Anyone who tuned into the “Freak Show” knows that last year’s season of “American Horror Story” was groundbreaking on many levels, which the cast and crew explored at a FYC screening in late June. As executive producer Tim Minear put it, “The challenge this year was to bring the audience into this ersatz family of people who are different than other people. We always do that every year in some way: The outsiders become the heroes of our show. We sort of took what we do and made it more literal this year. The challenge was really to bring you in to identify with these people, so you could be scared for them. And then at some point they’re not freaks. They’re these people that you’ve come to know, which is how we feel about each other in the writers’ room.”
So that meant combining great acting with great technical execution. For example, Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of the Tattler twins may be entirely unprecedented in television and film history: The “Siamese Twin” characters in the 1932 film “Freaks” (Tod Browning) were played by real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, while other conjoined twins have been created using separate actors, some complex wardrobes, and perhaps a little CGI. Never before has a single actress played both siblings of a conjoined pair.
For another, John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown had the tremendous task of emoting through layers of prosthetics and special effects makeup, all while using zero lines of dialogue. Another anomaly, this time specifically within the “AHS” universe, was the reappearance of Pepper (Naomi Grossman), a character with microcephaly who was introduced in Season 2, “Asylum,” and the first character to ever recur in a different season.
Jessica Lange — whose performed her last season as a “AHS” regular — said that of the characters she’s played in the series, Elsa Mars was her favorite, and that she found there to be something extraordinary about this year’s “Freak Show.” “The sets were like one long poem, and the costumes, and the makeup, and the extras. It was just magical,” she said. “And I got to sing David Bowie.”
Lange — who has already won two Emmys for the show — and Minear were joined on this post-screening panel by cast members Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, Finn Wittrock, Denis O’Hare and John Carroll Lynch, all of whom stopped by the red carpet along with Naomi Grossman and this season’s score composer, Mac Quayle. Below, we have more highlights from the evening. [Spoilers for “American Horror Story: Freak Show” to follow.]
We’re Expecting More Emmys, Please and Thank You
The Q&A moderator was quick to bring up the fact that the “American Horror Story” franchise has been nominated for no less than 51 Primetime Emmy Awards, three of which had been won by present cast members Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange. The FX show has won eight Emmys in total. “One more and they can break their own record,” he joked.
Lange reminisced about her win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries for last year’s “Coven,” describing it as “very surprising; it completely took me off guard.” Apparently, everyone kept saying “someone else would win,” as she gestured vaguely to her left amidst laughter from the audience.
Sarah Paulson, who was sitting four seats over and who ran against Lange in the same category, shrugged nonchalantly at the reference. “Should I even go?” Lange recalled thinking. “It’s not my favorite kind of evening. You get all dressed up and they fuss around, and then you go and you sit. The seamstress had taken in my dress so tight that I could hardly sit down… I actually needed help getting up on stage.”
It seems as though the competition between the cast members every award season does little to weaken the bonds they’ve grown over past seasons. Kathy Bates, who was one of three nominees from “AHS” last year in the Outstanding Supporting Actress category (the others being Angela Bassett and Frances Conroy), choked up when reminiscing about her long run with Lange. “I’m going to miss very much working with you,” she said.
Sarah Paulson received her own share of praise from her fellow panelists, as well as from the audience, who gave her three separate rounds of applause for her performance in “Freak Show.” Tim Minear described the laborious process of creating the Tattler twins on the red carpet. “The production value is so high that there’s no such thing as a simple scene. The thing is really shot like a movie. […] You’re shooting it once for one head, and once for another head, and you’ve got to get all the coverage for both heads and both eyelines, and all that sort of thing. We didn’t even know if we’d be able to pull it off and we did. Actually, Sarah did. The skill and the discipline that it took for her to do that, you can’t underestimate that. You look at dailies, and you couldn’t believe how amazing her acting was because each head was its own person. […] Give her an Emmy!”
Paulson humbly deflected the praise back to her castmates, saying that they, too, shouldered the burden of bringing Bette and Dot Tattler to life. “I think people dreaded having scenes with me.” Acting is reacting, and the other actors had to imagine two heads to which they would react. “How did the other actors know where to look?” Paulson asked.
For Lange, it was especially a struggle: “I’m dyslexic. When Sarah and I were working together, I inevitably would be looking at the wrong head. And then there would be voices coming from offscreen because she’d have the dialect coach reading the other part, and Sarah would catch my eyes wandering, and she would go [Lange pointed repeatedly over her shoulder where a second head might have been] That was the only way I got through it.”
“I have one head and one body and one heart and one mind, in which I am capable of thinking of 100 things at once, and wanting 100 disparate things at once,” Paulson said on the red carpet. “But playing and feeling responsible for playing two different girls who shared a body and who wanted, hoped and dreamed for different things, trying to keep all those things in my mind when I was playing one of them and not letting the other thing bleed over, it was taxing on my brain.” When asked how frequently she had to jump between characters, she said, “I would go back and forth between each girl every time we changed camera size [and setup].”
The most difficult aspect for Paulson was playing scenes entirely with herself. “Most of the time, I was just doing scenes on my own with not even so much as a green piece of tape, because there was nothing to put it to.” She wore an earpiece and would pre-record her dialogue in the morning. “Since they spoke to each other telepathically, I thought it would probably be helpful to hear my own voice in my head.”
On how she saw their relationship at the end of the show, she felt that the twins ended up in a “place of acceptance; of, ‘this is what it is’ and they’d rather be together than not. And I think Bette is a much more open creature in spirit and she was willing to give her own happiness for Dot. […] Dot didn’t spend a lot of time happy at all, so if Jimmy was gonna make her happy, she was gonna let her have that. Bette’s much more easily pleased.”
Summer in New Orleans (Feat. Prosthetics, Nudity and Reptiles)
“Freak Show” was the second time shooting in Louisiana for “AHS”. “Coven” was set in New Orleans where they filmed on location, and this year it stood in for Jupiter, Florida. They shot in the summer, facing intense heat and humidity, and making for some entertaining anecdotes.
Kathy Bates recalled shooting a scene with Michael Chiklis early in the morning “to beat the heat.” The two of them noticed an object floating in the pond, and upon closer inspection, they identified the object to be an alligator. “Fuck that alligator,” whispered Bates, reenacting her horrified reaction. “Fuck, that thing is right there. That scared the shit out of me for a while. That wasn’t very funny.” (The audience begged to differ, judging by their waves of laughter.) “The funny part, I found out later, is that the grips were feeding them hot dogs.”
The cast also chose this time to challenge some scheduling choices on Minear’s part.
“They throw you these curveballs,” O’Hare said, “where suddenly you show up to work, first day — thank you, Tim — and you have a scene with a naked viking!” The actor was apparently an expectant father from Dallas who drove his pickup truck to do the show. “He’s a nice guy, and he has to get naked in the first minute of shooting. It’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Denis.’ ‘Hi, I’m Michael.’ Okay, boom!”
Finn Wittrock also got roped into a semi-nude scene by creator Ryan Murphy, who had originally only signed Finn for six episodes. For the season finale, Finn was told, “‘Oh yeah, you might do a shirtless scene’ and then I got the script and I was like, ‘Shirtless?! This is not a shirtless scene.'” There were apparently problems with the rig on the last day of filming, and there “was gonna be a revolt. […] That last shot when I’m floating, there was actually no water in the thing, there was this harness under my tighty whities floating me up in the air. My hair, they spiffed it up so it looked like I was drowning underwater. It was very difficult.”
“You looked good,” Paulson reassured him.
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Empathy for the Devil
For a cast of characters with very questionable moral practices, it was interesting to hear the actors defending and relating to them. “Oh, you’d be surprised,” said Lynch on the red carpet when asked how difficult it was to get in touch with a character like Twisty. “I was surprised, as the work progressed, how funny he was. Not necessarily in a good way, but he himself was, [and] I found a lot of humor. He added later, during the Q&A, “It started to be a weird comedy show for me, I laughed a lot during it and it freaked a lot of people out. […] There was a scene early on where I was watching everybody dismember a policeman. […] I went back to my spot, and someone, I forgot who it was, said, ‘Dude, you’re really freaking us out over there.’ And I said, ‘You’re dismembering a policeman, and I’m the one freaking you out? Okay, fair enough.'”
“The writers wrote beautifully for a character who didn’t say anything,” he also said. “But I deeply apologize to the American Clown Association for any negative issues. Once again, they’re being told that they’re scary to people, and they already know that.”
Denis O’Hare was far more vehement when it came to his character. Standing up in mock indignation when the moderator admitted to disliking Stanley, O’Hare protested, “Stanley never killed anybody, he never touched anybody, he’s a good old American hustler. […] I ordered the killings. I helped people. I encouraged them to follow their dreams.”
Bates returned his indignation, exclaiming, “You wrapped a chain around my neck and ripped it off! […] I was thinking, ‘He’s done this before!'”
Finally, Jessica Lange talked about her relationship with Elsa, her favorite “AHS” character to play. Elsa, unlike the aforementioned villains, fell into a grayer moral space, from where it was difficult for the viewers of the show to determine her motives. For Lange, Elsa came from a place of love. “She was hanging on to the strange, little troupe, this group of people that she had assembled, for better or worse. That was one thing I wanted very much to establish, was how much she loved all of them. Really did. I mean sincerely, truly. There was no artifice there, and what she was willing to do to protect and keep this together.”