This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I had been properly warned: Ryan Murphy asks a lot of questions.
There are the innocuous ones, like the “What do you know?” that will begin nearly every conversation you have with him. You’ll scramble for an appropriate response until you realize he’s just pumping you for gossip. There are the intensely personal ones, about your fears, your family or whatever else he has you revealing before you realize you’re telling him things you haven’t told your closest friends. And there are the more self-serving ones, where he’s looking for — craving, even — feedback on his television shows, of which he now has three: Fox’s Scream Queens, FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel and the forthcoming anthology series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. A favorite, “Is it going to be a hit?”
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It’s an early October day, and Murphy is between takes on the 10th and final episode of American Crime Story on a Los Angeles soundstage when he lobs this last one at me. At his insistence, I’d just watched the first two episodes of the series so hotly anticipated that multiple Murdochs have attended private screenings, and suddenly I’m his one-woman focus group. “What popped for you?” he asks, with childlike excitement. Cuba Gooding Jr., I tell him, makes an excellent O.J. “Mmm-hmm.” And Sarah Paulson is terrific as Marcia Clark. “What else? What surprised you?” There’s a subtlety to the series, I say, which I hadn’t expected. Even the gruesome murder at the center of the Simpson saga is portrayed in a restrained, almost understated way.
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“Yes!” he exclaims, all but falling out of his director’s chair. “People think I’m just sort of this P.T. Barnum, razzle-dazzle guy. They think I go out of my way to be outlandish and theatrical at the expense of having emotions. They don’t get that there’s another side to me, and I keep trying to show that other side.” Murphy pauses, and then he’s back to probing: “So, is it going to be a hit?”
It’s a peculiar thing to be asked by Murphy, 50, the closest thing the TV industry has to a proven hitmaker, save, perhaps, for Shonda Rhimes. Over the past decade and a half, he’s made pop-culture juggernauts out of plastic surgeons on Nip/Tuck, high school misfits on Glee and witches, nuns and nymphomaniacs on American Horror Story. And in that time, he’s become a name brand himself, more famous than all but the biggest stars in his sprawling casts. The showrunner, both pop savant and provocateur, has one of the richest eight-figure deals in television and a coterie of loyalists that includes Gwyneth Paltrow (with whom he’s about to pitch a musical dramedy), Julia Roberts, Jessica Lange and now Lady Gaga. He’s hosted President Obama at his home for a $40,000-a-couple fundraiser, and when he mentions his friends Norman, Barbra and David, he’s referring to Lear, Streisand and Geffen.
“My work, for good or for bad, is about mixing lightness with darkness,” says Murphy, photographed Oct. 8 on the ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’ stage on the Fox lot in Los Angeles.
At this point, says Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden, adding Murphy’s name to a show’s early marketing efforts can boost awareness and intent-to-view numbers by as much as 20 percent. John Landgraf of FX watched as those figures on his American Horror Story: Hotel popped above megahit Empire with just a couple of weeks to air. “There’s a limited number of creators in film or TV where if you put the title plus their name — if you say, ‘Steven Spielberg‘s blah blah blah’ or ‘Marvel’s blah blah blah’ — you’re going to get a different answer than if you don’t,” Landgraf says, “and Ryan is one of those guys.”
Looking at Murphy’s life today — at the peak of his profession, with a doting husband and two small children — it’s easy to forget the tumultuous path he took to get here. For years, he was among the industry’s prickliest figures. He’d famously resist nearly every note he was given, and a damning tweet or a few poor reviews could send him spiraling. “When I was starting out in Hollywood, everything was such a battle,” he says, seated now in his three-story loft-style office on the Fox lot. “My impulse had always been to be a person who’s uptight, who’s all, ‘I’ll show them’ and ‘I got to change the world so that people like me don’t go through this anymore,’ and while I still feel a degree of that, it’s different for me now. I feel like I grew up in such a big way in the past couple of years, in a way that I never thought I would.” Then, a smile sets in: “You can’t be the enfant terrible when you have the enfant at home.”
Those closest to Murphy agree he’s softened considerably since he settled down with his photographer husband, David Miller, a Kevin Bacon look-alike whom Murphy married in 2012, and welcomed sons Logan, 2, and Ford, 1. To Walden, who’s become a confidante in their years of working together, the most meaningful change has been in his ability to bounce back when things don’t go as well. “When you’re in a role like he is, you have to rely on so many people, and it’s inevitable that at some point along the way someone is going to drop the ball, someone’s going to say something inflammatory, someone’s not going to come through with what they promised they’d deliver, and that used to be almost debilitating to Ryan,” she says. “I feel like being a parent, he’s come to accept some margin of human failure, and the recovery time is much quicker now: He mourns it, he gets over it and he moves on.”
None of that is to say his wounds have closed entirely or his skin suddenly has grown thick. And because of the boundary-pushing nature of so much of what Murphy puts on TV — gays, lesbians, threesomes, foursomes, clowns, freaks, addicts and conjoined twins — he often is on the receiving end of backlash. “There’s a lot of big bluster there, but he gets hurt,” says Brad Falchuk, his longtime collaborator with whom he’s co-created Glee, Scream Queens and American Horror Story. “People project onto him that he’s not deeply sensitive, that he’s above it all, but who is above it all?”
FX’s ‘AHS’ was rebooted with Lady Gaga, a fan of the franchise.
As much as Murphy enjoys firing off the questions, he’s just as willing to answer them. In fact, nothing with him is off-limits, including the often distressing details of his childhood.
His earliest memories of growing up in suburban Indiana are of being woken up in the middle of the night by his father, a 6-foot-5 jock who worked in the newspaper business. “He’d make me sit at the kitchen table while he smoked with the timer on,” says Murphy, “and he’d say the same thing over and over to me: ‘I don’t see myself in you, and I want you to tell me why that is.’ ” There’s a chilliness in his voice as he continues. “What do you say to that when you’re 6 years old?” He pauses. “I’d start off very emotional, and I would say: ‘I don’t know. I’m not athletic. I’m not built like you. I’m little, and I’m me, and I don’t know what you mean.’ But every year, I would get more and more belligerent, until it ended with: ‘I don’t want to be you. I don’t want to live here.’ “
By 15, Murphy’s secret was out. His mother had discovered a drawer full of love letters that her son, then away at summer camp, had saved from his 22-year-old boyfriend, Drew. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “They called me home and sat me in front of my mother. She says to me: ‘I know about Drew. I told him if he ever saw you again he’d be arrested for statutory rape. We just sold your car, you’re grounded for the rest of the summer, and you start counseling tomorrow.’ ” That last bit, an explicit message that there was something about him that required fixing, hit him hardest.
Murphy describes Fox’s ‘Scream Queens’ as “bubble gum splashed with blood.”
But pretending he was anything other than what he was didn’t suit Murphy, whose steely confidence made a powerful impression on people even then. His mother likes to say her son was ambitious at birth; he offers another theory: “The only way to get through the life I had was just to have a big head of steam and determination,” he says. “I would walk down the hallway in high school and be called ‘fag,’ but I’d never let it stop me. I’d make a joke about it or I’d make it my goal to befriend those people, and then I’d end up sleeping with their boyfriends. … I had a goal even then: I wanted to make it through high school alive, and along the way, I was like, ‘Well, why can’t I be popular? Why can’t I go to the prom? Why can’t I be the president of this or that club?’ That was always important to me.”
Still, Murphy wanted more from life than Indiana could offer. His mother and grandmother had fetishized movie stars and show business, and he’d long fantasized about a future in Hollywood. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in journalism, he moved West, where he dated director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) through much of his 20s. Murphy made a living as a reporter, writing pop-culture and lifestyle pieces for outlets including Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times while working on screenplays on the side. By the late 1990s, the rom-com Why Can’t I Be Audrey Hepburn? earned him the attention of Spielberg, who bought the rights and nearly made the film.
Not long after, Murphy, then just 34, sold his first TV show: Popular, a satire set in the hierarchal world of high school. The experience at the now-shuttered WB proved an early lesson in what Hollywood was — or rather, was not — ready for. “I had this one character who wore a fur coat, and I would get repeated notes, ‘Can you take out the fur?’ ” he says. “It was code for, ‘It’s too gay.’ ” Popular was canceled after two seasons, and after a sitcom pilot he made didn’t go, Murphy contemplated selling everything he had, moving to New York and starting over. Then he had the idea of setting a series in the world of cosmetic surgery.
“I push boundaries, which tends to piss a lot of people off.”
“Nip/Tuck,” he says, “was the first time in my career where I was just like, ‘F— it, I’m going to write what I want to see.'”
The FX series — another satire, this one about society’s obsession with cutting itself open — premiered to raves in 2003. “The drama’s surgery scenes are as daring and graphic as its sex scenes,” New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote when it launched. “A buttocks implant, a breast augmentation and a facial reconstruction (carved to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”) are portrayed as unsparingly and cinematically as a mob hit on The Sopranos.” Nip/Tuck would become the top-rated scripted series on basic cable, win a Golden Globe and establish Murphy as one of the most influential showrunners of his generation.
But often he was too busy fighting — with FX executives, with standards — to revel in the series’ triumphs. “Back then, I wanted to do what I wanted to do,” he says, “and if you wouldn’t let me have my way, I’d be like, ‘What do you mean?’ ” With time, Nip/Tuck would be faulted for flying off the rails, a criticism that would dog Murphy throughout his career. In a 2012 New Yorker essay subtitled “The Button-Pushing Camp of Ryan Murphy,” Emily Nussbaum wrote: “He’s been notorious for constructing fabulous pilots, then driving his inventions off a cliff. Characters get assassinated, literally and figuratively. Sly winks become grand mal seizures.” Murphy didn’t used to be able to stomach such critiques. “I’d take it so personally, like, ‘Why doesn’t everybody like it?’ ” he says. “I’m still the kid in high school who gets called ‘fag’ and wants that girl to be my friend.”
If Nip/Tuck once orbited the zeitgeist, Murphy’s next series, the Fox musical dramedy Glee, would become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. The series about a high school glee club of underdog outcasts launched in 2009, and by season two, it was the second-highest-rated scripted series on television, behind only Modern Family. At its peak, the series was drawing 13.5 million viewers. There were chart-topping albums, too, along with sold-out tours and a guest-star roster that read like a Hollywood phone book. But the billion-dollar franchise eventually would fall back down to earth, with troubles on camera and off. “I look at the Empire cast and everything that’s going on with them, and I’m just like, ‘Don’t do it. Keep it together.’ And I think they have in the way that we never did,” says Murphy, who adds, “To this day, I’m devastated by everything that happened with that show.”
Over the course of six seasons of Glee, which petered out earlier this year, there was plenty written about backstage drama, fractured relationships and the death of star Cory Monteith from a drug overdose. All Murphy will offer are his own misgivings about his role on the show. “I was there with them all day long, and then we’d finish work and we’d go out and have fun all night, and I guess in a weird, twisted way, I was trying to relive the childhood I never had,” he says. “I thought they wanted a parent, and they didn’t. They didn’t want me to tell them what to f—ing do. They didn’t want me to tell them how to treat each other or what the world was like at the end of the day. I wish I could go back and do that differently with a lot of those actors. Some of them I’m still very close to: Lea Michele, Chord Overstreet, Darren Criss — but there were some that didn’t work out well, and I regret that. I guess I just wish I had been able to let them figure it out for themselves.”
“Six months after we started dat ing, so many people came up to me and said, ‘Oh my God, he’s changed. He’s just nicer, more relaxed,’ ” jokes Miller (right), Murphy’s husband.
American Horror Story marks the first time in Murphy’s career that he’s been able to enjoy his own success. The anthology format, which allows the restless showrunner to reimagine the story each season, has kept him and his troupe of actors from getting bored. He takes great pleasure not only in tailoring parts for his stars but also in presenting those parts in person. For Kathy Bates, it was a bearded lady on AHS: Freak Show; for Julia Roberts, a wheelchair-bound doctor in The Normal Heart, an HBO movie that Murphy directed. “It’s fun for me to see their eyes go like corkscrews,” he laughs. “It always starts with the same thing, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ And then I’ll tell them, ‘No, I really think you can do this because there’s this thing about you that I know that I see that I want other people to see.’ ” Says Paulson, whose Murphy roles have included a lesbian, a drug dealer and a pair of conjoined twins: “When you dream about being an actress, I don’t think you ever think you’re going to have the opportunity to play a woman with two heads, but one of the reasons I love Ryan is that he thinks of things that I could never dream of.”
To date, his AHS franchise has racked up 70 Emmy nominations and grown its audience every season it’s been on. In early October, the fifth installment, for which Gaga replaced Lange as Murphy’s muse, became the second-most-watched telecast in FX history. Murphy, who already has pitched Gaga on a potential role for season six (“She’s working on an album, and she has a tour, so we’re trying to figure that out,” he says), claims not to remember describing himself as the “male Lady Gaga” in a 2012 interview. “Oh God, did I say that?” he howls, adding with a dismissive wrist flip, “I must have been drunk or joking.” But when I press him on the remark, he suggests that he and Gaga share a “transformer” quality. “We do something, we’re trying to work out something, our own shit in our own personal life,” he says, “and then the next year we put on a different costume and we’re somebody else.”
Gaga — who reached out to him about the series, not the other way around — speaks about her connection with Murphy with the same cult-like zeal that others, including Paltrow and Roberts, have before her. “He’s a creative soul mate for me,” she says. “I’ve told him things I’ve never told anyone, and it’s because he’s part of something so intimate with me and something I don’t experience with 99.9 percent of the people whom I come into contact with, who meet me and don’t care to ask anything about me; they just want a photograph.”
The majority of Murphy’s writers and crew have remained fiercely loyal, too, even if living in his shadow can periodically prove challenging, as it seemingly did for Dante Di Loreto, who was pushed out earlier this year as head of Murphy’s eponymous production company. Falchuk, one of several who has been with him since Nip/Tuck, suggests he’s drawn not only to Murphy’s vision but also to the clarity he brings to it. “Ryan’s not afraid of being wrong,” he says. “When we’re working on a story or a script, and we hit on the thing that he thinks is the right way to go, we’re going that way, we are not turning around, and that decisiveness is so important in TV because there’s no time.” Others cite Murphy’s attention to detail, as invested in the visual elements as he is the script, or his fearlessness in presenting that which hasn’t been seen. Ned Martel, a former journalist who works closely with Murphy as a writer on AHS: Hotel, likens him to another former boss, Vogue editor Anna Wintour. “They both project really high standards,” he says. “Anna wouldn’t freak out, but she’d be like, ‘Lift it, I’m not seeing it,’ and that’s exactly what Ryan does.”
FX’s ‘ACS,’ starring John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, is a rare project that Murphy directs and produces but has not created or written.
Murphy was the first call Walden and her partner Gary Newman made when they secured the top job at Fox in summer 2014. They took him to lunch and all but begged for his next big idea. “The marketplace was already so competitive,” says Walden, “and there was no one I could think of who’s more capable of standing out in a crowd with their work than Ryan Murphy.”
Together with Glee collaborators Falchuk and Ian Brennan, Murphy pitched Scream Queens, a “bubblegum splashed with blood” horror-comedy that could be rebooted each season. By October, Fox had ordered 15 episodes, straight-to-series, allowing Murphy time to assemble another all-star cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Emma Roberts, Ariana Grande, Nick Jonas, Abigail Breslin, Keke Palmer and Glee‘s Michele. It had all the trappings of a hit: a fresh idea, a soapy hook, a massive marketing campaign and the types of names that can draw an audience. As September drew closer, expectations soared. By premiere night, Scream Queens was a worldwide trending topic for seven hours, with plugs from Gaga, Gabourey Sidibe and Katy Perry. Murphy, with his nearly 750,000 Twitter followers, retweeted many of them.
But when Murphy woke up the following morning, the narrative had changed. The series had lured only 4 million viewers, and his feed was full of tweets about the show’s “lackluster” performance. “I thought, ‘OK, well, that’s it,’ ” he says. “That and my career is over in some weird way.” Fox TV COO Joe Earley gave him his first of several pep talks. “I think we got caught up in a part of our business that has changed,” he told Murphy, a point Walden would reiterate when the series saw a dramatic lift online and on-demand. (One week in, that audience had more than doubled.) Soon, she and Newman, who were as eager to protect the ego of their prized showrunner as they were to preserve the reputation of their network, would put out a press release: “Scream Queens is a model for contemporary viewership.”
“I still have really bad days where I can have a volatile personality. But when you see your 2-year-old throw a tantrum, you’re suddenly like, ‘Holy shit, is that what I used to do?'”
Whether there’s sufficient money in that model remains to be seen, but Murphy’s spirits have lifted when I see him a few days later. He’s already pitched Walden on a broader second season, which would feature a cast of all different age groups. (The current one will likely have four survivors, whom he says will play the same characters in a new venue.) “With all of my work, it always takes a while for people to get it,” he says, reminding me — and perhaps himself — that neither Horror Story nor Glee was a hit right out of the gate. “It goes from, ‘What the hell is that?’ to ‘Oh, I like that.’ So hopefully, given the opportunity, the same thing will happen with Scream Queens.”
If it doesn’t, it won’t be Murphy’s first upset. The New Normal, which mirrored his and Miller’s path to start a family through surrogacy, lasted only one season on NBC. “You’ve not felt the pain of rejection until a television show based on your own life is canceled,” he says. “You’re like, ‘What? Am I canceled?’ It was such a weird mindf— for me.” And Murphy’s hypersexual HBO drama Open, which he made just after The Normal Heart, never moved past the pilot stage. But arguably the biggest heartache came with his 2008 FX pilot Pretty/Handsome, which centered on a married gynecologist seeking a sex change. Joseph Fiennes starred alongside Blythe Danner, Robert Wagner and Carrie-Anne Moss. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life because I thought the story was so beautiful, just like I think [Amazon’s] Transparent is beautiful,” he says. “And then I get a call from John Landgraf: ‘It’s not going.’ “
“’Nip/Tuck,'” he says, “Was the first time in my career where I was just like, ‘F— it, I’m going to write what I want to see.’ ”
When I bring this up with Landgraf, he acknowledges it was the hardest call — “both the decision,” he says, “and the phone call” — that he’s ever had to make on the job. But, he felt, for the series to have worked creatively, it would have required more nudity than an advertiser-supported network like FX could have gotten away with at that time. “Like much of Ryan’s work, the show was ahead of the curve — Transparent, a decade before Transparent existed.”
I can’t help but wonder whether Murphy has watched creator Jill Soloway capture the zeitgeist with that series in the way his projects often do and thought, “That should have been me.” He insists he doesn’t look at it that way. “I never could have told that story as well as Jill did because it was a much more personal story to her,” he says. “That was not my story. I believed in it, but I didn’t have a personal connection to it.” A similar thing had happened with Orange Is the New Black, he says, revealing how he’d had the rights to Piper Kerman‘s memoir before Jenji Kohan. “I just could never figure out how to do it,” he admits. “And then the option lapsed, and it became this great big thing …”
Murphy, who has a rich deal at 20th Century Fox TV, moved his production company headquarters to the Fox lot earlier this year after spending years at Paramount.
When I arrive at Murphy’s home in Beverly Hills later that week, his 2-year-old, Logan, is wrapped tightly around his torso, his head tucked into his father’s chest.
But the shyness quickly subsides, and soon the bubbly child is ushering me to the playroom. “Come see all my trucks,” he says, as Murphy and I trail him through their seven-bedroom Spanish colonial home. Sure enough, an entire wall of the playroom is lined with trucks: dump trucks, fire trucks, garbage trucks. “This is the child my father wanted to have,” says Murphy, grinning widely as he watches his son play happily with his toys. “I have such perspective on what I wished I would’ve had as a child now that I have children,” he’ll tell me later. “So, I find myself saying to them constantly: ‘You’re special. You can do it. I’m proud of you.’ ”
Murphy ultimately would get the validation that he’d long craved from his father, but not until he was 40. I ask what inspired it. “I became successful,” he says. “I think my father’s fear was always that I was going to die, either of violence or of AIDS. He didn’t know what to do or what to feel, and I think I was a terrifying person to him.” Murphy’s father died a few years ago, right before Logan was born. He says he has made a concerted effort to include his mother in his children’s lives, and over time he has begun to forgive her, too.
“My parents aren’t villains to me anymore,” he says. “If I had a 15-year-old child who was having an affair with a 22?year?old, I’d do the same, if not worse. It’s like my entire narrative has completely bottomed out because I get it now. Now that I have children, everything I used to think was my story or was my way in has changed. So I can’t dine out on that story anymore, and it was such a part of my f—ing war.”
It’s with this new mind-set that Murphy’s thinking about the next stage of his life. He talks a lot about wanting to spend more time with his family, just as he does about becoming the type of mentor he’s never been, much less had himself. The latter already has begun with a young writer named Maggie Cohn, with whom he and Kevin Spacey are developing a TV version of Sin in the Second City, a book about two sisters who operated an early 1900s bordello. He’s determined not to fill Di Loreto’s position but rather run his own company, because he insists he doesn’t want a wall around him going forward. In fact, Murphy recently stood onstage at a Fox retreat and urged even the lower-level executives to reach out directly with ideas and feedback.
“I’m trying,” he says. “I want to be approachable. My mother used to ask me when I was a kid, ‘Why are you so cold?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not cold. I’m shy.’ But I think I was bracing for attack half the time, and only recently have I sort of dealt with that.”
He fiddles with his coffee cup. “It’s like the more successful you get, the more isolated you get, and my life was lonely for a long time.” He pauses. “I don’t want to be that person anymore.”