Ryan Murphy: 'You Either Love Me or You Hate Me' (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The American Horror Story and New Normal creator admits he's "polarizing" while opening up about his creative process, how Glee got rebooted, what kind of dad he'll be and his idea for Kate Hudson. Says Murphy: "You either love me or you hate me."
The Hollywood Reporter: You've been compared to Norman Lear. What does it take to be a provocateur now versus in the 1970s?
Ryan Murphy: He's one of the greats, and we've talked about it a bit. But I never think I'm creating anything controversial, and I'm always surprised when it is. I'll admit, when I first started and was doing Nip/Tuck, I was really trying to sort of make a statement about hedonism and narcissism and sexuality, and I spent half my day fighting battles on that show. I had huge standards problems, and I'd have big fights with [FX's] John Landgraf, whom I love now, and Peter Liguori. Now I never fight.
THR: What changed?
Murphy: I'm less interested in shocking now. Being emotional is more interesting to me. It's funny because I don't get as many standards notes as I used to. I guess what I'm interested in is what has become much more personal to me and thus much more heartfelt and maybe less scandalous. Also, I find that in television, the true taboo is never violence, it's sex, and I'm writing less about sex and more about love at this point.
THR: Which of the characters that you write are most like you?
Murphy: The New Normal is sort of based on my life, so [actor] Andrew Rannells is clearly me, and we have him say things that I say. But I feel like people love Andrew much more than they love me, so he's helping my rep there. [Glee's] Rachel [Lea Michele] and Kurt [Chris Colfer] are very clearly based on me, and Jessica Lange this year on American Horror Story is very much in my childhood obsession with Catholicism and trying to be without sin and failing and my journey through that. By the end of a season, I've always learned something about myself.
THR: Are you aware of how much of you is in the writing while you're in process?
Murphy: What I like to do is to figure myself out through those characters. Like, why did I do that? Or, what was I trying to do there? It's cathartic, and I like to sort of give myself sometimes happy endings that I wish I had had. Like with Kurt's dad on Glee. My father died last year, and I had always wanted that relationship. Now I look at my father, and I feel like I've got to forgive him for some stuff.
THR: You've talked about wanting to have a child. What kind of father will you be?
Murphy: Yes, hopefully sometime next year. I think I'll be incredibly fun and overwhelmed and all about manners. People always say when you have a child it brings you back to when you were a kid, and I'm excited to do that. I had a very rocky, difficult, emotional childhood with my parents. And then I'm excited to have somebody or something come in and say: "Really? I don't care what you think. I'm going to do what I want."
THR: Your next project is Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, about the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in early 1980s New York, which you pursued aggressively. Why?
Murphy: It was a property that I paid for out of my own pocket and then I fought to get it made. It scares me because I came of age sexually in the early 1980s, and I lost so many friends, and so it means a lot to me. I really want young people to know what it used to be like and how that disease is still with us in a very deadly, horrible way. Larry and I have been working on this script for a year and a half, and every page has some sock to the stomach emotionally. There's a three-page scene in there that I can barely read, let alone direct, which is about what it's like to be a caregiver when somebody's dying and throwing up and having diarrhea in your arms.
THR: How much more of Glee is left in you?
Murphy: I've really wanted it to go on, and I wanted to populate it with new people. We did that this season, and thankfully those kids have popped. It's re-energized the show, and I think the actors are all much happier because nobody is having to work eight days a week and kill themselves. It used to be a very tumultuous set; now it's like kids in the candy store. So I feel like we finally figured out how to make it work, and I think we could get another four years from this show.
THR: You've been criticized for having these shows that come out big and strike a chord and then, a few seasons in, plummet back to earth when backlash takes over. Fair?
Murphy: To be honest, when I first heard it, I was like, "Wow." I didn't agree, but what I realized is that they have to write a narrative for you. I care about the marketing and the publicity, and I work really hard on the launch of those shows, and because of that I feel like they've come out in a very big way and make a lot of noise. There's never a slow build; it either works or it doesn't. When you get that much oxygen thrown at you, the oxygen eventually leaves the room. But I don't like to defend my work. Let people make their own judgments. It's not up to me to decide what people say, and I don't read it anymore.
THR: Between Twitter and the web, that can't be easy.
Murphy: On season three of Glee, it got too personal. It felt like an attack, and I was like: "Well, wait, you loved me before and I'm the same person. What happened? I'm still trying." You feel like a 4-year-old, and then you get pouty and you're just a bitch. It's not good.
THR: How would your writers describe you as a boss?
Murphy: As a showrunner, you can never be a maybe. When I do movies, there is a lot of "maybe" and "let's investigate that." But for TV, it has to be yes or no. I'm very black and white about what I like or don't like, and I've always been that way. I've always been sort of "I love it" or "I hate it," and I think as a result I've always been a polarizing person. You either love me or you hate me. There's not a lot of "Hmmm."
THR: Does that bother you?
Murphy: No. I was talking about it with my guy, David, last night. I feel like I came into the world and that was my gig. It bothered me when I first was on Twitter [earlier this year] because it's very disconcerting to read even three comments about yourself and two of them think you're the best thing ever and one person is literally threatening to kill you.
You've famously pursued talent with whom you've wanted to work in the past. Who's next?
Murphy: Right now, I'm working on an idea for something to do with Kate Hudson, whom I'm really passionate about. She fits the medium really well and has a young family, so this is a time where maybe she'd want to hunker down.
THR: What don't people know about you?
Murphy: I'm a softy. There was this turning point for me -- and not in a good way -- when I did The Glee Project. When I started, I was like, "OK, I'm going to go from being an artist to a Simon Cowell personality." That was my role, and I was really nervous about it. I loved the show, but it was sort of soul-robbing, and I think that people thought that I was that person, the Darth Vader of musical theater. To this day, I look back on episodes, and it kills me that I had to cut those kids. I sort of wish I had done that show and not been in it.
THR: You've become an active supporter of President Obama. How concerned are you as Election Day nears?
Murphy: I've always been a political person but never an active political person. But this year, I thought there was so much on the line that I called Obama up and was like, "I want to do whatever I can do to help. Please. I'd like to hold a fund-raiser in my house. I'd like to give money. I'd like to put you in touch with people who would give money." I did that dinner, and I continue to raise money for the president, and I'm not worried because I just can't imagine a world in which he does not win. That's what I keep telling everybody.