Leslie Grossman on the American Horror Story: 1984 finale and that wood chipper scene
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the season finale of American Horror Story: 1984.
It’s fair to say American Horror Story fans will never look at wood chippers the same way again.
In Wednesday night’s season finale of AHS: 1984, the villainous Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) was finally punished for all her crimes by being hacked up by Camp Redwood’s ghostly denizens and thrown in a wood chipper.
It was a horrifically over-the-top end for 1984’s most horrifically over-the-top character, played wonderfully by Grossman.
EW talked to the actress about her biggest role to date in the AHS franchise, hitting costar Gus Kenworthy with an oar, and whether she wants to return for season 10.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you know from the start that Margaret was going to be this season’s big bad?
LESLIE GROSSMAN:Ryan [Murphy] and I went to dinner, and here’s what always makes me laugh: Ryan’s like, “I want to pitch your character to you.” It’s like, “Pitch my character to me? What is this? You’re going to tell me what I’m doing and I’m going to say yes to whatever it is that you say.” Can you imagine if I was like, “You know, Ryan, I don’t like that idea”? No. Whatever Ryan says, I am like, “You 100 percent know what you’re doing, and I trust you implicitly.” We went to this dinner and he said, “I really want you to be the villain, and I want you to be the killer for next season.” So I knew that Margaret was the killer from the beginning. I was thrilled when I heard that, and scared and nervous and hoping that I could give him what he wanted, but I didn’t know, obviously, what her trajectory was going to be. I really didn’t know what was going to happen once we left 1984 and we flash forward. I had no idea what Margaret five years later was going to be like, so that was all a mystery to me. I have to say, I know that some actors get really freaked out by that and they want to know their entire arc and their entire trajectory. I actually enjoy working this way because I’m neurotic and I think too much, and this allows me to just be 100 percent completely in the moment.
Where IS this camp? Like, were you all out in the middle of nowhere?
It is in the middle of, randomly, Beverly Hills, which is perfect. It’s called Franklin Canyon, and it’s actually where they filmed The Andy Griffith Show. You know when they’re walking near the pond in the opening credits? It’s a nature reserve in the middle of Beverly Hills. They built a camp, like real cabins, and they really went all out.
The first half of the series is set almost entirely at night. Was doing that amount of night shoots hard?
It was crazy. I’ve never done anything like that before. I guess it was probably three months of night shoots. I’ve never had to do anything quite like that. I’ve obviously worked nights here and there, but I’ve never worked them consistently. You get so out of the rhythm of normal life. It’s not just the actors, it’s obviously an entire crew of people. What happens is when people are under-slept, they kind of go into their baby selves. I think emotions run higher, your fuse is much shorter. If I work until 10 o’clock in the morning and then my call time’s 5:30 that night or whatever, I don’t go home and then get a good eight hours of sleep and then I’m back. You know, I have a kid. I have a husband. I live in a house with other people. So it was a challenge, but as corny and actor-y as this is going to sound, it helped. It helped because everything was right there on the surface and everybody was so on their last nerve, and I think that that helped the performances, if that makes any sense. It’s also kind of fun to do that, and there’s this camaraderie that everybody has.
Were there animals roaming around this place, like bears?
Well, there is a lady that they have there who’s a snake wrangler, who has to be there all the time. I never came across anything really fun. There was a duck pond full of ducks in the middle of the scene, and I swear to God, they knew when we were filming or if somebody was in the middle of a very emotional monologue. But I tried to pet the ducks, and they wouldn’t allow it. They ran from me. I stressed them out, so I left them alone. My calves on both legs are covered in scars from mosquito bites. By the time we hit August, the flies came out. I do know that Ryan said he had to spend money digitally removing flies from a shot. There were times doing my coverage, a camera an inch from my face, and I’d be like, “There’s 14 flies on my face.” So that was a challenge.
You had a lot of physical stuff too, whether it was canoeing with Gus Kenworthy and then killing him or fighting with Emma Roberts in the finale. Was that fun? Challenging?
It was all of those things. I don’t really have a chance to do stuff like that so I was really excited to do it. First of all, let’s not get it twisted. I had an amazing stunt double who did a lot of work. I’m no hero. There were many times where I was like, “You know what? I’m the anti-Tom Cruise. She can come in and do this.” But I was actually really nervous about that Gus scene. It kept getting put off, like it would be on the schedule and then they’d have to move it a week and move it a week. It ended up being six weeks after I thought we were going to do it, so I had all this time to worry about the logistics and how we were going to do it. Gus is an Olympian. I was like, “How is it going to look believable that me, a weak, middle-aged mother, is going to attack and kill Gus Kenworthy?” But we have amazing stunt coordinators on the show, and Gwyneth Horder-Payton, who directed that episode, was so brilliant the way she did it. I was only in the water for two minutes. I don’t know why I had the most fun doing that. It ended up being my favorite scene of the whole series and was that scene that I had been dreading for so long.
I had more stunts to actually do with Angelica [Ross]. When we were doing our stunts, Emma and I were like, “What’s the least possible movement we can do without losing our mark?” Angelica is like, “I’m doing it all.” Angelica is so fierce and so game and absolutely needs to be in a superhero movie. There was one point where I jumped on Angelica. I don’t know what happened, but I fell, and I fell entirely on my nose. There’s a really good picture that someone took of the floor where it’s just a big lip print right where I landed.
Tell me about working with the other Leslie, Leslie Jordan.
I’d never met Leslie Jordan. Of course I was a diehard fan. I mean, the greatest. His Beverley Leslie on Will & Grace I think is truly one of the all-time iconic comedic characters. Also, he has the best Instagram on earth. If you don’t follow him, do it right now. He’s so funny, and he is like that from the second that you meet him. He is a joy and a delight, has the best stories of all time, and was just the most fun. It was so fun. He really is one of those people that when you work with him, you’re like, “I’m not going to make it through the take. I can’t even look at him.” He’s so f—ing funny.
There were so many people I got to work with. Getting to work with Dylan McDermott was so… I didn’t know anything about him, personally. He is hilarious and makes the most interesting, bizarre, wonderful acting choices, and never does the same thing twice. Getting to work with him was so great. Also, he came on towards the end when we were all half-dead, so he had this great energy that he brought like, “Okay, guys. Let’s remember that what we’re doing is incredible and fun,” and so I loved getting to work with him. He was a delight and I just didn’t know how funny he was.
I think you actually are one of the few cast members who got to work with nearly everyone, like Lily Rabe, John Carroll Lynch, and Finn Wittrock.
I was very nervous about working with Carroll Lynch. Not that I don’t feel that way about all my fellow actors, but I really was nervous about him because he’s an actor’s actor. He was so kind and so, I know this is such an actor-y thing to say, but the most generous and instantly put me at ease because I was nervous. I rarely get intimidated, and I was intimidated by him. He’s somebody who’s worked with the best actors, and I wanted to feel like I was able to really get in the ring with him. Because of how wonderful he was, he made it this incredible experience, so I loved the times I got to work with him.
On the flip side of all this, let’s talk about the wood chipper. How did you all shoot that scene?
So, you know, Margaret’s death was something that we discussed a lot. Ryan and I were like, “Well, how is this going to go?” He was like, “Well, I think this should happen,” and then it was like, “Well, I think this should happen.” There were scenarios where Margaret was going to live, and then it was like, “No, she’s got to go, and she’s got to go horrifically because she’s awful and everybody, the audience, really needs to see her brutally killed.” So he then called me one day and he was like, “Well, you’re getting put in a wood chipper.” Of course I just died and laughed hysterically and said, “That’s the single most perfect ending for that character.” Actually, I didn’t have to do a lot for that scene, to be perfectly honest. Mike Mekash, the co-head of the makeup department, does all the gore and the blood and the guts, and there’s no one better. He really does all the work for you. They did this thing where they put a fake arm, my arm is sort of hidden behind my back, and then there was a huge blood rig. So they cut off one of my arms and then the blood spilled out, and I have to scream and sell that, but a lot of it is really good directing. John Gray directed that episode, so a lot of it is really good, clever editing, directing, and really good special effects and blood and all that stuff. So I really didn’t have to do all that much.
It’s also really weird to go and do just a normal job after. While I was doing this, I guest-starred on an episode of The Goldbergs. It was right in the middle of filming. I had days off and I did it. So we rehearsed the scene and I was like, “Right, and then I jump on her and cut her face off?” They’re like, “No. Just a funny conversation.” In my mind, I was like, “That’s it?” You’ve been conditioned. You want to just do all the things all the time.
Do you know anything about season 10? Would you want to be part of it?
I can tell you that I know absolutely nothing about the next season. The truth is even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. But I always say this: I will do whatever Ryan asks me to do. If he feels that it’s time for me to take a break from the series, he is correct. If he wants me to come back and do it, I will be there with bells on. When it comes to Ryan, it’s like there’s so few people in my life that I feel the way that I feel towards Ryan. He’s just been so good to me. I don’t know how I’ll ever, ever be able to pay him back, and I really can’t pay him back. You know, he’s the one that has the big $300 million Netflix deal. So unless I buy him a Magritte, I can’t really pay him back.
When you guys go out to dinner, do you ever talk about bringing back Popular?
Never. We really don’t. First of all, you know what’s funny is when I’m with him, we rarely talk about work. We’ve known each other for so long. But I’ve always said that character brought so much to my life, and people feel such a sense of ownership with her. I know she was so important to so many people, so I’m open always to revisiting that character. He has never expressed anything to me about doing that, but if he did, I would certainly be thrilled.