Set in 1964, the FX drama series American Horror Story: Asylum takes viewers into Briarcliff, a haven for the criminally insane, ruled with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun with a troubled past. Inside this locked down facility, danger lurks around every corner, whether it’s a doctor who loves to torture, flesh eating creatures in the forest, alien experimentation or the serial killer Bloody Face, and no one is safe. From co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the show also stars Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Zachary Quinto, James Cromwell, Joseph Fiennes and Lizzie Brochere.
During this recent interview to promote his return to the series, actor Dylan McDermott (who played Murder House patriarch Ben Harmon) talked about his new role, how his return came about, his character’s sole purpose in life, that you really need to be fearless to do some of the things that the actors have to do on the show, why he thinks the show resonates with viewers, the type of horror that appeals to him, how these characters’ storylines will be wrapped up by the end of the season, and that he’d love to return for Season 3. In addition, he revealed he was almost on SNL last week for the Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney sketch. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
DYLAN McDERMOTT: If you have watched all the episodes, you know that I’ve clearly had to do some strange things. But, I was part of the ride, when I talked to (show creator) Ryan [Murphy] about this show. Walking around naked, and now playing a serial killer, is all in terms of doing American Horror Story. That’s what comes with it, so you just have to be up for it.
This is a show that really stretches your acting abilities and your fear. Is there any one fear that you would like to conquer, by doing this show?
McDERMOTT: Well, you better not have any fears walking into this show because all your personal things are public. You really have to not be too shy to do a show like this, let me just put it that way.
Where do you hope your character ends up, this season?
McDERMOTT: Johnny Thredson is obviously a troubled man. Where I hope he goes and where he goes are two different places, but I think he’s got a sole purpose in life. He feels so scorned by his mother. Everything is about his mother. The reason he’s doing all these horrible things is because he was rejected so harshly by his mother, who tried to abort him. And his father was a serial killer. So, his whole trajectory in life is really about her.
Were you looking to come back to the show again? Did Ryan give you a call and say, “Listen, I’ve got this sick, twisted character that I want you to play”?
McDERMOTT: We talked in the summer and he said he was looking for something for me to come back and do. I wanted to come back, but we weren’t sure in what capacity. Then, the day the show aired, he called me and said he wanted me to come back as the son of Bloody Face, who is the modern day Bloody Face. I hadn’t read any of the scripts, so I knew nothing about it. It was just a blind call. But, when he told me the story of it, I was just flabbergasted because it was just so horrendous, how this guy would survive, what he would become and who he was. I was just fascinated by him. It was obviously so different from Ben Harmon. To come back to this same show with a different character, I just thought was a great way to make television completely different from anything you see. When else do you get to play different characters on the same show?
When you made the decision to come back, were there specific things you wanted to do this time around, to make this character distinct? Did you have a lot of input in shaping who this character would be?
McDERMOTT: Ryan is the one who designed the character. Then, we talked at length on how he would look and what we wanted. We came up with this mullet idea and the tattoos, and how I’m really a blue collar guy, as opposed to the psychiatrist that Ben Harmon was. I think we were both looking to do something radically different than we had last season, but it was Ryan’s invention.
How many more episodes will you be appearing in?
McDERMOTT: I believe I will be in the next three out of four.
Can you see yourself coming back for Season 3, if Ryan comes up with another big idea for you?
McDERMOTT: Yes, I love this show. If I wasn’t on the show, I’d be watching it. I’m a fan of this show, as much as an actor on the show. I really trust Ryan and he has a great instinct with me. If he asks me to come back on, of course I would.
Are there any other characters whose storylines you’ve been following this season?
McDERMOTT: It’s funny because I was really following Zach Quinto’s character and Sarah Paulson’s character, and they’ve ended up being my parents. I had no idea. All of a sudden, I’m their son. It’s funny that it would all work out in such a way.
Why do you think this show seems to resonate so well with viewers?
McDERMOTT: It’s a funny thing. As much as they deny it, I think people want to be scared. It’s a phenomenon, why people want to be scared when there is so much violence and craziness in the world. People still really enjoy being scared. It’s a conundrum to me. It’s hard to explain. It’s an unconscious thing, really, why people like that so much. I don’t like the slasher stuff, myself, but I do like the psychological horror of Roman Polanski and that world. But, it’s curious to me why people do like to be afraid.
What made you audition for the show, in the first place?
McDERMOTT: You only have these instincts every once in awhile, and I remember, on The Practice, I had a huge instinct that it was going to be very successful. Then again, when I heard this story of American Horror, I had a similar instinct about the show. I remember my agent pitching me the idea for it and I was immediately attracted to it. So, when I sat down with Ryan, it all came to fruition. I’ve only had those instincts a very few times, in my career, and The Practice and the American Horror Story were two of those times. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know if it’s just my gut. My gut was really telling me that this was the show. I was looking for something different, and for a show that was going to be successful and resonate, and I think I found it with American Horror Story.
McDERMOTT: There are a lot of things in this show that are disturbing and hard. There is a lot of violence in the show, and it’s hard to get around that. It’s real. It makes you feel things and it’s upsetting, but as an actor, you can’t judge it. You have to be in it. When I’m playing a serial killer, I’m in it. I’m not judging him. I’m not judging his environment. I’m just looking for the why. Why is he the way he is? But, there’s no doubt that, if you’re a good actor, you’re going to take this stuff home with you.
Do you have a favorite type of horror story?
McDERMOTT: I like the Polanski stuff more than anything else. Rosemary’s Baby is still one of my favorite movies of all time. The idea of her being impregnated with the devil is just so frightening. I’m actually going to work on a movie in February, called Mercy, from (producer) Jason Blum, who produced the Paranormal Activity movies, and there is a similar theme to Rosemary’s Baby in the movie. So, I am attracted to that, in a strange way, and the idea of a demon baby, like we had in Season 1 of American Horror Story, does scare me, more than anything else.
Since you’re such a fan of the film, would you ever consider doing the remake of Rosemary’s Baby?
McDERMOTT: No, because that’s a great movie. It’s like remaking Psycho. You can’t. Some movies you just can’t remake, and that certainly is one of them. Some things should be just left alone. Maybe I’d do a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, but not a remake.
Is the atmosphere on set any different this year than it was last year?
McDERMOTT: I’ve been in a bubble of my own work, but it doesn’t feel that much different than what it was. Some of the crew is the same, and we went back to Paramount in Hollywood. To me, the show is really like going home, at this point. In whatever capacity and whatever character I play, it really is. I know it’s strange to say, but it’s a safe home for me.
Last year’s story was neatly tied up for most of the characters, at the end of the season. Does this year’s have a similar kind of closure to it?
McDERMOTT: Without giving anything away, yes, I think it does. I think that you’ll be satisfied, in terms of what happens. You’ll have closure with all of the characters. It’s hard to wrap up the season in one show, but having read it and now performing it, I think that you’re going to be satisfied, for sure.
McDERMOTT: I think because it’s so radically different from last year. Playing the psychiatrist role, who was a white collar guy, and then going to a blue collar guy who’s a serial killer and has these enormous problems with his parents and the way he feels, has been fun to play, for me, personally. The idea of diving into his past and creating this guy, who is this wounded person, just lashing out at the world, has been really interesting. I refer to both of these American Horror Story characters as twin brothers with a different father.
What can you say to tease what’s coming up with your character?
McDERMOTT: I think we’re going to look into what he really is, after some sort of closure with his mother. He can’t wrap his head around why someone would want to throw him in the trash. So, I think we’re going to peek into his psychological world, and then we’re going to have closure with his character in the finale. He’s not just a serial killer, out there on the run with no reason. I think we really get into the reason behind Johnny Thredson. People behave badly and people are in prison and people are on death row, and there are no excuses for everybody’s behavior, but most people are coming from abuse. Johnny is not alone in that. I think he just really suffers from an enormous amount of abuse, and there’s a reason he’s doing the things he’s doing. That’s not justified, but we’re going to peek into his world.
You’ve had a lot of shocking moments on this series. What would you say is the one that stands out most for you?
McDERMOTT: Well, I think for everybody it’s got to be the cry-bating. People still talk about that. That’s going to be with me for awhile, which is okay because that was Ben Harmon. If people were afraid to play Ben Harmon because of that scene, they just couldn’t do it. I always picture myself the guy running into the burning building, not running out. That was certainly evidence of that moment, right there.
Do you prefer taking on the dramatic roles, the straight-laced roles, or the ones where you just get to be completely crazy?
McDERMOTT: Well, this has been a good year for me. I did American Horror Story, and then went into The Campaign with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, and then made Olympus Has Fallen, which is a taut thriller, with Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Aaron Eckhart and Gerard Butler, and then did a comedy again with Selena Gomez for Behaving Badly, and then went back to American Horror Story. It’s been a great year with a lot of different characters, and that’s the stuff that I love. I really am a character actor, in my heart of hearts, because I really do like developing characters and painting a past for them.
When you were delving into this serial killer and looking into the history on why he’s behaving this way, is there anything that creeped you out?
McDERMOTT: You don’t know it when it’s happening because it’s unconscious, but this guy got under my skin a little bit, I have to say. I don’t take the tattoos off. I keep them on. So, I have been living with him a little bit more than other characters that I have played. You don’t plan that out. It just sort of happens. It’s an unconscious thing. For whatever reason, I have an understanding of who he is. Don’t ask me why. It’s just that some characters stick more than others.
What do you think is the most underrated aspect of American Horror Story?
McDERMOTT: I think it’s widely praised. Sometimes people are afraid of the genre and maybe they’ll judge it. It’s sort of like The Walking Dead. I think it deserves to be up for more awards, but somehow the genre maybe gets in the way of that. People dismiss it a little bit more because of the genre. But, if you look at American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, which are two phenomenal shows, they are also groundbreaking shows. I think American Horror is a groundbreaking show and ahead of its time. Sometimes when things are ahead of its time, people don’t always get it, in the moment. I think that’s happening right now. You look back on things and say, “Wow, that was a great show,” but sometimes the idea of horror is hard for people. It’s not for everybody, but I think it’s hard for people to wrap their head around, in terms of awards.
How much of a rush was it to put on that Bloody Face mask?
McDERMOTT: Obviously, when you put that mask on and you can hear your own breath, it’s like a mini-horror show inside your own head. That’s frightening, in itself. I posted a picture of myself on Twitter with it on that said, “Beware,” and I had a machete in my hand. It was truly a frightening picture. But, this guy he came to me very naturally. Sometimes you have to search for inspiration with characters, and other times, they just drop out of the sky and arrive. Johnny Thredson was one of those for me.
Did you work directly with Zachary Quinto on your characterization of the son of Bloody Face, or was there anything you watched him do that informed the choices that you made for your character?
McDERMOTT: I just watched him and picked up a few of his mannerisms. There is one scene coming up where we’re in the same room. In the writers’ room, they put up a picture of me and Zach and Sarah, to see if I could be their son, when they were casting it, and I guess I passed the test. I think that we do have some similar qualities, in our darker features, so I don’t think it’s much of a leap. But, I did try to listen to his voice and look at his mannerisms, a little bit.
What did you think of the Saturday Night Live bit about you and Dermot Mulroney (called “Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney”)?
McDERMOTT: They asked me to go there and do it, but I was working on American Horror Story. I thought it was hilarious. I really thought it was funny as hell. How many times do you really get to be immortalized on Saturday Night Live? You can look at that and show your kids, and they’ll laugh. So, I thought it was really funny.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX, and will return with new episodes on January 2, 2013.