Ryan Murphy is ready for if – or when – Donald Trump posts a tweet about “American Horror Story: Cult.” Murphy told reporters Friday that he would hope that the president “would have more important things to do.”
But the producer also said he’s realistic: “I would be so shocked if he did, and yet not… My response would be I’m not going to respond to that, because the work speaks for itself. I’m prepared to say nothing.”
Murphy said he expects audiences to have an “emotional response” to “Cult,” especially given that the season kicks off on Election Night 2016. And he knows some right wing critics will dismiss “Cult” because of his politics.
“People have the wrong idea already about what it’s going to be,” he said. “I’m an out gay man, and had the president of the United States at my house twice. I’ve always campaigned on the Democratic side. So I think people, when they see what this is going to be about, they presume. But it really is not about them. I hope people can figure it out.”
Although the show is set in the backdrop of a Trump victory, “Cult” is more about cults of personality, and the idea of what happens when somebody uses fear and uncertainty to rise to power.
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“Everyone lost their shit after this election,” Murphy said. “And everyone’s still losing their shit, and there is no real discussion. Everyone’s at each others’ throats. This is not about Trump or Clinton, but about somebody who has the wherewithal to use [that divisiveness].”
In “Cult,” Evan Peters plays Kai, a creepy but charismatic psychopath who invokes fear in order to build a following and gets darker and darker as he rises to power (from the City Council to the Senate). Peters also plays six different cult leaders (or icons with a cult-like following) throughout the season, including Charles Manson, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Andy Warhol.
“I do feel like this is his best performance,” Murphy said of Peters, who did a lot of research into cults and the rise of fascism. “For Evan, it’s been a great challenge. We pushed him to the limit.”
The idea for this season actually came out of Murphy’s long-held desire to craft a season of “American Horror Story” around Manson.
“For many seasons the runner-up idea has been Charles Manson and the Manson family,” he said. “I’ve been researching it, but it never felt right to me. It’s been done a million times and I didn’t know how to make it fresh.”
It was around September 1 – before the election – that Murphy settled on the cult of personality idea. “At that point everyone thought Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide,” he said.
However, Murphy believed the idea would have still worked under a Clinton presidency, given what had already taken place during the campaign, and ultimately Peters’ character stayed the same – only a few other elements, including an opening election night montage, wound up being different.
Murphy said the writers’ room experience has been “so volcanic and so emotional,” and that “Cult” has allowed the show’s actors, writers and crew the opportunity to express as an artistic release what everybody’s talking about in the world.
“There was so much passion, pro and con, for both candidates [in the writers’ room] and we wanted to tap into that,” Murphy said. “We started writing this first episode right after the election in December. Things we were shooting in May in our country have come true in the last six weeks — Charlottesville, for example. Things that we as a room felt was in the water in our country have come to pass. It’s bizarre and emotional for the cast.”
Beyond Peters, “American Horror Story: Cult” stars Sarah Paulson and Allison Pill as Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards, a married couple and restaurant owners who are terrorized by an unknown band of serial killers. John Carroll Lynch is back as Twisty the Clown, reprising his “AHS: Freak Show” character, while the season also stars Billy Eichner, Cheyenne Jackson, Billie Lourd, Colton Haynes, Leslie Grossman, Adina Porter, Emma Roberts and others.
Also appearing is Lena Dunham, who plays Valerie Solanas, the woman who attempted to shoot Andy Warhol. Dunham appears in Episode 7, “Valerie Solanas Died For Your Sins, Scumbag.”
“It’s about the female rage then and in the country now,” Murphy said.
Murphy set “Cult” in a suburban Michigan town specifically because it felt like the appropriate kind of battle ground state and town that was the focal point of the recent election. “I’m from the Midwest,” Murphy said. “My family was having these arguments. Everybody’s Thanksgiving was ruined.”
Murphy said he’s still feeling “a wild increase in my anxiety,” which played into the idea of bringing back Twisty and adding more clowns as a part of Paulson’s character’s phobias.
“Everything is on high alert now and it was a way to write about a growing sense of anxiety in the culture,” said Murphy, who joked that – like Paulson’s character – he’s coping with a lot of rosé wine. “I don’t feel particularly calm. I don’t think anybody does, to be honest… It was cathartic to write about it, but I’m still drinking rosé.”