With Feud: Bette and Joan set to bring the famous battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to the small screen this weekend, the series’ mastermind, Ryan Murphy, has revealed a pretty solid source who’s helped him bring the characters to life: Davis herself.
During a SiriusXM town hall about the show, PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle asked Murphy about his life-long love of Davis, which culminated in an interview just several months before her 1989 death at 81.
“It started when I was like eight,” Murphy explained of his obsession with the legendary actress. “I was very much raised by my grandmother who actually was Bette Davis — looked like her, acted like her, talked like her. Probably, it was just out of my love and affection for my grandmother that I was interested in Bette.”
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Murphy eventually turned his passion to paper, and he began writing Davis fan letters, which she answered. The relationship between the two culminated in an interview early in Murphy’s career, when he was working as a columnist for a newspaper.
“I might’ve been the last person to interview her, and it was only supposed to be 20 minutes because she had just had chemo,” he explained. “But she got dressed up for me, she wore a Patrick Kelly suit and a wig and a pillbox hat and I got off the elevator and there she was at the end of the hall, in a cumulous cloud of cigarette smoke… The 20 minutes turned into four hours, and I sat and chain-smoked with her, which she loved.”
During their time together, Murphy dug deep, asking her questions about her relationships with Joan Crawford, Faye Dunaway, and Jack Warner, whom Davis claimed hated her and told her she looked like a man.
“The thing about Bette is that even near death, she knew her brand,” Murphy explained. “So when I would ask her about Joan Crawford, she would lead with the ‘Ugh!’ She would just go on about how much she hated her. But then she would sort of say, ‘The thing that I will give her… was that she was a professional. And I admired that, and I was a professional and they really don’t make them like that anymore.'”
Murphy used this time spent with Davis to help formulate her character on screen, as played by Susan Sarandon, opposite Jessica Lange’s Crawford in Feud.
See the clip above, and watch Cagle’s full town hall interview with the cast of Feud, streaming now on PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network at PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app on mobile or connected devices. You can also listen to the full interview on EW Radio (SiriusXM ch. 105) all this week.
Feud premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.