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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season premiere of American Horror Story: Freak Show.]
How on earth did American Horror Story: Freak Show double up on Sarah Paulson?
That’s one of the many questions American Horror Story fans may have after the series debut of Freak Show, in which the Emmy-nominated actress plays conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler, who are suspected in the death of their mother but spared from a guarded hospital and taken to Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) freak show.
Showrunner Ryan Murphy said that producers initially weren’t sure if they could pull off the neat trick and worked really hard to accomplish the look.
“Most people who do conjoined twins do something where they connect them at the chest and you historically have two actors playing those different parts,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter during a conference call this week. “I really wanted Sarah to be both roles because I thought that would be more challenging. We did a test early on that was good, but I didn’t love it. I thought if we kept working on it, it would get better — and it did.”
To create the very different Tattler sisters, the production took a mold of Paulson’s head and had two prosthetic heads built — one for Dot and another for Bette.
“So when Sarah is doing her coverage where she’s Dot, she has on a fake head to her left, which is Bette, and it moves,” Murphy said. “She will record her dialogue that the other one has and she’ll have an ear wig, so she literally has to do scenes with herself, which is insane. It’s absolutely crazy.”
Scenes with the siblings take between 12 and 15 hours to film — compared to an average of five for the rest of the cast — because Paulson has to record everything three or four times.
Ultimately, Paulson opted to take on the huge role herself — Murphy says the American Horror Story featured player didn’t want other people to read her dialogue off-camera to help move things along.
“She’s worked out different tones and accents for the two characters,” he says, noting that every scene for the duo has to be filmed multiple times for close-up, medium shots as well as for the master recording — and again for greenscreen and any over the shoulder and other shots.
“To Sarah’s credit, it’s an amazing feat because she’s playing two people with different attitudes, different facial expressions, and she has different backstories for them both,” Murphy explains. “She has to be left-handed, she has to be right-handed. She had to learn how to walk in a special way and did a lot of research on that. It’s been fascinating to film and edit. We both love it and it’s one of, if not the best thing, Sarah has done. It’s absolutely the most challenging thing I’ve ever seen any actor do ever. She really went for it. It’s thrilling to see somebody embrace something so hard.”
Murphy credited his leading lady — who has been in all four seasons of the FX anthology — for creating specific attributes for each of the sisters.
“There’s one shot in the pilot where you can see the feet going down the gurney and the Bette side has painted her toenails red and the right side has done nothing,” Murphy said. “Sarah has been very specific about all of that stuff, which is fun.”
Beyond the intense production demands, American Horror Story also had to create special dresses to accommodate the Tattler sisters’ necklines. Those eventually are reduced in post.
American Horror Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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Robert De Niro