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 interview with press to discuss his work on the popular series, actor Denis O’Hare (who plays a con artist named Stanley) talked about whether they can actually push the envelope of disturbing even further than they already have, the show’s portrayal of the gay community, coming up with his own backstory, what he’d like to see the show explore next, what his American Horror Story characters have in common and how they’re most different, and what scares people today. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Question: Will you be coming back for the next season of American Horror Story, and would you like to play a somewhat normal character, for a change, or would you like to push the envelope even further and get more disturbing?
DENIS O’HARE: While watching last week’s episode, where I was standing in the road, basically doing obscene things to Michael Chiklis, I thought, “Can we push the envelope further? How much envelope is left?” But we never know what’s going to happen. It’s Ryan Murphy’s world and we just wait for word. He would love for me to be in next season, but that’s an informal invitation. When I joined last year, I signed a two-year contract, so the idea is that I would come back for this year. But until he comes up with the idea and until he finds parts for us, we really have to wait. Last year, I got a call about mid-January, where he offered me Stanley. So this year, if it all follows the same pattern, I should be hearing from him sometime in January or February. In terms of what I want to play again, I trust him. He’s got really good taste, when it comes to fitting us to our roles. I feel really happy with what I’ve been able to do so far. I loved Spalding. I thought he was such an unusual character and a great technical challenge. And I really do love Stanley. Stanley is kind of normal. He’s not disfigured, in any way, and he’s charming. I’ll take another Stanley.
Has this particular role made you think about the gay community and how it’s changed?
O’HARE: Yes, definitely. I think what’s so great about Ryan and Brad and the team of writers is that they’re never content to simply write about one thing. They’re always using the occasion to raise awareness or consciousness. This series, certainly this year, seems to be about physical abnormalities and what we consider to be a freak, or normal, but there are subtler applications. One of the subtler applications, of course, is the way that gay people were thought of and treated. It’s really interesting to see Dell, as one expression of that, who’s somebody that’s so deeply closeted that he actually considers hanging himself in the last episode, to someone like Stanley, who just seems to roll with it. It seems to be part of his lifestyle, which is admittedly not a healthy lifestyle. He’s a professional liar, but there is a sense in which he’s a lot more at ease with it. He’s hiring hustlers to fulfill himself, so that’s certainly not healthy, and he doesn’t seem to be in any kind of healthy relationship. I think it is pretty amazing to have that snapshot of what it was like to be a gay person in the 1950s. I think it’s really cool.
For each of these characters in American Horror Story, are you given much of a backstory, or is it something that you have to come up with and create?
O’HARE: No, we’re given almost nothing, really. It’s really crazy. I think part of Ryan’s brilliance is his trust in who he hires, and I think he hires us because he knows we’re all creative, inventive people, and that we’re game. When I first got this part, there was a notion that he might be based on Tod Browning, and so I ran around and got all of his movies, and we watched Freaks and some Dracula movies, and I got a great biography called Dark Carnival and absorbed that. Then, as we got closer to shooting, I realized that that wasn’t going to happen because the time frame was wrong. We had to change the time frame. But what I took away from that was the idea that I think all con men, grifters and hustlers have dabbled in many things, so I made up the story that somewhere in Stanley’s background, he was a song and dance man. I tried to always have him a little bit light on his feet, a little bit whistling and singing, and having music always in his fingers and his head. That really informed something about the character for me. In the service of backstory, at one point, I was told that Maggie and I were probably going to be father and daughter, and then that shifted to them sometimes pretending to be father and daughter, and then that shifted to them just being equals. So, we never quite know what’s happening. I did know that I wanted a mustache. I feel very strongly about that. I came in and Ryan didn’t like the mustache that I first had because it was too fat and he wanted something more Errol Flynn-like, so we did two more versions. And it was mine, by the way, that I grew. We were trimming my own mustache, and he finally liked one. And before I left, I said, “So, I think Stanley’s a whistler,” and Ryan said, “Whistle away.” I took it from there.
Is there any type of theme or character that you would like to explore on this show?
O’HARE: I’ve been racking my brains about that. Thank God it’s not in my hands because I feel like they’ve covered so much territory, so well. They really have touched on ghosts, pretty extensively, in Murder House. Asylum had the alien abduction theme, which I would expand upon with a body snatcher type thing, or something to do with aliens among us, or transformation. That feels like it’s right. Coven covered all witches. And Freak Show is a brilliant idea that covers the grotesqueries of life. So, outside of satanic cults and torture porn, I’m not quite sure what’s left. I’m glad it’s up to them because my mind doesn’t work that way. But I’m excited and anxious to see what they’re going to come up with, and I will say yes to whatever I’m told to do.
O’HARE: That’s interesting. I do feel like all the characters are always yearning for something. It seems obvious to me that they’re all yearning for some way of transcending their life into something bigger. It was most obvious in the case of Larry, who was wanting to escape the hell that he was bound in by his actions, and by the consequences of his actions, with his wife and kids being burned up in a fire. What Larry wanted was release. I felt like Spalding was the same way. I joked with Ryan and said, “I think Spalding’s ultimate dream is to become a doll,” before we got to the end. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if, at the end, we saw Spalding on the shelf and he finally had achieved his dream?” For Stanley, oddly enough, we have those glimpses of him at the morbidity museum while they’re doing a toast, and he’s assuming that he’s going to be fêted and called out for recognition. What Stanley wants is to be respected. He wants to be accepted into larger culture. I think that has to do with a lot of the characters that I’ve played. They’re yearning for some sort of transcendence. They want to arrive somewhere, at a place of peace or recognition. I think that’s really cool.
And they all have very different personalities that I still love. I especially love Spalding because he’s the most unlike me. Larry is probably the closest to my personality, scarily enough. I thought Larry was actually the sweetest of them all, in a strange way. He was a guy who was just buffeted around by the world, and he reduced himself to this cartoon. Spalding is actually not that sweet. There’s a lot going on beyond that head that was not admirable. That being said, I do believe that he had an interesting serenity, and that was very different than Larry’s frenetic energy. Stanley’s the most confident. He’s the most on top of his game. He’s the most aggressive, shooting forward, which I really love. He really is the instigator. He’s the engine of the season because what he’s doing is setting everything into motion, with his attempts to co-opt, murder, corral, change and weave this spell around different people. He is the billiard ball that scatters the other balls. And I think it’s a fantastic energy to have.
If all of the seasons of American Horror Story are somehow connected in the same universe, how do you think this is going to affect the next seasons?
O’HARE: The biggest obvious resonance this year was Pepper being in both Asylum and Freak Show. But there are actually two other ones coming up that are very, very strong resonances that are fascinating. As far as what Ryan will do for the fifth season, now that he knows his game plan, I think it makes it a little easier, in terms of figuring out who the characters are and what the setting is. The biggest challenge, of course, is the setting. That dictates some of this. If you set it too far in the past, you actually make it difficult to make connections. Asylum and Freak Show being so close together – only 10 years or so – made that a lot easier. I’m just as excited as you are to see what he’ll do.
Since American Horror Story is so much about fear, is there’s a fear that you haven’t seen explored that you would like to see explored?
O’HARE: Wow! That’s a very good question. What I think is so brilliant about what Ryan first said when he set upon this course is that they were going to explore the different genres of horror, and I love that notion that there are different kinds of horror. There are also different kinds of fear. We did claustrophobia with Kathy Bates buried alive, last year. But I don’t feel like we’ve really, really explored the idea of things closing in on people. That’s a real big fear. I think it’s really hard to do agoraphobia, which is a fear of open spaces. That’s a hard one. But we haven’t explored animal fears, like fears of dogs and spiders and icky things like that. We had snakes, but we haven’t explored really, really icky insects a whole lot. And we haven’t really explored the whole fear of extraterrestrial monsters. I guess monsters would also be an interesting fear to explore. I have a three and a half year old, so monsters are a big topic in my house.
What do you think the big difference is, with what scares people today?
O’HARE: I guess we’ve gotten more sophisticated. There’s a naivete to being scared by something like a vampire or a werewolf or Frankenstein. Unfortunately, the world has gotten a little more complicated and a little more scary. The movie that scared me the most was The Ring. I found that movie terrifying, partly because it was an interaction between technology and something else, and that by watching TV, you could be infected. That’s a terrifying idea. We live in a world where we’re all on computers and tablets and phones, all the time, so something as odd as computer hacking or a virus is really scary because it gets to the heart of our security. What if someone takes my money from me? What if someone hacks my identity? What if a hand reaches through the screen and grabs me by the throat? Poltergeist was a very modern application of that, from very early on, melding ghosts with television. What scares us has changed. When you think about 1920 or 1930, we were a little more naïve, as a culture, in terms of what we were dealing with. Maybe we were more isolated because of technology and travel and the media. Now, the world has gotten to be a smaller, scarier place. We see images of people being beheaded on TV. That’s not a thing that you see all the time. That’s a different kind of scary. Unfortunately, some of the scary stuff is political, and that’s a change from our past.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on Wednesday nights on FX.