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. Also in the quiet, sleepy hamlet of Jupiter, Florida is a dark being known as Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch), who savagely threatens the lives of townsfolk and freaks alike, but who also has an innocence that makes it even more disturbing. 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 exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor John Carroll Lynch talked about how this role was pitched to him, being aware of the deep fear of clowns that many people have, how he creeps out some of the cast and crew when he’s in character, the evolution of Twisty’s look, expressing himself with no dialogue, how much the hair and make-up and costume help him, taking the actual clown side of the character seriously, the license he’s given to go to dark places because he’s in full make-up, that viewers will learn what happened to him and why he is the way he is, the bizarre dynamic between Twisty and Dandy (Wittrock), and how he’d love to work with these actors again. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN CARROLL LYNCH: I was fortunate enough to get a call from Ryan Murphy, who said, “I’d like you to play this character.” He described the general outline to me, much of which had not been written. Because I had just recently seen The Normal Heart, and because he’s a very passionate person and a very good sales person for his work, he convinced me to trust him, so I said, “Yes.” It was also very helpful that the cast is filled with people who are just extraordinary. It’s a good group.
Anyone who’s afraid of clowns will find Twisty horrifying, and anyone not afraid of clowns before watching Season 4 will be. Were you aware of the deep fear of clowns that many people seem to have?
LYNCH: Yeah. My family has a few people who are afraid of clowns and, for the most part, this won’t help them. I’ve told them not to watch and, hopefully, they’ll heed my warning. I’ve never been a person who’s afraid of clowns. And gratefully, since I don’t have to be afraid of Twisty, I’m still okay. America is also apparently running out of clowns. Ringling Bros. and other people who need clowns are running out of clowns, and I don’t think this is gonna help.
Season 1 had Rubber Man, Season 2 had Bloody Face, and now there’s Twisty the Clown. What are you hearing from fans of the show, and is the cast and crew ever terrified of you, when you’re on set?
LYNCH: The crew can get a little creeped out. There was a scene in the first episode where Jimmy (Evan Peters) murdered the police officer and they were dismantling the body, and Twisty was watching. So, I was over there, late at night, on my own, and when I finished my sequence, I was walking by everybody. I can’t remember who said it, but one of the actors standing there said, “Man, you were really creeping me out.” I laughed and said, “You were dismantling a cop’s body with a bunch of other people, but the thing that’s freaking you out is the clown, 50 feet away?!” That was wild. I also heard from Ryan that there are some people on the crew who are like, “I don’t want to be near that.” But it’s a real testament to the wardrobe, hair and make-up, special effects make-up, and visual effects make-up crews. I’m just trying to bring a spirit to the work that they’ve already done.
Did you have any idea just how horrific this clown would look and behave, or was there an evolution?
LYNCH: There was definitely an evolution. Not of the look, per se. That became very clear, right away. But, there was definitely an evolution of my understanding of the clown. The way each episode unfolds helped me get clearer and clearer, as to what I was doing. I’m doing a lot of stuff that you will never see or hear because of the silence of the character. And there are a lot of things that I’ve never tried before because the character is silent. It was really fun to be challenged, in the way that this character challenged me.
LYNCH: Absolutely! There was the challenge of being told, “There’s almost no dialogue and we’re gonna take away half of your face. Let’s see if you can act in those circumstances.” That was part of the challenge and charm and risk of it. The other thing is to bring some humanity into it. Hopefully, that will happen. I think people will be surprised at the upcoming episodes. The answers to why he is the way he is and why he’s doing what he’s doing will come, and I hope they’re satisfactory, in terms of the storytelling and emotionally.
What’s the make-up process like for you? Do you use that process to get yourself into the mind-set to play this character?
LYNCH: This is definitely outside-in kind of work. You can’t be this character without all of that. It doesn’t work, if I’m rehearsing and haven’t gotten into the costume, hair and make-up. The first thing I do is get into the costume. Oftentimes, in other circumstances, I wouldn’t do that. If I’m going to rehearse, I don’t necessarily rehearse in costume. But, I never do that for this. I never want to rehearse without being in costume. If I can avoid not being in make-up, I’ll do that, too. People that I’ve worked with before didn’t recognize me, the first few times I went on set, which was good. That helped me be into the world of this particular character.
What did you think, the first time you saw yourself in the full look?
LYNCH: I’ve seen myself in the full make-up, in a make-up trailer, but not in front of the lights, until I saw the first episode. You have to remember, these things are such a collaborative thing. By the time it gets to the audience, the sound department, the make-up, the hair, the visual effects have all been done. I will never have seen everything about Twisty until I see it the same time an audience does. The fear that you come to a show called American Horror Story with is yours. That being said, I’m glad people are afraid, and I hope that I’m contributing to their fear. I’m really not afraid of my own darkness anymore. I’m not afraid of what I’m capable of.
Did you also take the clown side of Twisty seriously and learn clown tricks? Can you make balloon animals now?
LYNCH: Yeah, I made a lot of balloon animals, especially during soccer games for the World Cup. Also, I really wanted to make sure that the clown portion read as real. He is a clown. He’s not like John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as a clown. He is a clown. You never see him not as a clown. Never. It’s important. He has a wonder about him, I think, and you’ll see that in later episodes. There’s an innocence about Twisty that is part of him. He’s the hero in his own story, even if he might not be in this one.
LYNCH: Yeah. Breathing is always key, in any character. When you have a character with no voice, that makes it even more important. I made a lot of vocal noises. I don’t know if any of them are going to be used, but I hope some of them are.
You’ve said that it’s not hard for you to go to the dark places this character requires. Is that because the clown make-up and costume put you there, or would you feel the same way, if you had to be killing and hurting people while you looked like yourself?
LYNCH: There’s a license that’s given to me because I don’t have to leave and have people worry about me. I can wash off the make-up and walk away from that darkness and not have it follow me home, in the same way that it might with more personal work. We’re all capable of the kind of brutality that the character reflects. If we weren’t, there wouldn’t be so much of it.
You also said that you were drawn to the character after finding out why he’s so twisted and what his motivations are. If he didn’t have the motivations that he has, would you have turned down the role?
LYNCH: Well, that was the trust. Ryan told me what they were, but you never know. In the heat of battle of writing a television show, which is some of the most difficult writing to do well, you can promise people a lot of things, and then forget about them. But, he came through. Ryan promised what it would be, and he came through. I chose to take the risk. It would have been difficult for me, had he not come through. Then, I would be doing this without that pathos and humanity that comes to the character. And I’m glad that he did that because it made it better for me. I think it’s also better for the audience because they’re terrified and horrified, and then they’ll start to empathize. Then, you really have an opportunity to look at the ways in which you do evil things. That’s really what I’ve been trying to get to, in some way.
This character is part slasher and part childhood nightmare, with a duality that you don’t get, if you’re just telling a slasher story.
LYNCH: That’s right. Hopefully, that duality will continue to grow, so people are caught in themselves.
In Episode 2, we got a glimpse of what’s behind Twisty’s mask. Will we learn more about that, and how he came to look that way?
LYNCH: Yeah, and it’s horrifying.
LYNCH: I will find out what happened to him, and why he is the way he is.
Twisty also gets something of a friend in Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock), whether he wants it or not?
LYNCH: Yes, there is some kind of a weird connection. What that is, I don’t know. That happens out of circumstance. And Finn was terrific. He made the connection possible. I was very grateful to work with him.
Is that relationship off-putting for Twisty?
LYNCH: Yes, it is. They don’t share the same agenda, even though they both share a need for an audience. It will be interesting to see what happens. They don’t share the same motivation. It’s interesting to be an actor, and I’ve worked with tons of actors and tons of creative artists, and they don’t share the same motivations, even though they may share the same work. The differences also bring about the dynamism of the work, when it works well. Two actors who have different motivations and skill sets can work together and be magic. Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro technically couldn’t work more differently, and yet they made Midnight Run, which is a genius comedy. Would that have worked well, with two people who worked exactly the same way? I don’t know. They really play off of each other because they’re so different. I think that can create magic, or in this case horror.
By the end of his journey, will we understand his actions and motivations, even if we don’t agree with them?
LYNCH: I understand them. I hope that you’re satisfied, or that you find it emotionally true. That’s the best I can say without giving too much away. It’s a poetic show, so will it be completely explained in an intellectual fashion? I don’t know. But certainly, it was emotionally satisfying for me. It made the risk I took in saying yes worthwhile.
Having had such a good experience on the show, and now that it’s been picked up for a fifth season, would you consider returning, if Ryan Murphy comes up with another interesting character?
LYNCH: It’s very difficult to say no to him. I had a wonderful time. I would love to have another opportunity to work with these actors. We’ll see what Ryan and the people at FX say.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on Wednesday nights on FX.