FX’s American Horror Story [Wednesdays, 10/9C] is the network’s most unexpected hit – a dark, twisted, haunted house tale with more creepiness than any television series since Twin Peaks – and more scares per square inch than anything since American Gothic.
On Friday, I had the opportunity to take part in a teleconference Q&A session with the show’s stars, Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott. They happily [and candidly] talked about their involvement with the show; were careful about teasing too much, and told us about their own real-life brushes with the supernatural.
First of all, I wanted to let you guys know that the show is my favorite of the season. It’s fantastic – and we’re crazy about it. It’s amazing. We just love it. My question is—actually I have a couple questions. One is how much did you know about the characters and their back-story going into the show?
Connie Britton: Well, I—and Dylan, you tell me if this is the same for you, but I think we actually didn’t know very much, but what was fun was it felt like it was sort of in … as we were going forward with Ryan and Brad. So, it feels constantly as though we’re back story and discovering who these people are, which is, to me, really fun and kind of adds to the mystery of the whole thing.
Dylan McDermott: Yes. It kind of unravels as we go. I don’t think we know exactly where we’re going. So, it’s kind of fun to just open up the scripts and realize, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know this about myself.’ So, that’s kind of the best part about the show.
Yes. We love watching everything happen. I’m also wondering, as far as next season goes, hopefully there will be one, do you know if your characters are a part of it? Is that too much of a spoiler to tell us? Because there’s been some speculation that the seasons were each involving the family with the previous family possibly being ghosts and … like that. What do you know about going forward?
Britton: What do you know, Dylan?
McDermott: I think it’s sort of, again, open ended. We’re not quite sure about the next episode, never mind next year. So, we’re just sort of flying by the seat of our pants, which is, again, it’s all discovery here. So, I don’t think we know.
Britton: I don’t know that Brad and Ryan know.
McDermott: Right. Right.
Britton: Again, it’s really fun.
McDermott: Yes. Exactly.
Britton: It’s such an evolution. It feels like we just really do watch this thing come to life, and it’s really fantastic.
I was curious, Connie, I know that you, for one, probably wouldn’t have been a viewer to check out this show knowing your horror film aversions. Why do you think the audience has not just been good, but it’s growing, and we’re getting increases week to week?
Britton: Were you asking me specifically?
Yes. I thought I’d start with you.
Britton: I actually really, really attribute that to Ryan and to Brad, and they listen because you ask the question in that way and you know about my aversion to horror. When we first—even when they were shooting the pilot, I was still very unclear about what the show was going to look like. And what I think is so brilliant about what Ryan and Brad do is that they have a very distinct vision that is so outside the box of anything we’ve ever seen before, and they have such a great talent for bringing that into fruition and that’s what they’ve done. And I think audiences, even audiences who weren’t—it wasn’t their natural inclination to like a show like this, I think audiences are really drawn to and really appreciate being challenged and seeing something that they’ve never seen before.
And Dylan, I was wondering do you think—is this ultimately a story about the harm in vanquishing this evil or simply surviving it?
McDermott: Maybe a little bit of both. I think when I met with Ryan and Brad and Connie, originally we had talked about that this really is a show about a fractured family and what infidelity can do to people, and I think that it’s a metaphor for all the horror of being in a relationship and being in a family and being in a marriage. All that stuff is the horror of it is really the metaphor of this marriage and the house. So, I think it’s a little bit of both to answer your question.
I was wondering, in such an intense show like this, were either of you ever uncomfortable with something that happens in the script, and you try to change it, or do you have any power over where the Harmons go?
Britton: Well, I was just going to say, I think we have a lot of power over it, but I also think that the things about the script that make me uncomfortable are the things that are what make it interesting to me as an actress. So, if something was really—like, I mean, listen, I was not comfortable with the Rubber Man in the pilot, and I was convinced that the Rubber Man was going to go. But I really, again, I really—I’m so always amazed that Ryan and Brad can come up with something that I think is just going to be hideous and awful, and I’ve grown to really trust them to create it in a way that is only interesting. So, I kind of keep my mouth shut at this point.
McDermott: After masturbating in the pilot, what else is there? I couldn’t be uncomfortable again.
You just put it all out there.
McDermott: Yes, that’s it.
I know you can’t give me spoilers, but I’m curious to know both of your opinions of all the back stories on the house, all the horrors and the murders, what are your favorites? What are your favorite stories that scared you or intrigued you the most, if you could talk about it?
McDermott: I love Jessica and her whole story and where she’s going. And to see Addy die this week, I thought was really so powerful and her dragging her to get to the house to make her a ghost. I thought that was just a great storyline. So, for me, it’s like her having a young lover and all these kids, these mentally handicapped kids, I thought this is just a great type of story for her. So, I’m really interested in what’s going to happen to her character.
Britton: Yes. I am too. I just love the—I think it all—I kind of love how it all evolves each week, and I love that there are so many ghosts in this house that we just have no idea. We could never count them, really. And they create this culture in this community, in this house, that we have stumbled upon. And I just think that’s really fun. I think it’s fun that we’re watching these people, these sort-of human people stumble upon this crazy world.
Quick follow-up – Matt Ross, who plays Dr. Charles, the original house – the creator of the house, will we be seeing him more as the season goes on?
McDermott: I don’t think we’re sure. Again, we’re kind of getting the scripts and discovering it for the first time ourselves. So, that’s really in Ryan and Brad’s hand.
Britton: Although, we have shot episodes since the ones that you’ve seen where he is there. So, you will definitely see him at least a little bit more.
First of all, you mentioned her earlier, but I wanted to ask what it’s like working with Jessica Lange because she’s just been great on the show, and Connie, you’ve worked with her a little bit more, maybe you could start.
Britton: Well, it’s really amazing. As Dylan was saying, she’s so incredible and such an incredible person. She’s really a lovely, approachable human being and then beyond that.
I did a scene with her yesterday, and I kind of go back and forth with feeling like, wow, she just makes me be able to be better than I could ever be. And then also, just catching myself stopping and just watching her in a scene, which of course, I really shouldn’t be doing. But it’s really extraordinary because she’s so—she’s kind of almost this mythic creature, and yet, also just very approachable and real and lovely to work with.
And, sorry, I also wanted to ask have either of you had a supernatural experience in real life? And if not, do you believe in that kind of thing, or do you just think it’s all kind of made up?
McDermott: For myself, I did have one in 1989. I don’t believe in this kind of stuff at all. I’m kind of cynical in that way.
But I was in … Louisiana. I was doing a movie. I was in the car with two other people at night. And the headlights washed over this ghost-like figure around midnight in Louisiana.
I don’t know if that’s specific to Louisiana or not, but I did see this. And they did see this sort of ethereal being suddenly, and we all just sort of didn’t say anything for like two minutes. And then, we all brought it up.
So, that was the only time in my life that I actually saw something and felt things, but never saw anything before like that. So, I have to say I did have a real experience. And also, I’m not that person, but that’s the only time I ever had it.
Wow, okay. How about you, Connie?
Britton: Well, I also am not a big believer in ghosts, or I don’t really walk around in fear of ghosts. But I have definitely had an experience with ghosts, which was in Italy. I was staying at this really amazing, old Tuscan villa. It was my friend’s house.
And I woke up in the middle of the night and heard all kinds of moving around upstairs above me and furniture moving and voices, and I thought that something must have—some plumbing must have exploded or whatever. And then, I asked them about it the next day, and they said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. No, nobody was up at night. Nothing was moving. Nothing was happening.’
And then, it came out that they were very aware that the house was haunted, and they told me all kinds of stories and the various … ghosts that they’ve experienced while they’re there. And I have never, and this is my friend’s house, I’ve been back several times, and I never, ever can sleep at night when I stay there.
So, I wanted to ask one of the fun things about the show is the way it goes back and forth between comedy and horror and melodrama. It just jumps genres. And specifically the comedy.
How do you play some of the scenes that are so—that can be so ridiculous at times? Do you look for the humor in them? Do you try and bring emotional weight to them as well? And has there ever been a scene that’s just been so ridiculous you’ve had trouble figuring how to play it in the moment?
McDermott: I think that Connie and I try to keep it as real as possible because we’re probably the most grounding part of the show, but I think that’s really important so it doesn’t become just a freak fest. So, I think that mostly we try to keep it grounded in reality so people can be rooted in something, rooted in the family. And every once in a while, yes, I’ve had to put on the rubber suit a few times myself.
Britton: So, that’s always a big laugh.
McDermott: Yes. So, that’s always fun to put that on. And I think you just have to go with it. There’s no parachute in this show. There’s no net.
We just are all in this together, and I think that’s what makes it so much fun is that everybody’s making the same show here. And we’re all going for it. And so, I think that’s why it’s working.
Britton: Yes. I have to say when I first read the pilot and talked to Ryan about it, I thought it was very serious and dark. And I was actually talking to my cousin about it, and she said, “Oh, if it’s a Ryan Murphy show, there’s definitely going to be tongue in cheek.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, not in this show.”
And so, but I’ve come to discover that that is, I think, a trademark of their shows. And what I found, just as Dylan was saying, I think we are the grounding characters of the show, but what’s really fun, to me, is I find that I can play the scenes very straight and very real, and they just end up being comedic because of the way they’re written. And that’s always really—the best kind of comedy is the kind that you don’t have to work very hard at. It just sort of happens out of circumstance.
Well, I wonder too, speaking of Jessica Lange, she gets so many great lines in the show. She’s usually the one who drops these lines that always make me crack up. And I wonder do you—has she ever made you crack up in the middle when you listen to some of the things she has to say?
Britton: All the time. It’s funny because—and again, she’s playing that so real too, but of course, she knows and I just think that’s another thing that I think I’ve taken and learned from her is I think she’s just having such a good time with it. And so, I think that going into it and playing it for real but also having fun in this crazy world, that brings the comedy out.
And it’s funny because it’s just yesterday with the scene that I was doing with her, she actually was talking to one of the writers, and she said, “I want more comedy.” I think she really loves to play—she loves to play that. That’s what makes that such a fun role and makes it such a fun show.
The mythology that’s being created on the show so early on is already incredibly dense, and I’m just curious how you, as actors, are handling all of these plot lines and keeping everything straight as you work every day. Has it been a challenge to keep the depth of all of this fresh in your head?
McDermott: Well, I think that’s the great thing about the show is the complexity of it. Most of the time people are aiming so low on television. They’re trying to reach that common denominator, especially on network television.
And when you see a show that is so ripe and rich with all these story lines and all these questions, and it’s almost like a puzzle every week, if you were trying to figure it out. I have friends texting me all the time saying, ‘Is this true? Is this happening? What’s the relationship of Tate and Jessica?’
They’re trying to figure out this story, and I think that’s why people are intrigued by the show is that it’s not so easy to figure out. People are smart, and people really want to have something to watch that’s interesting and intelligent. And this show offers that.
And a lot of television just doesn’t offer that. It’s just too easy. And it’s really the complexity of the show that makes it stand out.
And then, just as a followup, you also have been working with a very deep bench of acting talent. Can you talk about the great actors that have been coming in, and are there any that you’re able to tease in episodes that …?
Britton: Every week, we have somebody new who’s amazing. And they’re all so great. Lily Rabe has been great. Matt Ross has been great. Zach Quinto is so much fun to work with.
I don’t know, who else, Dylan? Then, there’s of course—I can’t forget to mention Denis O’Hare who’s a regular. He’s so incredible.
McDermott: Frances – It’s like the pool of actors that we have on the show is really top notch. And I’m always blown away by the work that’s being done. And it’s incredible. I think Connie is doing the best work of her life, too.
So, it’s like – every time we come to work, there’s another actor who is sort of ratcheting up the game and we all have to be on our A game as well. So, that even makes it more fun because that’s what you want. You want to be better as an actor, and to have these great actors, as Connie was saying, makes you better.
Question – theories about what exactly the Rubber Man is. Is it going to be – wondering if you can comment on the theory that it’s really the Infantada years later.
Britton: You know what? We can’t answer that question.
McDermott: Is the question is the Infantada Rubber Man? Is that right?
Yes. Kind of like the baby that we’ve seen pieced together years later, much in the same way that Moira appears older to Vivien.
Britton: If we answer that question, that would ruin it for you.
Britton: That would be no fun.
Am I on the right road?
Britton: That’s a great—yes.
I want to ask you when you first heard about American Horror Story, I’d like to ask each of you, A, what intrigued you about the role? And then, looking into it, what made you say, ‘I want to do this?’
Britton: Go ahead, Dylan.
McDermott: Well, for me, I had heard the story on it. I hadn’t read the script. And as soon as I heard the story, I had a huge instinct to put this project that I don’t think I had since The Practice. For whatever reason, I was instantly drawn to it.
And hearing about the house, hearing about being a psychiatrist, hearing about this fractured relationship and family and the horror aspect, this Roman Polanski-esque vision of the show and Ryan and Brad and Connie and all the pieces were just like immediately intriguing to me. So, I was so attracted to it, and I hadn’t even read the script. So, a lot of times, it’s instinct.
And then, when I did read the script and met with everybody, I was just like—it was just a big yes for me. And I know that a lot of actors were afraid of the nudity and the sex and the violence of the show. But I was that guy running into the burning building as everybody was running out because I just thought it was a great concept for a TV show.
I know Connie, you probably had to hesitate twice given that…
Britton: You know, it’s actually—it’s the opposite. I wanted to do something—I wanted to do something that was really, really different from what I had just been doing.
And so, Ryan – when I sat down and talked to Ryan – which was kind of early on in the process, he basically presented it to me by saying, ‘This is going to be like nothing you’ve ever done before.’ And not only that, but it was actually going to kind of turn what I’d just been doing on its ear a little bit, so, going from this wonderful marriage on TV to this completely damaged marriage.
And to me, that was interesting and the style of it being so different, and it just seemed like a great gift and a great opportunity for me to—and I loved—Ryan is very collaborative. And that’s something that I’ve learned is really important to me too. And so, I loved his sense of collaboration about it. And so, I just felt really fortunate to dive in even though it felt really risky and scary.
My question is for Connie. Basically, your character seems to be the only character that is—well, kind of has it together. She’s freaked out and everything, but she’s the only one that doesn’t seem to have a darkness about her.
I don’t know. I’m just—your character—she’s a strong woman. She’s been through all this stuff, but she’s the one that’s strong and together in this. I just want to know if that’s—is that one of the things that drew you to playing this part?
Britton: Well, yes. I think that what I was interested in was that she is somebody who’s been very strong and together in her life. And she’s kind of watching her world crumble around her. And I like the idea of somebody like that falling apart and seeing them in conflict with themselves in the midst of disaster.
And to me, I like to play different things as an actor, but one sort of common denominator is I do like to play characters that—I like to play women who are empowered in some ways, even when they’re going through crisis or even when they’re going through conflict or difficulty. And so, it’s always interesting for me to, in the midst of that, to find where their power comes from. So, that’s been the fun part and the challenge for me with this character, and it’s also fun to see her falling apart a little bit.
Okay, thanks. And I also wanted to ask—I don’t know how—how do you say her name, Taissa?
Britton: Taissa, yes.
Taya? Okay. I just want to know. I looked on IMDb, and it looks like she really hasn’t done much. She’s doing a terrific job. What do you guys think about this young actress that hasn’t done much? Do you think she’s doing pretty good on the show and she has an interesting character as well?
McDermott: Oh, yes. Taissa is a tremendous young talent, and I think she’s going to go really far, and she’s beautiful and smart and talented. She’s got everything, and she’s really grounded as well. So, I think that she’s going to have a big career.
I’m wondering—I know that Connie had an aversion to horror at the beginning, but I’m wondering if Dylan perhaps had an affinity for that genre at all?
McDermott: Yes. I like psychological horror. Those are some of my – Roman Polanski’s one of my favorite directors, and I love the picture that he paints in all of his movies, which is a little unsettling to say the least. And I think that this show is unsettling in a great way.
And the way it was described to me certainly was this Rosemary’s Baby world that we’re inhabiting. And so, for me, I was always attracted to it. I was never afraid of it.
And I’m wondering if the show is as disturbing to be a part of as it is to watch at times.
McDermott: Do you want to answer that, Connie? More disturbing for Connie than it is for me.
Britton: It’s that thing that they always say about working in horror is that it’s a lot less scary when you’re actually doing it. But there have been moments, for sure, that I get really creeped out or I go home at night, and it’s a little creepy. But for the most part, no. Although, I do have to admit that I tried to watch the episode this week at night by myself, and I couldn’t watch it, which is pretty sad considering that I had shot it.
Looking ahead, after coming out of episode five I was wondering if we could tease, Connie’s just given Dylan the heave-ho out of the house. Dylan, is that going to stick necessarily?
McDermott: We’re definitely in crisis. The thing is that I am treating patients still in that house. So, I’m trying to save this marriage. The family is the most important thing to me, but it is, obviously, slipping through my fingers, and I can’t seem to hold it together. So, we’re going to see more of that, me trying to keep it together and as it’s all falling apart.
And if I can shoe-horn in a follow-up, Connie, any idea why the ultrasound lady fainted? Do you have any idea what it is that she saw?
Britton: I really don’t know what she saw. But my suspicion is that it was something with horns.
Britton: I think that’s Vivien’s fear. It’s Vivien’s fear that it’s something with horns. I really don’t know what she saw.
That is great. Thank you.
Photos by Robert Zuckerman and Ray Mickshaw/courtesy FX