Although night had fallen on the humid New Orleans set of American Horror Story: Freak Show in mid-August, for the sprawling cast and crew, the day was just beginning.
While American Horror Story alumni Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, and franchise newcomer Finn Wittrock were gathered inside one of the production's three massive soundstages to film the fourth season premiere, across the room, behind a bank of glowing monitors, sat AHS co-creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy, who was directing the episode from a script he co-wrote with Brad Falchuk. As the crew tweaked lighting cues and camera movements with the actors' stand-ins, Murphy grabbed the copy of Susan Meiselas' famed photography book Carnival Strippers sitting next to his director's chair and brought it over to Lange and Paulson. The trio hurriedly flipped through photos of scantily clad circus performers and laughed; the kinds of laughs only elicited by a delicious in-joke cultivated over years of late nights — either on a set or over a cocktail.
Once the crew had everything synced up, the actors found their marks, Murphy returned to his director's chair (extremely modern; white cushion, metallic legs), and silence permeated the room, which was filled with non-working crew members who had gathered to watch the season's first truly big scene: a verbal sparring match between Lange's freak show impresario Elsa Mars and Conroy's socialite of considerable wealth Gloria Mott.
The soundstage, which previously housed Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies, the central set of the series' third installment, AHS: Coven, had once again been transformed into the year's most important set piece: the stage where the cast of Fraulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities would perform their freak show.
Underneath an expansive red and white striped tent worthy of Barnum or Bailey and surrounded by rows upon rows of wooden risers sat the ornate stage where "monsters," as Elsa calls them, would be gawked at, talents would be performed, and dreams would (hopefully) be realized.
But there's no dream more important, or aggressively pursued, than that of Elsa, a fallen star whose wardrobe (an attention-grabbing powder blue pantsuit with matching eyeshadow) was as memorable as her singing. Which, despite her delusions of grandeur, is described as "caterwauling" by Mott.
Just before filming commenced, Murphy yelled a reminder out to the background actors: "I can see everything, so you can never not do it." With that bit of direction, the slate was triggered — "Scene 6000," a crew member joked aptly, given the late hour — and Murphy called action.
Lange stood, bathed from behind in the very spotlight Mars craved and surrounded by the integral members of Elsa's Cabinet. She uttered the first line of a sizable monologue directed at Conroy's Mott, who was looking to take one of Elsa's "monsters" off her hands: "You will not split up our family."
It's a piece of dialogue that is particularly noteworthy coming from Lange, who stands poised to exit AHS after this current fourth season, splitting up the family Murphy has built, with her as its matriarch. The actress had made it abundantly clear that she plans to step away from the franchise — for which she has won two Emmys — after Freak Show wraps.
"I try not to think about it," Murphy solemnly told BuzzFeed News of Lange's looming exit. "I'm so close to her and I love her and I would be bereft if she left. I'm not even going to pretend that's an option. I'm just going to keep pushing until the door completely slams, and it opened a sliver this week."
He explained, "I know what next season is and I pitched her the world and she leaned in a little bit and said, 'Really?' So, never say never."
Paulson also clung to the hope that her longtime friend and co-star would change her mind and return for a fifth go-round. "I can't imagine doing American Horror Story without her," said Paulson, as she sat cross-legged in her trailer, adding that she personally couldn't imagine walking away from AHS. "I would be so ill to not be a part of this. I would be over the toilet vomiting if this show was happening and I wasn't a part of it. I don't know what I would do. I would feel like I was missing a limb."
Luckily for Paulson — and the series' voracious fans who've come to canonize the AHS characters embodied by Lange, who was unavailable for comment on this story — Murphy was still hopeful weeks later, during a follow-up phone call in September, that his leading lady would return for Season 5, likely in a less demanding capacity. "Even if she did one episode, that would be great," he said. "The fans love her and she was one of the big reasons why the show has done very well, so I want to keep her in the world. I'll never give up that battle and told her I will not take no for an answer. So my seduction continues."
While it remains to be seen if Murphy can lure Lange back once more, his powers of persuasion successfully worked their magic on audiences in Season 3, American Horror Story: Coven. It was the most-watched (with an average of 4 million viewers per episode) and most-lauded (with four Primetime Emmy wins) installment to date. The franchise also remains the premiere destination for actors looking to shake up their careers and take a walk on the dark side.
To that end, Season 4 will see Matt Bomer, Michael Chiklis, and Patti LaBelle making their AHS debuts alongside returning Coven stars Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, and Kathy Bates.
"I'm cheap, so I like the thrills and kills and the spookiness," Bates told BuzzFeed News of her decision to return for another season, where she plays the bearded woman Ethel Darling.
"My first thought was, 'Oh shit,'" she recalled with a laugh of discovering what Murphy had planned for her this time around. "And that's all I knew about her for a long time. I didn't find anything else out until I read the first couple of scripts. But that's par for the AHS course. You have to have a lot of faith in [Ryan], and sometimes that's frustrating because you don't know what's going on. But the group itself draws you in."
Like so many of her colleagues, who spoke passionately about their characters, Bates stressed that who she will work with on AHS is as attractive as who she will actually play.
"Ryan likes to work with people he knows and trusts because he asks everybody, on every level, in every department, to give their absolute best and go above and beyond what they think they can do," said Paulson, who has been in every season of AHS. "It's an inherent request; if you're signing up for this, he wants the best, so either you're going to bring it or don't show up."
Paulson has proven to be more than up for the task, landing Emmy nominations for two of her three seasons thus far. On Freak Show, her workload has doubled as she plays conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler. Not only is Paulson required to create and execute two distinct characters on a daily basis, but she also has to heavily collaborate with the special effects team that merges her two performances into one during an elaborate post-production process.
"For every shot you see me in, there are 22 people working on that shot in various degrees," she said. "Ryan said he was worried for me, and I didn't truly understand what that was going to mean until the first day of shooting. Yes, it's technical, but what's become the bigger thing is, I have one brain that controls both sides of my body. These girls have two brains and one controls one side and one controls the other. So, physically speaking, sometimes one is doing one thing and one's doing something else, and I don't know how to do that. Sometimes it short-circuits my brain."
That demand became crystal clear the following afternoon as Paulson filmed a dream sequence where Bette was sobbing to Dot, who was coolly composed. For nearly a dozen takes, Paulson, who began by playing Bette, descended into a hysterical state and reacted to her imaginary sister as an off-camera assistant whispered Dot's lines. Tears flowed as Paulson subtly changed the inflection in one word after another, never losing the intensity of her performance. Then, when the director and Paulson were satisfied with what had been shot, it was time to do the scene once again, but as Dot.
While Murphy has essentially doubled Paulson's workload, she couldn't be happier. "I spent enough time in my career playing parts where you deliver the book to the guy and are like, 'I hear the perp is there!' It just doesn't make me feel like an actor in the way I want to be," she said, sitting in her trailer after the harrowing scene. "Ryan told me that, during Season 2, he was surprised I never called and said, 'I don't want to do that. It's too hard.' But, it never occurred to me to do that. I mean, why wouldn't I want to stick a coat hanger in my business? I was just excited to have something to sink my teeth into. Ryan knows that the harder it is, the happier I am as an actor."
Over the last four seasons, the actors repeatedly tapped by Murphy to bring American Horror Story to life have become an unofficial repertoire company, the kind not seen in Hollywood since the 1930s when major studios, like RKO or MGM, would exclusively work with the same set of A-list actors.
Beginning with Season 1, Murphy began to assemble his core cast — Lange, Paulson, Peters, Conroy, Denis O'Hare, Jamie Brewer, and Lily Rabe — while others — Bates, Bassett, Roberts, and Sidibe — joined the troupe already in progress. Time has allowed Murphy the opportunity to learn his actors' strengths, weaknesses, and desires, and the result is an intimate creative dialogue that seldom exists between writers and their actors. "Jessica and Sarah and Evan have been a part of this since the beginning," said Murphy, reclined in his chic but simple trailer. "I'm talking to them early on and asking, 'What have you always wanted to do as an actor that would challenge you, that you would be excited by?' It's exciting to work with an actor who says, 'I've always wanted to do X.'"
Having watched from the outside for three years, Wittrock, who previously worked with Murphy in his HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, was elated when the co-creator asked him to join the AHS family. "He didn't tell me anything about the role, but said, 'You're going to work with Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson and Emma Roberts and Evan Peters,' and it's like, why would anyone ever say no to that?" said Wittrock, who will play Dandy Mott, Gloria's spoiled and emotionally stunted son. For the role, he sports a smattering of layered pastels — shirts, sweaters, scarves — while his hair is slicked and parted down the center, with his bangs twisted into a singular inverted single curl on each side. "You never know when history might be made and to be part of a legacy like this is a great honor — and a great challenge too. It's a twisted, crazy family over here, and it's been fun to step in and be welcomed with open arms."
Regardless of the time period or specific genre, another constant on American Horror Story has been its steadfast examination of societal taboos. And the familiarity cultivated by Murphy's recycled roster, both in front of and behind the scenes, is invaluable in executing these sensitive scenes.
"There's a lot of vulnerability and nakedness — sometimes in the most literal sense — with what we're doing, so you have to trust the people around you," Paulson said, as she smoothed her hair with her hands. "This feels like a family and that's a powerful thing. In this business, you don't get that a lot, so when you do, you hold on tight. I've been doing this for too long to not know how special and rare this is."
Big, socially relevant themes have permeated every season of American Horror Story, and Freak Show will be no exception. "Ryan addresses populations and people who have traditionally been discriminated against," AHS production designer Mark Worthington told BuzzFeed News during a tour of the labyrinthine Freak Show sets. "That's a theme that runs through all of his work, and this is no exception. But this season, we're turning the freak show inside out. You'll see it from the point of view of the people who are in it and see them as people, not objects of derision. So it will be more of a commentary on people who see them as lesser, but are freakish in their own right."
In order to convincingly bring Freak Show to life, Murphy set out to cast a handful of personalities who could have, conceivably, been a part of Fraulein Elsa's Cabinet of Curiosities were they not separated by 60 years. In addition to the highly publicized casting of Jyoti Amge, the world's smallest woman, as Ma Petite, this season will include Erika Ervin (who stands 6' 8") as Amazon Eve, Rose Siggins as Legless Suzi, and Mat Fraser as Paul the Illustrated Seal.
Their presence, combined with the various extras dressed as clowns and carnies, has transformed the Freak Show set into one of the most physically diverse ones on television. During one break between scenes, costumer designer Lou Eyrich chatted with Paulson in the corner, while Siggins cruised by on her skateboard, Fraser laughed with a Hulk T-shirt-clad P.A., and six men dressed in 1950s business suits walked by.
Despite the implied stamp of approval given these performers' presence, it's inevitable that some will wonder — and be driven to send multiple 140-character messages on Twitter about — whether or not Freak Show is simply a modern form of exploitation on par with a circus sideshow. And Murphy was prepared for such criticism. "They're not just walking around, looking unusual," he said of the actors he collectively referred to as a "special ability" cast. "We're writing for them. We're giving them backstories and scenes that play on their own experiences because the writers interviewed all of them at length about their lives, and we're putting their lives in the script."
From conception to execution, research was an essential component of Freak Show for Murphy, Worthington, and their respective teams. They pored through historical books for months to ensure the show would offer an accurate representation of circus life in 1952. And through that preparation, they also discovered countless historical incidents that spoke directly to a theme Murphy routinely tackles on screen. "Historically, the discrimination and hatred and murder and abuse and rape that was afflicted upon them because they were different — because they were born that way — is very painful and astounding," Murphy said, his eyes suddenly fixed and serious. "We've been researching that and are putting that into the show."
"Ryan's showing them as complex," Worthington added of their special abilities cast. "He's not showing them as one-dimensional. They're people with foibles and problems and not all of them are good or bad, so that in itself shows them more respect than they've ever been shown in film because he's trying to show them for who and what they are, in all their complexity."
These true-to-life stories have made Freak Show an unexpectedly moving season of AHS, according to Murphy. "I've seen the first few episodes, and what struck me is how emotional it is," he added during a follow-up phone call. "The stories about these quote-unquote freaks being persecuted when many of them have shared stories of actual discrimination and harassment from their own lives is very emotional. I've never been that emotional with this show because I've always got two eyes ahead on the next episode, but I'm very moved, which I think is a great sign."
On Oct. 8, the man behind Freak Show will find out if audiences agree with his assessment of Season 4, but — in true Murphy fashion — he's already begun to develop ideas for Season 5 and it sounded like at least one new actor may have earned his spot in AHS' unofficial repertoire company.
"I've started talking to people about next year because I think there would be a great character for this actor or that actor," Murphy said. "And I'd really love to work with Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal, again. He's always wanted to be an actor and he told me his dream was to, after this was over, have someone write him a role because he's a good actor, not because he has this special ability. I would like to be the one to do that for him because he's so good. For me, talent is talent and I've always tried to do that with all of our shows."
And though Murphy wouldn't reveal what exactly is in store for Season 5, he seemed determined to find Fraser a non-Freak Show role. "I think anybody who watches this season who has felt ostracized or looked at as a freak or called one for a number of reasons will relate to them," Murphy said. "And that's the whole point of telling their stories. We're getting to know them for their heart and their character — not their physicality."