At the American Horror Story: Coven premiere last weekend, Women and Hollywood asked creator Ryan Murphy how he goes about creating such complex and interesting female characters for the show.
I really seek them out particularly--I do think this season has the greatest collection of actresses ever assembled for a television show but I sought them out. To me it all starts with who do I love, who am I interested in because I'm just a big fan.
Murphy's horror anthology series, now in its third season, is unlike anything else on television. In typical Murphy fashion as with his previous shows Popular, Nip/Tuck and Glee--it can be inconsistent, crass and sometimes utterly offensive. But as critic Emily Nussbaum argued in a piece last fall, Murphy takes risks unlike anyone else working in television today. In an unlikely twist, Murphy's risk-taking advernture with American Horror Story has created a series that has some of the most interesting and complex female characters on television--showcasing some of the best actresses working today.
Lily Rabe, who played a devil possessed nun last season in AHS, says that Murphy's complex female characters are why she will always say yes to him because it's such a rarity to find.
That's the reason why you say a blind yes to Ryan, which I've done every season when he's asked me to come back. I don't know who I'm playing when I say yes...but it's because of Ryan and knowing that he writes these really authentic rich characters. You are never going to be playing some sort of stereotype or one dimensional character. I think you are right, it's very rare [finding complex female roles].
Previous seasons of AHS have brought us haunted houses, bondage leather suits, Nazis, alien abductions, insane asylums and serial killers. This season AHS is centered around a witch academy--Miss Robichaux's School for Exceptional Young Ladies--in New Orleans. The premiere episode which aired this week introduced us to Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) who finds out about her witchy powers in a less than desirable and rather traumatic way. She's sent to Miss Robichaux's where she begins to be introduced by her fellow classmates (Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, Jamie Brewer) and headmistress Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) to the ways of witchcraft, its complex history and their current threat of extinction by the hand of others.
Murphy's new season promises to bring the crazy out in spades judging from this gory, funny and at times deeply unsettling (Note: there is some trigger inducing material in the premiere episode) first episode.
While AHS usually has a mixed gender cast, this season stands out because it's a primarily female led ensemble with some of the best actresses of any generation--Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone and Murphy favorite, Jessica Lange. Like he said at the premiere, Murphy is a huge fan of these women, he joked he "seduced" Kathy Bates into the role--but his appreciation for these iconic actresses and giving them parts worthy of their talents is apparent.
His female characters are what make his work unlike anything else on television--they are completely and utterly entrenched in the dark. These women defy gendered expectations--spawning bad behavior from the merely crazy (Connie Britton's weird bondage sex in Season 1) to the utterly irredeemable (every action Kathy Bates already committed in the premiere episode of Season 3). Last season, Lange played Sister Jude, a tough as nails nun with a dark past. She did what she thought was right when it came to her faith and protecting her asylum even if that meant killing, maiming or eventually going insane. Jude was also a woman who struggled with her faith--alcoholism, sexual temptations (primarily to her higher up), and her favoring of red lingerie. Lange played Jude with a sneering fierceness occasionally showing her soft red underbelly. And when Jude goes nuts, particularly with the memorable and delightfully insane "The Name Game" musical sequence, it's no wonder that Lange received an Emmy nomination for her work on AHS--she's doing some of the best work of her career.
While much of Jude's actions were horrific in nature, and it's rare that we get to see women tackle these types of roles. When women are seen as "unlikeable" on television, they are Hannah Horvaths or Amy Jellicoes--women who can be seen as narcissistic, self-involved but are utterly redeemable. Murphy's heroines--no matter how good (Paulson's Lana Winters from last season comes to mind) are still so entrenched in "the bad" that the majority of their actions are terrible but we are still waiting to see what's next. Having women take center stage in a horror show--allows for the exploration of the dark side of women--in a way that feels new and refreshing.
As has been discussed at much length with the end of critical darling, Breaking Bad, this golden age of television has focused on the dark natures of male anti-heroes through their dealings with meth, the mob, prison or whiskey-soaked ad work on Madison Avenue. Women aren't given that same luxury for dark self-discovery. While Murphy's work will be categorized as kitschy horror genre fare, it more than likely won't be considered in the golden pantheon of prestige dramas.
This season promises much of the same with Bates playing a vindictive slave owner, Bassett as a high Voodoo priestess and Lange as a youth-seeking supreme witch--making her daughter, Cordelia's life hell. American Horror Story is one of the sole shows on television where we are guaranteed to see these women do grisly, horrific things while exploring the gory, gross sides of human nature--and as always it's going to be one bumpy, nauseous and freeing hell of a ride.