‘AHS: Cult': Cheyenne Jackson on That Big Twist and Working with Ryan Murphy
The FX series American Horror Story often plays on our most basic fears, but for its seventh installment, American Horror Story: Cult, it took things one step further, to exploring the level of intense anxiety many have experienced since the presidential election. No matter what side you’re on personally, it’s easy to relate to and sympathize with feeling lost or confused or afraid, and when that’s intentionally used to very effectively induce fear, it can be more frightening than any supernatural entity.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Cheyenne Jackson (who’s previously been on AHS: Hotel and AHS: Roanoke, prior to play Dr. Vincent on AHS: Cult) talked about how he came to be working with show creator Ryan Murphy, what it’s like to have someone like that believe in you, as an actor, why this season has been the scariest, discovering this season’s twists and turns, and how he’d gladly work with Ryan Murphy, anytime. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed, if you’re not caught up on the season.
Collider: First of all, I’ve very much enjoyed your performance this season, and I was very sad to see you depart.
CHEYENNE JACKSON: I know! That’s how we roll over there.
It seems like a death scene on American Horror Story would be both sad to have to do, but also glorious and fun.
JACKSON: It’s pretty cool, I’m not gonna lie! Every year, I make it a little bit further and my death is maybe a little bit better. It’s definitely a rite of passage. It’s American Horror Story.
You’ve done a few seasons of American Horror Story now, and you were on Glee prior to that. How did your working relationship with Ryan Murphy come to be, and at the time it started, did you have any idea that you would still be here, in this position?
JACKSON: That’s a good question. How it started was that I met Ryan after Xanadu, on Broadway in 2007 or 2008. I can’t remember exactly, but I’ve known him for about 10 years. I auditioned for Will Schuester in Glee, and obviously didn’t get that ‘cause my buddy, Matt Morrison, did. But then, Ryan brought me on in Season 2 to play the nemesis of Will Schuester. And then, he hired me to do his HBO pilot, which didn’t end up going. And now, it’s been three seasons of Horror Story. Did I think I would still be doing this? No. It surprises me that I’ve lasted this long, in this genre and in this world and, to be frank, that I can even pull it off. That’s not me being falsely modest. Honestly, my first year at Horror Story, I didn’t have much fun until maybe half-way through ‘cause I was so nervous. For all intents and purposes, I was the comedy guy and I did 30 Rock. That was much more comfortable for me. And here I am, doing these big dramatic sequences with Kathy Bates and Lady Gaga, and it was so far out of my comfort zone. It took half the season to sink in a bit. And then, last year, I really had fun and just went for it. If I was going to be asked to do this year, I wanted to jump as far as I could into this world and really make strong choices and be as present as possible. I know that sounds cliche, but for me, it was important that I actually have fun, and I did.
Ryan Murphy has put together the best acting family, ever, and I love how he tends to see things in his actors that they might not even see in themselves.
JACKSON: That’s exactly right. Sometimes you don’t think you can do something, or you think, “How in the world am I gonna wrap my head around this, let alone make it come to life?” There’s an unspoken sense that, if Ryan thinks you can do it and everybody is on board, the next thing you know, you’re in a fitting and you’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m doing this!” Every time I look on the callsheet and I know I have something with Sarah [Paulson] coming up, it’s just thrilling. I’ve known her for over 10 years from New York, and to see her astronomical ride and everybody finally getting on board and seeing this genius, there’s nothing like being in a scene with her. She is just so 100% connected. There’s never anything false, and if there is, it’s imperceptible and she’s the one that will stop and be like, “Okay, that fucking sucked! I wanna go again!” It’s thrilling! Every time I do a scene with her or Evan [Peters], I always feel like I’ve gotten a little better.
Is there anyone in the Ryan Murphy acting family that you’d love to have a storyline or scenes with, in an upcoming season?
JACKSON: Oh, sure! I worked with Kathy [Bates], and that was absolutely amazing, and Angela Bassett. Who doesn’t want to play something with Jessica [Lange]? I’ll play the busboy in a scene with Jessica Lange. I don’t care. She’s a goddess! In the very first season, I loved Connie [Britton]. This year, in real life, I’ve gotten close to Billie [Lourd], Billy [Eichner] and Leslie [Grossman]. More of them would always be preferred.
This season has really drawn from the most horrific source material out there, by focusing on the 2016 presidential election. Did you find this season, in particular, the most scary because it hits so close to our current life predicament?
JACKSON: Yes, absolutely! Because there’s no supernatural aspect, it’s people that are committed to the very end of what they believe and they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. Nothing is scarier than that. Someone that you can’t calm down and have a conversation with because they are steadfast is scarier to me than any bogeyman on set.
You’ve said that you knew something was coming, but that you didn’t know and didn’t guess what the big twist with your character was, until you read that script. Since you knew something was coming, did you have any best guesses before learning the truth about Kai being his brother?
JACKSON: To be honest, we worked at such a breakneck pace and only got the scripts just days before we had to shoot. I didn’t even have time to think about it. We were shooting Episode 3 or 4, and I was in hair and make-up, and somebody said, “Have you read Episode 5?” And I was like, “No.” And they said, “Oh, shit, something happens and there’s a reveal.” I never would have guessed that, though. That was a dozy. And I know the writers were figuring that out, as we went along. I was shooting a lot of the therapy scenes early on with Sarah, and one of the executive producer/writers asked me to play one particular sequence very ambiguous. It was important for me to have a juxtaposition between my body language and my words, so in the phone call with Sarah, my body language was very relaxed and detached from what I was saying. It was fun, as an actor, to play with that dichotomy. It wasn’t so on-the-nose, so that you could read into it whatever you wish.
It seemed like telling Sarah Paulson’s character the truth about his connection to Kai was the first step on the road to this guy’s doom. Do you think that he thought that would play out differently?
JACKSON: Yeah, I do. I don’t think he knew the depth of Kai’s commitment and the vast army of people he has supporting him. I think he thought he could think his way out of it because he’s always been able to do that. Once his parents died, he was very pragmatic about it, and one might say freakishly cold and weird about it. He went into taking-care-of-business mode. So, I think he just thought he would be able to make it work. I think Ally just felt a little too burned.
Once you learned what there was to learn about this guy, did looking back make you change how you felt about the character, at all?
JACKSON: I always try not to judge the people that I’m playing. If you put your own feelings on things, it will taint the way it comes across. I just try to play the scene for black and white, with how the characters feels. It’s always fun to fill in the blanks later. Once I knew the backstory with his brother, it’s interesting to see how it pertains to what’s happened. That’s the fun of an anthology.
Is there anyone that we should be rooting for, and are you, personally, rooting for anyone?
JACKSON: I’m going to plead the fifth on who I’m personally rooting for, but I will say that that’s the fun of this show. Everybody is flawed. Even the hero is often the anti-hero. With Kai, you want to see what’s going to become of him. He’s this locomotive where, if you get in his way, you’re gonna get run over, but you also want to see how far he’s gonna take it while you’re also like, “I don’t know if I wanna see that.” It’s a little bit of a Walter White/Breaking Bad thing, where he does some horrible, evil thing, but you think, “Well, I kinda like it.” That’s what they do so well.
Are you at the point now where, if Ryan Murphy called you for next season, you’d be on board, even if you had no idea what journey he’d take you on?
JACKSON: Oh, yeah, for sure! He knows that, definitely. You get to that point with somebody that you have a shorthand. This last season, he asked me to be on the show in a text. He just gave me a quick one-sentence description that said, “He’s Sarah’s doctor, a head-shrinker and a phobia specialist. See you in a couple of weeks!” You just know it’s gonna be something you’ve never done before, and how thrilling, as an actor, to know that it’s gonna be something that you’ve never done.
At the same time, does being spoiled like that affect the kinds of projects you want to do, outside of working with Ryan Murphy?
JACKSON: It definitely does. You get a little spoiled. I’ve been pretty spoiled, in terms of my very first show being 30 Rock, which was one of the great comedies. I get things now and I’m like, “Oh, man, I can’t just play a lawyer! There has to be some twist!” That’s a very basic way to put it. It only makes you better and it only makes the work richer. Maybe I’ll do some comedy.
American Horror Story: Cult airs on Tuesday nights on FX.