Interview: Angela Bassett Dishes Playing Desiree Dupree & AHS: Freak Show

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American Horror Story: Freak Show is the latest installment of the Ryan Murphy series on Fx. This season focuses on the classic oddities of the traveling freak show and its entertainers set in 1950’s Florida. Continuing in this ever changing series is the enormously talented Angela Bassett playing Desiree Dupree, the three breasted woman.

Recently I had the pleasure to participate in a press call with Ms. Bassett to discuss her experience throughout the series, playing such an unusual character, the process of gaining of third breast and of course catching up on her Netflix favorites like Orange is the New Black. American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays 10pm on FX.

Full interview after the jump!

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Angela Bassett: Well, of that I’m not sure, but I know that there are instances of individuals who have this sort of characteristic. What they’re called is intersex, today. In 1950s, of course, the term was hermaphrodite, but today the terminology is considered passé, especially in that community.

What was the makeup process like for you?

Angela Bassett: Well, I went to an FX studio, FX office and about, let’s see; I think it was three women and three men that took to cast a mold of my chest area and then attempt to get the color right, you know, the color, the tone, that sort of thing. Of course, the tone is very difficult and it still takes about 30, 40 minutes to paint it once it’s applied.

I’d love to know if you could just talk a bit about what it’s like on the show working with FX and also working with Michael Chiklis.

Angela Bassett: Oh, well, yes. Well, the work environment is really wonderful. I mean, it’s a hectic, fast paced sort of work environment, but the cast, the crew are tireless. They’re dedicated. They’re talented as heck. We put hours and hours in. There’s nothing but support from the network, which it’s evident from being picked up for another season, I believe I heard, after airing of the first show. That’s just indicative of the support that we experience.

Working with Mike has been a dream come true. Of course, I’ve been a big fan of Chiklis from The Shield days, and The Commish, and on, and on. He’s a lot of fun. He’s like a big kid. He’s so encouraging and supportive of; you know, do the scenes and finish the scenes. He just gives you props like immediately after, which is beautiful. I love working with him, kissing up on him.

Can I also ask you in terms of, the material is extremely dark, correct?

Angela Bassett: You know, that’s what Chiklis says. I go, wait a minute. Based on the type of shows that you’ve done, you consider this real dark and strange? I think he says dark and strange. Yes, it’s a little dark because it’s dealing with, I guess, how so-called normal folk view those who are atypical or different. That can get a little bit dark. I’d like to think that what’s dark are the secrets of men’s hearts; envy.

Can you also talk a little—this is an unbelievably talented ensemble cast, but even Michael said he was absolutely blown away. He said it was insane. Can you talk about what that’s like? It’s a very incredible collection of all-star talent assembled for one show.

Angela Bassett: That was one of the prevailing reasons for me joining the cast. I couldn’t believe I’d get an opportunity to work with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates in a lifetime, especially at the same time. It’s wonderful. In some years, I mean, well, last year most of my scenes were with Kathy and Jessica. This year, mostly Chiklis and now Emma Roberts and the like. We’ll see. We’ll see. Everyone is just an ultimate professional. We have a good time. We have a good time with it. We all have an appreciation for this crazy world and the things that we’re asked to do. It stretches us and grows us. The fact that we get to come back year after year and they fashion some completely new insanity for us to play out is a plus. It’s thrilling.

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Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of interaction you have with folks here in New Orleans about being on this show and also last season? What kind of things do people say to you? Do they talk to you about Marie (Laveau) and now, also about the new character?

Angela Bassett: Oh, yes. Yes. I love New Orleans and I love New Orleans folk. I was really concerned portraying one of the historical figures of this city who’s so beloved and revered. I so wanted to get it as right as I could. I was really happy with the comments that folk would make that I was the best Marie or they really enjoyed my interpretation of Marie. They were pleased by and large. I didn’t run into anyone who was displeased, so that made me happy.

A lot of new eyes came to the series based on it being set here and based on those characters, Marie, Madame LaLaurie, and the like. This year, you do run into, well, someone just drove me to the airport and she said, “Oh, I can’t watch horror things.” You do from time to time run into folk who just think, they imagine just because of the title that it’s a really, really scary show. It can be initially, but there’s something about it that just grabs your imagination and then you can’t wait until the next week, and the next episode. Let’s see, what did they say? Sometimes I do get comments that it’s—what do they say? Demonic. I said, oh, no, no. Let’s not look at it that way. Let’s not look at it that way.

We saw the beginnings of a friendship develop between Desiree and Ethel this week on the episode, can you tease anything about the possible friendship or will they team up against Dell?

Angela Bassett: That’s the thing. We really don’t know what’s coming in the subsequent episodes and the subsequent scripts. That’s the aspect of this that makes it a little bit frustrating or difficult for us. I guess we don’t have input, but we might have influence. We’ve played it as good, good friends. It remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll see that in the writer’s room and it’ll take them down a different road then they had anticipated. That can, and does happen, and has happened in the past. We’ll see. I’d like to be friends with Ethel. We were such archenemies last year for all eternity as it turned out.

You seem to be enjoying the heck out of this role and last year’s role. I was wondering when you signed on for this year’s episode for Freak Show did you know what the part was? What was your reaction when you found out what the part was?

Angela Bassett: I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, what it might encompass when I signed on. I just knew I had a great time the previous year, and if that was any indication, it was going to be a wild ride. I think it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to come down to start shooting that I got the, you know, the hot off the press script. I sat down to read it to see and I remember wondering, “Now, how am I going to know who I am?”

Then you read the stage direction, “African American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts, and a ding-a-ling.” You’re like, oh, my gosh. You immediately close the pages, and have to walk around, and process that for a minute. You’re thinking, “What does that mean?” Oh, my gosh. If they thought I was crazy demonic last year, what are they going to think this year?

So then, did you call Ryan up and say, “oh, my God, Ryan?”

Angela Bassett: No. I wasn’t scared like that. No. I just knew that it was absolutely going to be something that I had never done before. What does an actor crave, but new challenges? This certainly was going to be one of those.

I was just wondering because this season’s theme revolves around a troupe of performers and do you feel like the American Horror Story cast is sort of a family of performers as you go from season to season? Do you feel like more of a part of that now that this is your second time on the show?

Angela Bassett: Absolutely. I feel like it is a traveling troupe of performers. That’s true. This year I feel more a part of the family. You know, having been here before, having established those relationships, not the brand new girl. We’ve got some other new faces. I feel like I’ve been around the block at least one time with them. I feel more comfortable. I was excited. I’m still excited, but I feel more a part of the family this year, most definitely.

Today it seems like since we don’t have the actual freak shows, we have reality TV. I was just wondering for you, do you think there’s something kind of in our human nature where we want to see people that are kind of worse off than we are and we kind of revel in that?

Do you think there’s some psychological basis for why people have wanted to see that, apparently, over a long period of time?

Angela Bassett: Our human nature? I think I would tend to agree. There might be a little of that, where there’s a little enjoyment in the misfortune of others. Not to their ultimate detriment, but a little bit of enjoyment for them doing worse off or getting into trouble; the whole thing about like, watching a car crash or something, when we slow down, and rubberneck, and look. I think it might be. There is, I think, one freak show out in LA, out in Santa Monica, Venice Beach, or something. I haven’t visited there, but I’ve seen some footage of that. I think they may even have a reality show themselves. It’s more like a tattoo thing and a sword swallowing thing.

Everyone says how demanding television can be as an actor with the hours, and this is your second season on a show with a pretty big ensemble. How does it feel to try on, I guess, another character? Is there a learning curve? Is that the challenge within itself?

Angela Bassett: As an actor you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else, doing your research, working on that. I think what I found most challenging about television and shedding one character and having to come up with another is that there’s this lag time before I get to actually see what the characters are looking like, or sounding like, or how they’re coming across. We start filming in July and maybe, the first episode’s in October. As an actor who wonders if you’re getting it right because you don’t have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet; that’s the little caveat. I can’t say it’s a real crazy frustration. If there were something that you had to call that, that would be it for me.

My question is about the revelation of your character from last week’s episode. I’ve really found Desiree to be very sexually charged. I always kind of thought that it was a survival mechanism due to her not feeling like she was 100% a woman, but now that we know that she is, is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?

Angela Bassett: No. I don’t think it’ll change how I approach or how she acts. I think she’s comfortable. I think she’s comfortable with who she is, by and large. I think she’s just had to find a way to work and survive in a world that she’s always been reaching for what she calls normalcy, to have a family, a real family, and children of her own. I don’t think it’s going to change and make her more feminine or whatever it might be. No, I don’t. They might write her so differently, so I’m open. I’m open, but I don’t anticipate it’ll change the way that she behaves. I think what influences that is how she’s treated, how she’s treated by others.

Do you think she might demand a different kind of treatment now? I guess, especially from Dell?

Angela Bassett: Well, she’s walked out on him. She does demand a different kind of treatment. I guess honesty. Honesty for one, but that’s just not a desire of her as a freak, it’s just desire for her as a human being.

How does your character view Michael Chiklis? Do you think that she really sees the good in him in spite of him being like this bully, this monster? Or does she him as a monster?

Angela Bassett: Yes. I think she did find someone, you know, that there was a time when he was kind, and good to her, and believed in her, and made her feel valuable and special. I think that there have been moments over those years when they’ve been together where he’s crossed the line with her in his speak, and his speech, and the things that he says. He’s begged for forgiveness. It’s that same old thing sometimes it happens, when people are abusive physically. I think there’s been maybe some emotional abuse throughout the years, but always never crossing the line, and completely crossing the line, or she’s weighing if I give this up, what do I lose? Can I move on from this? Can we move on from this? Can we remain together?

I think there has come a point in last week’s episode where he crossed the line of no return. She thought she knew who he was, but she found out she was living with the enemy. There’s something about him that was dishonest and disloyal. They were there for each other. They told each other their painful truth. I think he crossed the line. Sometimes that happens and you can’t go back. You can’t make yourself go back.

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What’s the process that turned you into Desiree? How does she get that third breast? How long does it take to put on?

Angela Bassett: Well, I go in. I go into my regular makeup artist. She applies the appliance to me, so that it’s there basically. Then I go over to the special effects trailer where her husband makes sure the edges and everything sort of blend seamlessly. I guess I can say that. From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. They’ll start with brown. They spray it on. They’ll start with the brown. They’ll go to the red, and yellow, and green. It’s amazing these colors and undertones that they claim you possess. You’re like, oh, those are weird, weird colors. Then he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own and based on that he’ll maybe go in, and do so more painting, and carry on.

Then I, you know? That’s it. It takes maybe from start to finish about an hour, just enough time to check out a Netflix episode of Orange is the New Black or something.

What was your initial reaction when you first tried on the prosthetic?

Angela Bassett: Well, I was glad it wasn’t on my face. I’m claustrophobic. It’s amazing. You can just a little after about 14 hours of it being on. The initial appliance was extremely heavy. I think it was made of silicon. It started out fine, but after about hour number 12 and on it became hot and heavy. I believe it started sagging, which I’m like, what is the point of having three sagging breasts? No, this is not good. They reworked it and made it out of foam, which I was so, so pleased about because it’s the difference of night and day. Still after about 12 hours that internal heat, you begin to sweat. You begin to itch. You can’t really provide relief because you can’t get to yourself, you know?

You’re scratching foam. It’s much lighter. It’s much more bearable. I guess I’ve grown accustomed.

Ryan Murphy says that the seasons are all connected. Any idea how Desiree or Marie will both fit into the larger picture?

Angela Bassett: Not one, nor have I considered it. Is that right? The only connection I was able to make was Pepper from Season 2 to Season 4. No, I haven’t thought about that. That gives me something to think about. Have you?

No, I haven’t, but I am so excited to see how everything connects and intertwines. I think we’ll be all in for a very big surprise.

There’s a lot of really heavy material going on throughout every story line and your character, especially the last season and this season, is responsible for delivering a lot of humorous lines that kind of break up the episode’s really heavier moments.

My question was, since you’re dealing with such dark material on set for 14 hours a day or so, are there any particular people behind the scenes that provide a little bit of levity to get you through those heavier scenes?

Angela Bassett: Let’s see, well, Sarah Paulson can make me laugh really easy, so can Gabby when she’s around. I haven’t gotten the opportunity to spend any time with her this year. But, Sarah is pretty funny to me. Michael is light-hearted. Emma is pretty crazy, especially last night, it was she and I till midnight outdoors in the cold. She’s pretty funny.

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays 10pm on FX.