The Fox series Scream Queens is a killer horror comedy from the deliciously deranged minds of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan. Kappa Kappa Theta is the most sought-after sorority, but if you want to pledge, you have to get the approval of Queen mean girl Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). That is, until anti-Kappa Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) declares that sorority pledging must be open to all students, and all hell breaks loose, as a devil-clad killer begins wreaking havoc across the campus.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Skyler Samuels (who plays Grace Gardener, one of KKT’s new pledges) talked about being a fangirl of her own show, what she loves about working with Ryan Murphy, being in a sorority in real life, all of the insane twists and turns, wondering if even she could be the killer, what it’s been like to work with Jamie Lee Curtis, perfecting a good scream for TV, and that she hopes this show creates a dialogue about the issues that they’re addressing.
Collider: You must be having so much fun making this show!
SKYLER SAMUELS: It’s true. I can’t even lie about it. I’m having a blast! It’s the weirdest show I’ve ever read, let alone gotten to be a part of. I read these scripts and from page to page, I’m like, “What?! No way! I can’t believe it!” I’m just so consumed. I’m definitely a fangirl of my own show. It’s a very, very fun show to be a part of. It’s been an absolute delight.
How did you come to this show?
SAMUELS: If Ryan Murphy called me and was like, “Hey, I want you to do this thing tomorrow around three,” with no other details, I’d be like, “Yes, for sure!” It literally wouldn’t matter. There are a few people who you could follow into the dark and it would be okay, and Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan are that team of people that you can jump in with and go, “I don’t know where we’re going and I don’t know how we’re gonna to get there, but it’s gonna be awesome.” That was absolutely Scream Queens for me. I had auditioned for Ryan and worked with him briefly on American Horror Story last year. That was my first taste of the Ryan Murphy world and it was awesome.
There’s no set like a Ryan Murphy set, mainly because it feels like he’s built an entire world, he’s so thoughtful and meticulous, and every detail is thought about and cared for. They do such an amazing job of making sure that every detail is accounted for, and it’s a thrill to be involved, as an actor. They write amazing characters. When I was working on Horror Story last year, I was just excited to be there, experiencing that. My first day at work, Ryan was directing and all he wanted to talk about between takes was my college experience ‘cause in real life, I’m in a sorority. I was like, “This is so weird that this is all he wants to talk about,” but I didn’t pay any mind to it. And then, flash forward a couple months later to when the role of Grace Gardener came my way, and I was like, “Hmm, there are some personal details in here that sound like my college experience. Wait a minute!” And Ryan was like, “Gotcha! See you in New Orleans.”
What makes Ryan Murphy someone that so many actors want to work with?
SAMUELS: Ryan can see things that we don’t see in ourselves and, in a way, that’s really empowering. All actors are self-critical. I don’t know anybody who’s an actor who’s like, “Yeah, I’m 100% positive. It’s great going to auditions and getting rejected.” It’s a tough job, in that way. Sometimes you can doubt your own abilities to do certain things. We get nervous, we get stuck, or we’re not sure if we can live up to what we want to do. Ryan really has an amazing way of empowering you to take on a character and make it your own, and feel confident in those choices. He doesn’t tell us how to play these characters. He writes amazing words, the stories are crafted so well, he talks to us and shares his thoughts with us, and we talk with him. It’s an amazing creative process where you feel 110% like you are your character and that that character is yours, and it challenges us to play and explore, week to week. He is just a magical man, that way. That’s the Midas Murphy touch.
As someone in the cast who’s actually in a sorority, in real life, were you hesitant to tell them that you’re on a show about murderous sorority girls?
SAMUELS: I don’t know how I got roped into all of this, in the first place. A part of me is still confused. I think back three years, to when I was a freshman in college, and I go to Stanford University, which is a pretty academic school. They’re not known for having a raging Greek life, so it’s not insane, to begin with. So, I befriended some girls, at the end of my freshman year, and that’s when rush is. Rush is in the spring at the end of freshman year, and they were like, “You should join with us!” I was like, “Why would I join a sorority? That sounds terrible.” They were like, “Come on, give it a go! It’s part of college!” I did go to Stanford wanting a normal college experience, so I decided to try it out, but I joined the sorority not really understanding why I was opting in to live with 59 other girls. If you think about it, on paper, why would anyone do that? But, it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I had so much fun, made so many great friends, learned a lot about how to have relationships with your girlfriends, and how to empower one another. It was a critical, awesome year of my life, which is so weird because I never thought I’d join one, in the first place. And now, to be on a show about a sorority, I’m like, “What is the deal?! I did not think this was going to be my thing.” I guess it has a bigger role in my life than I thought it would. But when I told my sisters – I’m in Kappa Alpha Theta at Stanford – they were like, “Wait a minute, you’re not going to be a Theta, are you?” I was like, “No, no, no, this is a made up sorority.” And they were like, “Great! Go have a great time!” They just wanted to make sure I wasn’t slandering the Kappa Alpha Theta name. They’ve given me their blessing and they’ve been super supportive. And when I’m done with the show, I’ll probably be back at school living in the sorority house. I can’t escape the sorority scene.
This is a very hard show to describe to people because it has so many elements and layers to it, with the mix of genres and tons. What do you think would most surprise people about Scream Queens and the ride that it’s going to take people on this season?
SAMUELS: You’re right, it is a complicated show to explain, even more so because we have to keep our lips sealed. We have all these secrets that we can’t share. I just want the episodes to air already, so that we can talk about it. If you look at the billboards and advertisements that are coming out, it’s dark and it’s bloody, but first and foremost, Scream Queens is a comedy. It is absolutely hysterical, page to page, and you will be laughing. As someone, myself, who’s not particularly keen on horror, I’m a fright light kind of gal. I like just enough that I can get my fix, but it’s not going to keep me up at night and give me nightmares, and this is the perfect show for that kind of person. It’s definitely fun and it’s gory, but it’s done in a campy way. It’s definitely not the same horror that we experience on American Horror Story.
The other thing that I think people should keep in mind is that, despite the chaos, the crazy humor, the crazy murder, the over-the-top outfits and all of the exaggerated elements of the show, the show is really built around a very human core, which is the concept that all human beings are multi-faceted, conflicted, confused, and trying to figure it out. Every single character on this show suffers from some sort of moral conflict, and you watch them try to navigate through that with one another, throughout the context of the show. There are moments where it can be serious. There’s a real father-daughter story, between Wes (Oliver Hudson) and Grace Gardener. He is a single dad who’s really over-protective and, at moments, that gets to be too much for Grace and they have to figure out a way to work through that. And Chanel (Emma Roberts) is battling things with her family and her friendships.
Every single character, from the really outspoken ones to the quiet and shy ones, is battling something. They just have to figure out how to work through it without giving up on one another. And so, what I love is that, for all the fun and over-the-top elements of the show, it’s really built around that human principle and I think it makes it really relatable, that way. I hope that people are able to find a character that they can tap into a little bit.
This show isn’t just the build up and reveal of a whodunit with some clues along the way. It’s much more about thinking you know what’s going on, and then something else happens that surprises you.
SAMUELS: Oh, I promise you, it only gets more insane, every week. Sometimes I’m like, “Who thought of this? This is insane!” I’ll read a script with my mouth agape because I can’t believe what’s happening. I can’t predict anything. I’ve been there the whole time and I’m still surprised, watching how we all evolve, week to week. The fun of this show is that it’s really not a whodunit. It’s not a game of Clue. You’re looking at this concept of murder, which is inherently awful, but it’s more about why you’d do it than who did it. The motive is definitely a huge element. There are moments where this show, the characters and their story persuades you to think, “Is it okay that they did that? Should we feel so bad that they did that? I don’t know.” It really plays with the viewers’ own moral compass, which I always think is fun. There’s no clear-cut villains and good guys on this show. We all straddle the line, at any moment, which makes it really fun.
How quickly after being cast did you start trying to figure out who the Red Devil is, and have you wondered, at all, if it could be you?
SAMUELS: Immediately! I read the pilot and literally have not stopped thinking about it. It keeps me up at night. I could come up with infinite theories, and I’m sure the writers will still surprise me. And there is a very real possibility that it could be me, in which case, I guess I’m prepared to unmask myself in the Red Devil suit. I would be curious as to why I chose such a masculine looking disguise, but maybe they’ll explain that, if that’s the case. It’s hard to know your own fate on this show, so you have to really trust in the life that they’ve created for your character and just hope that it plays out the way it was meant to be. But, there is something fun about playing around with being a villain. That is the fun of being an actor. We all have to be good guys, in real life, because that’s the rule of being a good person. But in the pretend world where we can play, explore and do these things, it is really fun. So there’s definitely a part of me that’s like, “If I’m the killer, I’m ready. I’ll rise to the occasion.” But, I definitely have a lot of questions.
How cool is it to have someone like Jamie Lee Curtis around on set?
SAMUELS: I was really intimidated, at first, because I grew up watching her. Freaky Friday was my favorite movie in middle school. And there’s Halloween. She is the real Queen. I have to say, I’ve never met a kinder, more generous, loving, caring human being, in my entire life. When she’s on camera playing Dean Munsch, she is funny, she is shrewd, she is cunning, she is witty, and sometimes she’s a little evil. When the cameras are off, she’s like your best friend/mom/fun aunt/Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s the best combination of things. She really looks after us girls. Just the other night, she called me up to tell me a funny story that she thought of and thought I should know, about being a young girl in the business. She’s so kind on sharing her wisdom with us, and she embraces and fosters all of us youngsters who are trying to figure out what we’re doing on this crazy show. She definitely has a lot of insight and fun ideas to help navigate that and guide that. But above all, she’s just the most wonderful human being I’ve ever met, so it’s a pleasure to stand next to her on set. I’m kind of like, “Wow, she’s my co-star and my friend. Somebody pinch me. This is so cool!”
How challenging is it to perfect a good scream for TV?
SAMUELS: I’m still figuring out how to do it. I’m on a show with a lot of singers who really know how to scream. They’re like, “Oh, you just scream from your diaphragm,” and I’m like, “What? I don’t know what that means.” I’ve never had vocal training. Two takes later, and my voice has dropped six octaves. I’m still learning. It’s not just the noise of the scream, but it’s also the eyes, the facial expression, the hands and the body movements. It’s been fun. We do scream takes where we stand around and we scream. We have to dose those out because otherwise everybody sounds really haggard and tired because their voices are totally shot. We all play around with perfecting our own scream. The thing that I love is that when we do it, it’s very in character. It’s always funny when you look around the room and every actor is screaming distinctly in their character’s way.
This show is really funny and it’s shocking at times, but it also addresses some real issues. Do you hope that this show creates a dialogue between kids, and between kids and their parents?
SAMUELS: I hope so. As somebody who, in my real life, is a part of Greek life, I’m no advocate to say that it’s perfect. Of course, it promotes good ideals, being in a brotherhood or sisterhood and learning to empower your fellow man or woman, and knowing how to be a part of a community and stick together and be a team. I think there are really great values in that. Every single chapter of every sorority and fraternity on the face of the planet is completely unique, so it’s hard to make one sweeping statement about each one. At Stanford, it’s pretty mellow. Nothing really happens. We’re all friends. Greek life is for people who want to hang out after the library. It’s a pretty mellow place. But, there are other places in the country where fraternity boys are on YouTube and in the national media for doing things that are probably racy and out of bounds for what they should be doing.
Ryan [Murphy] is no fool. He knows exactly what is happening in the world, and he uses this show as a platform to draw attention to the faults in our youth. Greek life, unfortunately, is a good back drop for that when you’re watching young men and women who are confused, and they’re not really teenagers, but they’re not really adults. They’re saying things they shouldn’t be saying and they’re behaving in ways that they shouldn’t be, but they’re trying to figure it out, so they’re all over the place. That’s definitely true on this show. I think we draw from some of these real-life examples that we’ve seen recently. When you make a huge mistake, how do you clean up your mess, how do you avoid doing these things again, and what do you do when you find yourself in the middle of that kind of disaster?
I definitely think it points to the real truth in all of that, but at the same time, I do not think this show makes sororities and fraternities look bad. If anything, I hope people who are in college that watch this show have a more optimistic take on rushing and being a part of that. At the end of the day, you actually watch all of us work through it and figure it out, as a team. Ryan is like, “In my own way, I’m going to show you how it really should be done.” Hopefully, we’re an example that people can relate to and learn from.
Scream Queens airs on Tuesday nights on Fox, starting on September 22nd.