. He torments everybody. The carnies back in the day had a very specific superstition about the character of Edward Mordrake. It’s very much like a Bloody Mary sort of thing. It’s in that realm.
Is this more like Asylum in terms of more realistic horror or are there supernatural elements like Coven?
No there’s no supernatural element…well a little bit. It’s very much in that Asylum world. There’s no sort of Elizabeth Montgomery/Bewitched stuff going on. This season, once you die, you’re dead. There’s no supernatural thing to bring you back like last year. It’s just completely new. It feels completely new. I’m shooting it in a different style. It sounds different.
Have you thought about season five yet?
I have a couple ideas I really really like. I’m sort of thinking over which ones. I’ll probably spread clues in too.
American Horror Story
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.