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, Lizzie Brochere and Chloe Sevigny.
During this recent interview to promote her guest appearance on the show, actress Franka Potente, who played a character convinced she’s Anne Frank, talked about how she got involved with the show, what it was like to play such a historical figure, working with co-stars Jessica Lange and James Cromwell, how eerie the asylum set is to shoot in, what sort of research she did on people admitted to asylums, the biggest challenges with this role, and how she hopes she’ll get to return to the show, at some point. She also talked about how she chooses her roles, that she’s writing her first novel, and what she’d like to see from her character in Season 2 of the BBC America drama series Copper. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are spoilers.
FRANKA POTENTE: I got asked to take a general meeting with (show co-creator) Ryan Murphy. So, I went to the Paramount lot and met him in his very nice office, and I didn’t really expect anything until he went right ahead and was talking about a really awesome, cool part that he had for me, but he didn’t tell me too much. There was really no script, at the time, but I was a fan of the first season of American Horror Story, and I said that I would be a part of anything that he was envisioning for me.
At what point did you find out that you would be playing Anne Frank?
POTENTE: That was something that he explained to me without going into detail. Honestly, I got the script maybe a week before, and that’s when I really found out how it would come about and what was going on with her and all these things. It was all very secretive, which makes sense. I totally appreciated that because, if you watch a show like this, with the guests that come in, it just stirs things up. With internet and everything, stuff gets out so easily that they have to do that. They have to be so secretive about their scripts, and it would have sucked if people had known what was coming.
Being German, what was it like to play this role?
POTENTE: Anne Frank and her Diary is known worldwide. It’s probably one of the most famous books, ever. Like every other high school student, I read it in school. I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. I knew things about her, but I looked at the diary again and refreshed my memory a little bit.
What’s it been like to work with James Cromwell and Jessica Lange?
POTENTE: When I went to work, I would tell my husband that I was going to take some acting lessons. In the beginning, it was a little bit intimidating. I remember my very first day of work was only scenes with Jessica, and I had about 20 pages of lines, so I was very, very nervous. I didn’t want to mess up. And she was very sweet and kind, and very focused, and really embraced working with me. She was so great in the scene that it felt really good. I really felt like we worked together. We made it happen and really brought something to the table. And James is just awesome. He is a very curious, very knowledgeable man. He loves to talk with you. So, I had an awesome time with the two of them.
What’s it like being on the asylum set?
POTENTE: The set is pretty eerie, which is great for an actor because when we step onto the set, the mood is already created. We say our lines, and that’s that. That’s definitely half the magic. It’s cool and creepy, even if it’s not lit. With the cool statues that they have and the proper staircase, everything is very solid and well built. You get to really play with everything that’s there. The first thing that came to my mind, when I saw it, was that, if you’re a Catholic, it’s intimidating, dark, strict, regal and very impressive.
POTENTE: When you watch the show, the way it’s edited so fast, it’s probably a minute and a half, but it took us six or seven hours to shoot, and both James and I went to the floor a lot. I remember the next day, I went to him and was like, “Please tell me that you have bruises on you today,” and James was like, “Yes, totally!” It was crazy because we were sweating. It was awesome, but it was a lot of work. You have to plan those things. He’s a tall and strong man. You can’t just grip someone by the hand and push them anywhere. Some people did coordinate that. I remember going on set and they were like, “Okay, let’s do a rehearsal,” and I was like, “Wait a minute! What do you mean? What’s going on here?” It read very violent in the script. They just pushed me into this cart with scalpels and stuff on it, and it fell on top of me. But, there’s so much adrenaline going, in scenes like that. You get a rush from it. James spit on me. Stuff happens. It was really cool. And, at the very end, poor Chloë Sevigny was behind that door.
Was Chloë Sevigny actually there, in that scene with you?
POTENTE: We broke it up. It had more to do with the gun and me shooting James in the leg, and the prosthetics for that. The last half of the scene led up to me opening the door and seeing Chloë. I honestly didn’t see much of her before I opened the door. I knew she was there, but they had to wheel her in because of the nature of her prosthetics. She couldn’t even walk. So, I knew she was there, but I avoided seeing her because I knew it was not going to be pretty. It was horrendous. In my mind, I was like, “Okay, let your face move and breathe and just take in what you see.” It was kind of gross.
What did you think of the ambiguity of these people in the asylum who clearly don’t all belong there?
POTENTE: Well, that’s the fun of it, of course. It’s that Hitchcock moment of, “Is it possible?” You feed the audience some seemingly plausible reasons and, within all that madness, anything is possible. That’s what I think is great. It invites you into a world where the texture of it is like a nightmare. We’ve already seen glimpses of an alien. We’ve seen weird creatures in the [woods]. And there are a lot of things that seem to move around centuries. Anything is really possible and, if you keep watching the show, you’re open to anything, which I think is beautiful. That’s what you want with horror or suspense, or this kind of supernatural environment. Otherwise, it’s a different show. I don’t know who Bloody Face is. For the other characters, I don’t even know [what’s going on] because I didn’t know the scripts before my shows and I don’t know the scripts after. I have ideas about it, but I really don’t know. The cool thing is that the actors don’t even know. I knew the outcome for my character. Obviously, Anne Frank is proven, historically, even though there’s a tiny question mark that she did not survive the concentration camp because she died of typhus or something. But, I love the idea. Movies and movie magic are about that, “What if? What if she was still around?” She would be my age, so what would she be like? I got to indulge in that, for a little bit, until we learn that it’s not Anne Frank. It’s someone who took over that schizophrenic episode. I know that a lot of women, at that time, did that. But, for that moment, I got to indulge in the possibly, and that’s what movies are made of.
POTENTE: Many years ago, I did a German film with Tom Tykwer, called The Princess and The Warrior, and I actually worked at an insane asylum for two weeks. I have very vivid memories of that awkward time. On the other hand, this is set in the 60’s, so it’s very, very different. The experiments with patients were very new, at the time, and stuff was very different. So, I spent quite some time, that was very intense, an institution like that, many years back, but it’s always nice to have a fresh take on it. The one thing that I remember about insanity is that nobody who is insane runs around thinking, “Oh, my god, I’m really insane!” You have to play that as normal as possible. Everyone else is insane, but the insane person. In this case, especially, the setting did a lot. If the series was just about this one case, I would have had to put a little bit more work into it. As for mood, it’s so loaded in Episode 4 already, with all the creepiness, that I don’t have to play into that. It’s already there, anyway.
This show is very creepy, weird and scary. What kinds of things creep you out, personally?
POTENTE: I used to be very afraid of flying. It would creep me out and make me very tense and very uncomfortable, and I would sweat or even cry. I was very, very scared of dying, but I’m not anymore. Now, I’m traveling with a small child and I really realize that I like the luxury. They need to be indulged, in order to exist, so these days. I don’t have much time to indulge in any fears. But, I’m not very good with watching scary movies or horror movies. I’ve certainly seen The Exorcist because it’s a classic, but I’m not very good with watching that kind of stuff.
What did you think of American Horror Story?
POTENTE: I’ve seen Season 1, but even just the title sequence was scary. I was almost repulsed by the music. Normally, with the stuff that we TiVo, we fast forward the title sequence, but we don’t do that with this. We always watch it because it sets the tone. If you commit yourself to watching something like this, you want to be creeped out. I saw some stuff online where people are like, “This is so gross! It’s so creepy!” I’m like, “What do you think you’re watching? This is not a cooking show!” People watch this because it’s that naughty feeling of, “I’m watching these sick things. There’s sick stuff on this show.” People are intrigued and they feel bad, at the same time. They’re like, “I can’t believe I’m watching this!” It’s this weird feeling of, “I can’t believe I just watched that, and I have to keep watching. I can’t look away!” That’s the great attraction of it.
POTENTE: In Germany, they haven’t seen it. People were very excited that I was on the show. A lot of people that I know watch it. I think that people are generally excited, and that includes me. As an actor, if you happen to be on a show that you like anyway, it’s a special treat. It’s really nice. Even when I watch things with my friends, it’s always awesome. That’s so fun! It makes it special.
Did Ryan Murphy ever discuss his reasons for incorporating Anne Frank into the show this season with you?
POTENTE: I have no idea. I think that he wanted to have aliens and Nazis. He created this great playground where anything’s possible, so why not bring back Anne Frank and have people believe for a second that it is her? It’s fun, in this medium, that you can create anything out of nothing. The stronger the environment is, the more you can do with it. The pure thought of, “What would Anne Frank be like, if she was alive and she had survived? What’s that story? What’s driving her? What would she be like as a person amongst aliens and insanity?,” is a very tensing thought. But, why it had to be Anne Frank, I have no idea. Maybe he was interested in it, personally, and thought, “Why not? What if she came back and she was the one pointing at Arden, saying that he was a Nazi?” Ryan is not messing around. It couldn’t be just anybody. It had to be Anne Frank.
Will you be back at all, later this season?
POTENTE: I’m not sure. You can never be sure. I hope so. We’ll see about that. I can’t say, at this point. But, she got a lobotomy and Anne Frank is gone. It’s potentially interesting, in that setting, but it’s also sad. When I read the script, I wished for a second that they could let her linger a little longer and be Anne Frank. I liked that idea. With a lot of historic figures, you think, “What if they weren’t dead?” It’s a very intriguing thing to think about.
What were the biggest challenges for you, with this role?
POTENTE: Probably my first day with Jessica [Lange] because I had so many lines. I really just wanted to be good. I wanted to earn her respect. I was starting with all these lines, and the magic is always in between the lines. You want to say the lines right, but you want to get to the point where you can play with your scene partner and you just want to go beyond that. We had a great day, but I didn’t know her, so I was a little bit afraid. Physically, the whole stuff with James was demanding, with that huge fight scene for hours and hours and hours. That was strenuous. It was fun, too, but you have to be very focused with those scenes. You can’t just push each other around. We were trying to be very focused about it, but at the same time, we wanted to be really raw and dangerous. You work on your lines at home and try to imagine what the scene is going to be like, and then there’s the reality, on the day. It’s always a little bit more than you can imagine.
POTENTE: That’s a good question. To be honest, television in America is so elaborate, these days. There’s not so much of a difference in the process when you’re on the set. Especially with American Horror Story, they blend it really well. There are so many remote cranes, and they have all the toys to play with. The directors are really good. They really work with you. So, I’m not really on set thinking, “Oh, my God, this is television. It’s very different.” I don’t think there’s so much of a difference. You get all the film actors and movie stars doing TV now. So, choosing projects is really almost like a big buffet. I’m not going to lie, the buffet was maybe a little bit bigger, a couple of years ago. There are not that many movies anymore, it seems, and there are not that many parts for all of us, out there in movieland. A lot of stuff happens with TV now. This show was a no-brainer for me. I loved the first season, and it’s always such a treat to be part of something that you know you like. There are a couple of shows that I watch where I wouldn’t think twice [about being on them]. It has less to do with the acting job itself. It’s more exciting to be a part of something that you are a fan of. I remember that it was very much like that when I worked on The Shield, years ago. I loved that show. When I worked with them, I would hang out on set when I wasn’t even working. I would call my colleagues by the character’s name. I was in heaven! It was like Christmas. I would take pictures with them. It’s really lucky, if you get a job like that. Otherwise, you always hope for something that you can sink your teeth into, or maybe there’s a director or actor whose work you like. There are so many reasons out there. For me, it’s limited now because I am a regular on a show that shoots six months out of the year.
What other projects are you working on?
POTENTE: I’m a series regular on a BBC America show that just finished its first season, called Copper. We just got picked up for Season 2, so that will be six months of my year next year. I’ll be going back to Canada to shoot that. Besides that, I’m a published writer. I’m currently working on finishing my first novel, hopefully soon. It’s a very different world. So, that’s what I’m doing whenever I don’t shoot a movie or a TV show.
What do you hope happens with your character in Season 2 of Copper?
POTENTE: I hope that I get a little bit more stuff to do, to be honest. There was a little bit more stuff, but I don’t know where that went. Maybe it didn’t make sense, in the overall story line or morale of the hero. I’m not really sure. Eva is such a fun character, being this brothel owner, at the time, and not having so many boundaries. I would love to explore that a little bit more and have her have more of an active part of what’s going on in this men’s world. There was one episode where she killed someone. She’s cutthroat, and I would like to see that a little bit more.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX.