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American Horror Story: Cult used 2016 election night as its Trojan horse for season seven.
The premiere of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s FX anthology series kicked off with real footage from the Trump-Clinton campaign showdown, and the opening scene was dedicated to two polarizing characters, Sarah Paulson’s liberal Ally and Evan Peters’ alt-right Kai, watching the results in terror and triumph, respectively.
“Yes, the jumping?off point is election night and the characters have very strong views about Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it really is not about them,” showrunner Murphy said at a recent press event, attended by The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
In fact, Murphy, who said he had been itching to center a cycle around Charles Manson and his Manson Family, had always planned to explore cult leaders in season seven. With the 50th anniversary of the infamous killings approaching in 2019, Murphy had been researching but couldn’t figure out a way to make a Manson-focused season feel like a fresh take. Instead, he will explore how cult leaders, like Manson, rise within a fractured community.
“The thing that I just kept being drawn back to was the idea about cult of personalities,” said Murphy. With the divisive election night as an entryway into the season, “mixing the idea of the Manson cult of personality, and somebody who rises like that within a disenfranchised community, took root.”
Though Peters was introduced during the premiere as Kai Anderson, an avid Cheetos-face, blue-haired Trump supporter who quickly finds a way to capitalize on the pervading fear within his now-polarized Michigan suburb, he will go on to play multiple roles as the season progresses. As Kai, who recruits the weak with a pinky-swearing honesty ritual, emerges as a leader — he will run for local council and eventually for Senate — he will also play cult leaders Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones and even Andy Warhol. One upcoming episode will see a cameo from Lena Dunham as Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Warhol because she “felt denied into the cult of personality that was Warhol in the factory at the time.”
That specific episode will focus on “the female rage then and in the country now” by flashing back to Solanas and her “Scum Manifesto,” in which she instructed women to kill men in order to rise to power. “We also examine our female characters,” said Murphy of Ally, her wife Ivy (Alison Pill) and their nanny, Kai’s sister Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd). “They’re trying to figure out a way that they can have equal power within this cult that Kai has started.”
THR has screened the first four episodes and the murderous clown posse that appears to be infiltrating the once-idyllic Michigan town is an early link to what Cult viewers are expecting, based on the thorough marketing campaign FX launched around the season. For weeks leading up to premiere, an interactive website unlocked hints about the Twisty the Clown-inspired cult members who will presumably be introduced. (Of John Carroll Lynch’s Twisty making a cameo in the premiere, Murphy said Twisty — like Bloody Face, Rubber Man and the Piggy Man — is “one of our mythological monsters who come and go within the cycle of the show.”)
“Once people settle in to see what the show is about, I think that a lot of that anxiety that people seem to be having about the season will dissipate,” Murphy said about assumptions, particularly from conservative fans of the franchise, that Cult is an attack on Trump. Instead, Murphy is using Ally’s range of phobias — from clowns to confined spaces and holes — as a way to explore a “growing sense of anxiety” in post-election America, and Kai’s manipulation to explore the anger and passion in the country that Trump tapped into that was ignored, particularly by liberals. Ally also quietly voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, forcing a wedge between her and Ivy and shining a light on the Americans who must face their own complicity in the election results.
“There’s something about this sense of free?floating, general craziness and anxiety,” said Murphy of the current state of America eliciting enough paranoia that, for the first time in the franchise, Cult will not feature any supernatural elements. “[Cult] takes place in suburban Michigan in a small town, a slice of suburban Americana, and yet you lay in this unbelievable craziness, which is played not only for fear — it’s a very scary show — but it’s also a very funny show, for me, in that it deals satirically with how unhinged and how crazy everybody is surrounding identity politics and all the kinds of stuff that’s going through the culture right now.”
Peters researched cults and the rise of fascism in order to embody his multiple season seven roles, and Murphy praised him for the result. “Evan’s character gets darker, and darker, and darker as he rises to power,” he said. “So [the season] does go a little deeper and darker, but the comedy is always there.”
Though the season was written over the winter months, the show only recently wrapped filming. The recent events in Charlottesville are an example of how this season, even though it was written in reaction to Trump’s win, still ended up being prescient in eerie ways.
“Things that we were shooting in May in our country have come true in the past six weeks even,” said Murphy. “That has been very interesting that the things that we, as a [writers] room, felt were in the water in our country have started to come to pass. So, that’s been very bizarre. It’s been odd and emotional for the cast, but interesting how when you’re writing about the political situation in the country and try and figure out what’s going to go on. Many times, that does come true.”
Ahead of the season, Murphy also teased that Ally and Kai will be a “love story for the ages,” with Paulson adding that their growing relationship will be revealed in “surprising ways.” Over the course of the first episodes, the pair continue to cross paths.
Last season’s Roanoke also featured Paulson and Peters as a married pair of actors who fell in love on set, much to the delight of longtime viewers. While the co-stars have stepped into many roles over the course of the franchise — Paulson has played seven, with two of her characters making cameos on subsequent seasons, and Peters, six before Cult — the two had never been linked up romantically until Roanoke.
“For Evan, it’s been a real and great challenge to work on the physicality of: How am I going to be Charles Manson, and how am I going to be [Marshall Applewhite],” said Murphy. “It’s really pushed him, I think, to the limit. But he’s really attacked it, as has Sarah. She and Evan have been friends for a long time, and they’ve been in the show since the beginning. And seeing those two get to go against each other has been a great reward.”
What did you think of the beginning of Cult? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with the Live Feed’s coverage of American Horror Story: Cult here as it continues to air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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