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This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ryan Murphy is no stranger to gore. His plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck was groundbreaking in its gruesomeness. But with FX’s American Horror Story, he has upped the ante. Coven, the third season in the anthology series (set to bow Oct. 9), boasts a triumvirate of veteran actresses including star Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett (who plays Marie Laveau, the so-called voodoo queen of New Orleans) and Kathy Bates (who plays a serial killer). “She’s incredibly sadistic and takes joy in giving others pain,” says Bates of her character. Both actresses were fans of the show before Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk cast them. Bassett binge-watched the first two seasons: “I had to watch them during daylight hours with a friend.”
Why did horror take so long to break into TV in a big way?
Some of it is getting back to the stuff we used to see in the ’70s; real, true masters of cinema were [working] in the genre, like Roman Polanski with Rosemary’s Baby and William Friedkin, who did The Exorcist. Those guys used character first in their horror pictures, and that’s why they were so great and classic. And I feel like we’re spinning into that area.
Lange has been so instrumental in American Horror Story. How long will she be your muse?
Every year, she says, “OK, that’s my last one.” But she’s already committed to the fourth series. I can see American Horror Story going 10 years, 12 years, 15 years. I think it’s limitless because it re-energizes every year, and I would love for Jessica Lange to be part of it every year.
What can you say about a potential fourth season?
(Laughs.) I can’t say anything. All I’ll say is, Jessica Lange has always wanted to play a Marlene Dietrich figure, and now she gets to.
Where is the limit on gore?
There really is no limit. I’ve never gotten any standards notes on violence or gore on AHS. The only time I’ve ever gotten a note about anything was about sex. When you mix sex with violence, sometimes that’s an issue. But I don’t wake up saying, “I’m going to push the limit today.” I feel because of the cast we have — Sarah Paulson and Jessica and Kathy and Angela — I feel a responsibility to not do anything that puts them in a squeamish place.
You’ve been at the forefront of the limited-series surge. Do you think the form can sustain itself?
When I was growing up, I loved that form. I grew up with The Thorn Birds, Roots. When I proposed [doing a limited series for FX], it wasn’t the easiest thing to sell. And I think because we attracted a great cast and we won awards and did well in the ratings that it opened up [doors]. I think that it really is a great television art form. And I think now, more than ever, networks are looking for ways to eventize.
Sarah Paulson described you as a “mad scientist.” Thoughts?
I don’t know about that. A mad scientist is somebody in a laboratory with a steaming beaker of sulfuric acid or something. My favorite thing in the world is to put things together that don’t belong. I get a lot of shit for it sometimes because I cross-pollinate genres and my stuff is not necessarily straightforward. And sometimes I take a big risk and fail. But I don’t mind failing. The image of me in front of a green foaming beaker is one that I love. So I’ll take it.
What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen onscreen?
I could only sit through a minute and a half of The Human Centipede. I was like, “OK, you can do this.” But I couldn’t. The Human Centipede is the holy grail of shock. If you can actually watch that, hats off to you.
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