From co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the FX series American Horror Story uses a unique and compelling approach to television, with a different setting, different characters and a rotating cast of actors for each season. For Season 3, American Horror Story: Coven has told the secret history of witches and witchcraft in America, with a cast of talented actresses that included Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Lily Rabe, Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe and even Stevie Nicks.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Angela Bassett talked about how she came to be a part of the show this season, how it was the best of all worlds, bringing the history of the real woman to her portrayal in the present day, talking to actual voodouns, how invaluable it was to really get to shoot in New Orleans, and that she would absolutely be willing to entertain the idea of returning to the series, for a future season. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
ANGELA BASSETT: My agent reached out to Ryan [Murphy] and said, “What about Angela, for American Horror Story?” And he was like, “Yes, because she’s who I’m thinking of for Marie Laveau.” So, they reached out to me and said that I should go in and take a meeting with him for the character. I didn’t know that I was his choice for that. I was familiar with the show, but I hadn’t watched it because I don’t really like horror shows, horror movies, or any of that. I’m really a lightweight, in terms of that. But, I watched both seasons before going in to meet him. And I’m definitely a fan of Marie Laveau and New Orleans. What I saw, in addition to the horror, was that the writing was so wonderful and the characters were so realized. It wasn’t just fright night, so I could appreciate that. So, I went in to meet him and he told me what he wanted to do. New Orleans is one of my favorite cities, and I knew something about the historical figure of Marie Laveau, so I was excited about that, and I think he could see that in me. I don’t think the country, as a whole, is familiar with her, but in the city, she was a very powerful and important figure who still lives on.
Had you thought about doing a television show before this, or was this show and character too good to pass up, regardless of the medium?
BASSETT: It was more so the latter. It was just too good. Everything about it was perfect. The place, the timing, and being able to come back and forth, so it’s not like I abandoned my kids and family. It was just the best of all worlds. I’m available for good characters and good writing. If it’s on television, okay, but I can be a little tentative, especially if it takes me out of the country. But, this was just divine.
Marie Laveau is a that’s character based in history, but you clearly had some freedom to find who she is, especially in the present day. How much of her history did you want to bring into your performance?
BASSETT: I was thinking in terms of who she was, and a mixture of people during that time, during the 1800s, and the history of the city, in terms of French occupation and Spanish occupation, and all those flavors that those different cultures brought. I thought about what sort of woman she was, and the respect that she garnered in this town, from every strata of society, across the board. She had a mystique. She cared about people, but she was a proud woman. Folks in the city today are still very protective and proud of her. Just talking with them, it was like, “Oh, shoot! Don’t get mad at me. It’s going to be Marie, but it’s going to be present-day and it’s going to go haywire. It’s going to go all kinds of places.” She went to the jails and took care of people who were there on death row. She cared for the sick. She was a beautician. She was an entrepreneur. She touched everyone. She cared. Her magic, as they say, was gris-gris. It wasn’t black magic. It was grey. It was just what was necessary. She was compassionate. She was a woman who had 14 children, so she was also passionate.
BASSETT: I’m a scaredy cat, but I’m also an actor who wants to do their research, so I did a bit of it. I don’t want to say that I dove headlong into it, but I dipped my toe into it. I wanted to be correct. If we were doing a ceremony, we did have voodouns there. All of those individuals in the scene with me were actual voodouns. And early on, I did sit down with one, so that I could ask, “What is particular to a ceremony, or to a voodoun?” She said, “You may have seven necklaces, and they may have the charms of this saint on them. You would have the cross.” She was also a devout Catholic. To her, some of the saints were instrumental in helping her do her work with people. We just wanted to get it right. It’s not just a costume. We wanted to know about all those tiny little aspects.
Were you prepared for just how crazy things would get this season, or were you surprised by every script?
BASSETT: I was surprised! And then, when I actually saw the episode, I would get even more surprised. It was exciting.
How was the experience of learning about a character through present-day and flashbacks?
BASSETT: It was so much fun. And Ryan had such input. He was like, “Okay, I want you to do cornrows. You’re going to work at Cornrow City.” I wanted them to be extremely long. I’ve worn them before in Strange Days and Stella, so I wanted to not look like that. I wanted it to be something totally different. And I wanted to have Caribbean colors on, and go hang out in the city and hear some music and just observe people in the town. I wanted her to be sexy, but ready to throw down, if need be.
How did actually shooting in New Orleans help in creating the vibe of the show and the character for you?
BASSETT: It was great. It was invaluable. For me, one of the things that I loved was the crew that was made up of individuals – women and men – who live there and who are from there. You get their flavor. They’re just pick you up in the van, but I would listen to them and observe them, and get their flavor and vibe. I think it just informed the set and the work. We were really there, so there was less acting. You just had to let yourself be infused by the spirit of it.
Having had this experience, are you open to returning for another season, if Ryan Murphy comes up with a role that’s equally as intriguing and exciting?
BASSETT: I would say so. It’s been a great experience and a great character. If he can outdo himself, then we’ll see. My sister said, “Oh, my gosh, he can’t mess with this chemistry!” I was like, “I think he’s gonna mess with this chemistry ‘cause that’s the way it’s set up.” It was a haunted house, it was an asylum, and then there was a coven. It changes. She’s like, “No, he can’t mess with it!” But, he came up with a good one, and I don’t think he’s short, in terms of imagination. I would be willing to entertain the idea, absolutely.
At this point in your career, what gets you to say yes to a role and what makes you decide to pass on a project? Is it instinctual?
BASSETT: This one was about the person, place and instinct. It’s about whether I’ll have a good time, whether it’s something I’ve never done before, and whether it’s something that’s scary and will make me grow. I want to know if it’s going to require me to reach. You can’t always do that which you can do in your sleep. That doesn’t fulfill an artist. You’re looking for places where you can grow, in some way, whether it’s a large way or a small way. I want to grow as an artist, as a person and as a woman. I want to enjoy myself and my life and the company that I’m keeping. I want to bring something to the table that’s different than anything else would bring, but that has its place and value, and then keep moving.
The finale of American Horror Story: Coven airs on FX on Wednesday, January 29th.