Emmys 2012: Frances Conroy Finds Life After Death in 'American Horror Story'
The former "Six Feet Under" star reveals the challenges of haunting FX's anthology series.
Frances Conroy nearly wasn't a part of American Horror Story.
The four-time Emmy nominee -- for playing Ruth Fisher, the put-upon owner of a mortuary on HBO's long-running Six Feet Under -- was working on Bad Mom, an ABC comedy pilot with Jenna Elfman that everyone thought would get picked up to series. After the network passed, the 58-year-old actress wound up auditioning for the FX anthology, where, ironically, she'd play the elder version of Moira O'Hara, a ghost trapped in a haunted Los Angeles mansion. With her fifth Emmy nom, she faces off against the likes of fellow supporting actress in a miniseries/movie nominees Jessica Lange -- her Horror co-star -- and Sarah Paulson, who picked up her mention for HBO's Game Change.
The Hollywood Reporter: American Horror Story was teeming with confrontations, death and ghosts. Is there a scene that stands out as particularly troublesome?
Frances Conroy: A lot of the scenes were really dark. There was a scene where the young Moira [Alexandra Breckenridge] and the old Moira were physically attacked in that house when she's trying to find her mother. That was interesting to shoot because the actors playing the young guys had to make like they were physically abusing us. They didn't really touch us, but they had to look like they were, and each of us had to have an emotional reaction to that: screaming and yelling at what would be terrible physical abuse. That was weird to do, to come out with that kind of a vocal response to something that was supposed to be happening in that scene. Everybody was a doll on the crew, and the actors were great, but to go to a place like that -- that was intense. I was glad when that was over.
After a long run -- and four Emmy nominations -- on HBO's Six Feet Under, how much of a departure was this role for you?
The different things I've done since Six Feet Under have all been different kinds of people. Moira I love because I felt like you've got a person that's dead, so she had nothing to lose in a lot of ways. She came from an elemental place where she could say whatever she was going to say, and she didn't have to play up to anybody or hide things. She was a wonderful person to figure out.
After being surrounded by death on Six Feet Under, it's ironic that you get to play someone who already is dead.
It is! Six Feet Under was so much about life. Sure, it had a lot to do with death, but that's the fun -- that now I became a dead person.
Many of Moira's scenes involved going toe to toe with Jessica Lange. What stands out from those dueling-diva scenes?
The scene where she was trying to steal Vivien's silver, and I said: "That's not yours. You can't take that." She said something horrible to me, and then she walked away, and I started yelling, "You think I like being here?" That was a really tough scene to do: It was the end of the day, and we were tired, and when we were rehearsing it and I was screaming at [Jessica] off-camera, one of the men on the crew said something inappropriate like, "Granny's letting loose now." I said very quietly that I was about to rip his head off. When we ended the night, they all applauded us because they saw that the scene was a real bitch to do. But that was the moment where I had a very violent reaction. I had to temper myself and just say, "Don't ever talk to an actor like this again, ever, when they're rehearsing something that's so intense." You don't ever want to go there.
How did you handle processing the dark material?
I haven't seen some of the episodes because I was so freaked out reading some of them that I couldn't bear the thought of seeing them on TV. I could only imagine what [co-star] Evan Peters went through after his brilliant work, the things he went through as that character. It did get under my skin, and it did take a little while to let it go. Between the fact that you get physically and mentally tired, the emotional stuff stays with you, and you can't help that.
Did you know when you signed on that American Horror Story was an anthology?
I don't know who knew what. I'm sure Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton knew they were going to be on for one season. I think they were making decisions as they went along, and it's brilliant that they're doing a new story with a new cast of characters.
Would you come back?
It would be dark, but it would be great. It would be so interesting to jump into another world if they put me on for an episode.
Did you envision yourself spending so much time wearing a maid costume?
The hair is the thing that got me. It looked like I had burned my head in an oven. We had to dye our hair every three weeks because, evidently, red dye fades. I was very happy to have that color gone. The maid outfit, the shoes were comfortable! The thing that got me was that there was always a lot of smoke on the set. People would get it in their contact lenses, and they'd have to throw the lenses out. I was really glad when I got off the set.
The rebooted American Horror Story: Asylum returns in October. Do you want to see Conroy pop up? Hit the comments with your thoughts.