After deciding to deconstruct his FX anthology series last year with the mysterious sixth season of Roanoke, Ryan Murphy is calling the upcoming seventh season another “unexpected jolt” for longtime viewers of the franchise. Though there were passionate Hollywood voices in the writers room when they started to plot the season in December, the showrunner is now saying that it was never a “pro-Hillary, anti-Donald Trump conversation.” Instead, “it was really about trying to understand: Why are people voting for X or Y candidate? What are they feeling? Why are they feeling belittled or disenfranchised or upset with the patriarchal system?”
During a recent press event attended by The Hollywood Reporter, Murphy explained how no matter who people voted for, everyone can relate to the feeling of experiencing the 2016 election night. When Murphy first conceived his election-themed idea in early September, Hillary Clinton was the presumed winner and the opening scene he then imagined was “a little different,” he said.
“Our feeling is that everybody lost their shit after the election — Republican, Democrat — and everybody’s still losing their shit, and nobody’s really figured out from either side where to put those feelings,” Murphy explained of the genesis of Cult. “There is no real discussion. Everybody’s still at each other’s throats, you’re either on one side or you’re on the other. The season really is not about Trump, it’s not about Clinton. It’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see that that’s what’s happening and is using that to rise up and form power, and using people’s vulnerabilities about how they’re afraid and don’t know where to turn, and they feel like the world is on fire.”
THR joined a handful of press in screening the first three episodes of the highly anticipated season and, as promised, Cult does kick off on 2016 election night, using real footage of both Trump and Clinton ahead of the former’s astounding win. As shown in the season trailer, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters portray characters with reactions on opposite sides of the spectrum, serving as an entryway into the political divide that quickly splintered, and is still splintering, in America.
Kai Anderson (Peters) reacts to Trump’s election night win by blending Cheetos and smearing them across his face as makeup. From there, however, the season quickly reveals itself to be more about the blue and the red — rather than the orange.
“The characters have very strong views about Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it really is not about them,” Murphy reiterated during the event. “It really is about the cult of personality that can rise in a divisive society. That’s what this show is about. And I hope that people can figure that out.”
Murphy also revealed that Peters will go on to play multiple cult leaders, six in total, in addition to playing Trump supporter Kai — a seemingly racist, homophobe who is accused of emerging from his “parent’s basement” after Trump’s win — in order to examine how those people rise to power and why people follow them.
“We wanted to do Charles Manson for a long time, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it,” Murphy explained. “Evan Peters is playing Kai, this cult leader in this small town who we follow as he rises. And the thing that we’re doing is we’re really examining all different sorts of cults. And there are many, many famous ones.”
Peters will go on to play six cult leaders total, including Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones and even Andy Warhol. Lena Dunham plays the woman who shot Warhol, Valerie Solanas, in a one-episode run to explore “female rage” both then and in the country now.
“They’re all such idiots,” says Murphy of the cult leaders they will examine. “But for some reason in the culture at that time there was something going on that people were so disenfranchised that they were, like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to follow you, Charles Manson, and I’m going to do whatever you say.'”
Ally Mayfair-Richards (Paulson), meanwhile, finds old phobias retriggered after election night, but an ongoing fight with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), revolves around Ally’s voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, instead of Clinton. While the well-off, white lesbian liberals quickly become a target in the small town, Murphy spreads the commentary by having Ally defend herself against her coulrophobia (fear of clowns) with bottles of rosé during a grocery story nightmare sequence and by telling her wife a line many Clinton supporters know all too well: “As much as I hate him, I didn’t trust her.” Billie Lourd’s character Winter Anderson, also devastated by the election results, realizes she fell victim to the over-confident liberal media.
Murphy cracked of the premiere grocery scene, “I think we’ve all turned to rosé a lot in the past year. And I was doing that in my life.”
The showrunner, who hails from Indiana, acknowledged early criticism from conservatives about the season who are jumping to conclusions that the outspoken Clinton supporter has simply infused his own political beliefs into the show.
“People have the wrong idea already about what it’s going to be,” he said of monitoring tweets from the conservative side of the audience. “People in the Rust Belt who have loved the show [are tweeting], ‘I’m out. I can’t believe that you’re tackling this.’ They don’t understand that every side on our show gets it just as much. The white privilege that Sarah and Alison[‘s characters] deal with is satirical as well.”
He added, “The world we’re living in is ridiculous. So, I think that the show, in some ways, is reflecting the idea that nothing makes sense, and the only way to get through it is to try and have some degree of humor about it.”
He said he set the season in Michigan because it was a battleground state that only became more polarized when Clinton lost the assumed win, a world that he felt he knew. Indeed, Cult‘s community after the election sees racial tensions heightened to horror-story proportions as a series of tragedies befall the small town. The growing fear, stemming from identity politics, is something Kai capitalizes on and Murphy leans into that fear with Ally’s many phobias: She has a fear of clowns, blood, holes and coffins, to name a few.
“I think a lot of [the assumption] is because of people knowing my politics,” said Murphy. “I’m an out, gay man. I’ve had the president of the United States at my house twice. I’ve always campaigned on the Democratic side and that has gotten some degree of publicity. So, I think that when people see that this is what it’s going to be about, presume something.”
Though the season is due to offer many of its usual twists and turns, Murphy calls the cycle a “grounded” one and compares it to common fan-favorite season Asylum. Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) might be making his return, but this season will be the first to not feature a supernatural element.
“People are talking about this and living it, and just, sort of, to make it look extreme would be wrong,” he said. Once viewers start seeing the show, he predicts that a lot of the anxiety will disappear. “I think that we’ve been very careful to be fair.”
Ultimately, the question this season will ask is: How did Trump get elected?
“What did he tap into as a candidate? We don’t have to say that we love or hate Trump, but we were interested in his rise and how that happened,” said Murphy, who admits to feeling, like many were, shocked by his election. “I feel that in this country, probably in my own bubble, there was a sense with the election of Barack Obama, like, ‘Oh, things are changing; people are getting along; diversity is happening.’ That’s when my career started to happen. So, I felt really shocked by what happened, and then, looking at it in the writing, I realized I shouldn’t have been so shocked. I should have understood more.”
He continued, “For me, that has been the great gift of the show, that it’s just made me look at all different sides of the equation and research it more…. Some scenes are hard. I’m not going to make excuses for that. But I also think the great thing about a television set is that it can be turned on and off, and you don’t have to watch it if you think it’s going to be something that you’re not going to like or learn from.”
This season’s returning cast also includes Emma Roberts, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, Chaz Bono and Adina Porter, along with newcomers Billy Eichner, Colton Haynes, Leslie Grossman and Lena Dunham, the latter for one episode. American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.