The FX series American Horror Story: Freak Show follows a troupe of the strange and unusual in 1952, who are looking to survive as performers amidst the dying world of the American carny experience. From the twisted minds of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the show stars Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Michael Chiklis, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Emma Roberts, Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock.
During this recent interview with press to discuss playing three-breasted woman Desiree Dupree, actress Angela Bassett talked about her reaction to finding out what her role would be this season, the inspiration for her character, the process for having the third breast applied, what it’s like to wear the prosthetic, working with such a talented cast, shooting in New Orleans, what most freaks her out about the show, who makes her laugh most on set, and how she’s finding the experience of working on television. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ANGELA BASSETT: I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, or what it might encompass when I signed on. I just knew that I had a great time the previous year, and if that was any indication, it was going to be a wild ride. I think it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to come down to start shooting, that I got the hot-off-the-press script. I sat down to read it to see and I remember wondering, “Now, how am I going to know who I am?” Then you read the stage direction, “African American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts, and a ding-a-ling,” and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh!” You immediately close the pages, and have to walk around and process that for a minute. You’re thinking, “What does that mean? Oh, my gosh! If they thought I was crazy demonic last year, what are they going to think this year?” I just knew that it was absolutely going to be something that I had never done before. What does an actor crave, but new challenges, and this certainly was going to be one of those.
Is your character based on any real person?
BASSETT: I’m not sure, but I know that there are instances of individuals who have this sort of characteristic. What they’re called today is inter-sex. In the 1950s, the term was hermaphrodite, but today that terminology is considered passé, especially in that community.
What’s the process that turns you into Desiree? How does she get that third breast, and how long does it take to put on?
BASSETT: I go into my regular makeup artist and she applies the appliance to me. Then, I go over to the special effects trailer, where her husband makes sure the edges and everything blend seamlessly. From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. They spray it on. They’ll start with the brown, and they’ll go to red, yellow and green. It’s amazing, these colors and undertones that they claim you possess. You’re like, “Oh, those are weird colors.” Then, he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own, and based on that, he’ll maybe go in and do some more painting.
BASSETT: I was just glad it wasn’t on my face. I’m claustrophobic. It’s amazing. The initial appliance was extremely heavy. I think it was made of silicon. It started out fine, but after about hour number 12, it became hot and heavy. I believe it started sagging, and I was like, “What is the point of having three sagging breasts? This is not good.” So, they reworked it and made it out of foam, which I was so pleased about because it’s the difference of night and day. Still, after about 12 hours, you begin to sweat and itch, and you can’t really provide relief because you can’t get to yourself, you know? But, I’m scratching foam. It’s much lighter and more bearable. I’ve grown accustomed.
This season’s theme revolves around a troupe of performers, much like the way this cast is, from season to season. Do you feel more a part of that, now that this is your second time on the show?
BASSETT: Absolutely! I feel like it is a traveling troupe of performers, and this year, I feel more a part of the family. Having been here before and established those relationships, I’m not the brand new girl. We’ve got some other new faces. I feel like I’ve been around the block, at least one time, with them. I feel more comfortable. I was excited. I’m still excited, but I feel more a part of the family, this year, most definitely.
What’s it been like to work with this talented cast?
BASSETT: That was one of the prevailing reasons for me joining the cast. I couldn’t believe I’d get an opportunity to work with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates in a lifetime, especially at the same time. It’s wonderful. Last year, most of my scenes were with Kathy and Jessica. This year, they’re mostly with [Michael] Chiklis and now Emma Roberts. We’ll see. Everyone is just an ultimate professional. We have a good time with it. We all have an appreciation for this crazy world and the things that we’re asked to do. It stretches us and makes us grow. The fact that we get to come back, year after year, and they fashion some completely new insanity for us to play out is a plus. It’s thrilling.
Do you think there’s something in our human nature, where we want to see people that are worse off than we are, and revel in that? Do you think there’s some psychological basis for why people have wanted to see that, over a long period of time?
BASSETT: I think I would tend to agree that it’s human nature. There might be a little enjoyment in the misfortune of others. Not to their ultimate detriment, but there’s a little bit of enjoyment for them doing worse off or getting into trouble. It’s like watching a car crash, when we slow down and rubberneck to look. There is one freak show out in LA, at Venice Beach. I haven’t visited there, but I’ve seen some footage of that.
What do you hear from the people in New Orleans, while you’re shooting there?
BASSETT: I love New Orleans, and I love New Orleans folk. I was really concerned, portraying one of the historical figures of this city (Marie Laveau), who’s so beloved and revered. I so wanted to get it as right as I could. I was really happy with the comments that folks would make, that I was the best Marie, or that they really enjoyed my interpretation of Marie. They were pleased, by and large. I didn’t run into anyone who was displeased, so that made me happy. A lot of new eyes came to the series, based on it being set [in New Orleans] and based on those characters – Marie, Madame LaLaurie, and the like. This year, someone just drove me to the airport and she said, “Oh, I can’t watch horror things.” From time to time, you run into folks who imagine that, just because of the title, it’s a really, really scary show. It can be initially, but there’s something about it that just grabs your imagination, and then you can’t wait until the next week and the next episode.
We’ve seen the beginnings of a friendship develop between Desiree and Ethel. What can you say about that possible friendship? Will they team up against Dell?
BASSETT: That’s the thing. We really don’t know what’s coming, in the subsequent episodes and the subsequent scripts. That’s the aspect of this that makes it a little bit frustrating or difficult for us. We don’t have input, but we might have influence. We’ve played it as good friends. It remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll see that in the writer’s room and it’ll take them down a different road then they had anticipated. That can and does happen, and has happened in the past. We’ll see. I’d like to be friends with Ethel. We were such archenemies last year, for all eternity, as it turned out.
Desiree is very sexually charged, which always seemed like a survival mechanism, due to her not feeling like she was 100% a woman. But now that we know that she is, is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?
BASSETT: No. I don’t think it’ll change how I approach it, or how she acts. I think she’s comfortable with who she is, by and large. I think she’s just had to find a way to work and survive in a world where she’s always been reaching for what she calls normalcy – to have a real family and children of her own. I don’t think that’s going to change and make her more feminine, or whatever it might be. They might write her differently, so I’m open, but I don’t anticipate it’ll change the way that she behaves. I think what influences that is how she’s treated by others.
Do you think she might demand a different kind of treatment now, especially from Dell?
BASSETT: Well, she’s walked out on him, so she does demand a different kind of treatment. She wants honesty, for one. But that’s not a desire of her as a freak, it’s just desire for her, as a human being.
How was it to shoot the scene with Evan Peters, where Desiree and Jimmy get intimate?
BASSETT: Well, it’s not too awkward. He’s a cute a little boy, who’s engaged. You’re playing characters. He’s quite a professional. I think the most awkward part of it was that he was so emotional. There were tears and things coming out of one’s nostrils. That was awkward, but sexually, it wasn’t.
BASSETT: There was a time when he was kind and good to her, and believed in her, and made her feel valuable and special. I think that there have been moments, over the years when they’ve been together, where he’s crossed the line with her, in his speech and the things that he says, and he’s begged for forgiveness. It’s that same old thing that sometimes happens when people are abusive, physically. I think there’s maybe been some emotional abuse, throughout the years, but never completely crossing the line. I think there has come a point now, where he crossed the line of no return. She thought she knew who he was, but she found out she was living with the enemy. There’s something about him that was dishonest and disloyal. They were there for each other. They told each other their painful truth. Sometimes that happens, and you can’t go back.
Has there been anything on the show that freaked you out, personally, or got to you?
BASSETT: Well, when [Twisty] took that mask off, and I saw where he had put a gun in his mouth and shot half his face off, and the way the people treated him, which spurred him on to do that, I didn’t like that. That freaked me out, just how people treat one another. He was innocent, in his mind, and they were taking advantage of that. That was a lot for me. That made me very sad.
Ryan Murphy says that the seasons are all connected. Do you have any idea how Desiree or Marie Laveau will both fit into the larger picture?
BASSETT: Not one, nor have I considered it. The only connection I was able to make was Pepper from Season 2 to Season 4. I haven’t thought about that. That gives me something to think about. It sounds like a great college term paper to me.
BASSETT: Well, Sarah Paulson can make me laugh really easy. So can Gabby [Sidibe] when she’s around. I haven’t gotten the opportunity to spend any time with her this year. But, Sarah is pretty funny to me. Michael [Chiklis] is light-hearted. Emma [Roberts] is pretty crazy. She’s pretty funny.
How have you found the demands of television?
BASSETT: As an actor, you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else, doing your research, and working on that. I think what I found most challenging about television, and shedding one character and having to come up with another, is that there’s this lag time before I get to actually see what the characters are looking like, sounding like, or coming across like. We start filming in July, and maybe the first episode is in October. As an actor who wonders if you’re getting it right because you don’t have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet, that’s the little caveat. I can’t say it’s a real crazy frustration. If there were something that you had to call that, that would be it for me.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on Wednesday nights on FX.