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 talk about the last episode’s big reveal, actor Zachary Quinto talked about when he was first made aware of where his storyline was headed, what concerns he had in taking on this role, how much input he gets with his character, fan reaction to the big reveal, shooting the aversion therapy scenes, the physical challenges of this show, how the asylum set gets him into character, what he thinks makes a good horror story, and whether he’d like to return for Season 3. He also talked about which aspects of the business he enjoys the most, that his production company just did a found footage horror movie that they’re now in the process of shopping around, and where he’d like to take his career next. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are spoilers.
ZACHARY QUINTO: I knew from the very beginning. It was part of the conversation that I had with Ryan [Murphy] about me coming back for the second installment of the show, in the first place. It very much informed the character that I was building, from the beginning, as a result. I felt like my responsibility became to create a character that people could at least trust initially, and have some hope that he’s the one voice of reason and sanity within this chaotic world. It was actually more exciting for me to know, from the beginning, because it gave me more to play with and more to hold back and more secrets to keep.
Since you also played a villain on Heroes, how was this character different from Sylar? Were you concerned with those comparisons, at all?
QUINTO: I think any time an actor revisits territory that they’ve been in before, it can be a source of trepidation, as it was for me. But, part of the reason that I loved what the opportunity stood for was that I got to know, going in, and I got to really build something. With Heroes, that character was built before I was ever attached to it. There were eight episodes of anticipation that were built before you met Gabriel Gray, but I had no participation in that. It was just a character spoken about. So, for me, it was really exciting to go in having all the information and be a part of the process of creating the character. That, to me, was a difference, and that, to me, was something where I thought, “That makes sense,” and it also had a similar structure to the journey I had on Heroes, at least with the reveal. That proved very effective, in that scenario, and I felt could really also serve the story in this particular iteration, as well. It’s just more rooted in character and relationship, and less rooted in the peripheral elements, like superpowers. I liked that this was grounded and real. Something that I’m always drawn to is always that connection. And it’s not a six-year commitment, as it could be with another show. It’s self-contained. It was an immersion that I’m not going to be repeating or carrying on, for an extended period of time. It was something I got to go do and contribute to and benefit, grow and learn from, and then be on to other creative pursuits. That’s an environment in which I thrive, so I was really excited about all those elements.
What were your thoughts on the aversion therapy scene, which seems horrific, but there are still people who think that will work?
QUINTO: I think the scene was very reflective of a pervasive mentality of the time, as unsettling as it is. I think it was powerful to revisit it and to present an audience with a reflection of that kind of really abhorrent thinking. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, and that’s great. There’s been so much progress made, but there’s more work to do. I think it’s always good when you’re able to, as an actor, allow your work to be some kind of a conduit for social discourse, and an examination of where we are, as a society. I think this installment of the show is really doing that, in a lot of powerful ways, that being one of many. That’s another reason why I’m grateful to be a part of this kind of storytelling and this kind of environment.
Do you think Dr. Thredson was actually trying to help with the aversion therapy, or was that just some kind of test?
QUINTO: I think it was a test. A lot of his actions in the first four and a half episodes were serving some ulterior motive. I think he was trying to gain Lana’s trust, and gain some proximity to her and some intimacy with her. I think he was definitely trying to show her that he could be there for her and that she could rely on him, even through something as ugly and as brutal as that. As barbaric as we can see it today, at the time, it was a pervasive social mentality that homosexuality was something that could be treated medically or psychologically. So, to that end, he was implementing the forward-thinking of the time to try to help her, to get her out of there. And then, when it didn’t work, it put him in a position to devise a more radical approach to getting her out, that she would then be more likely to go along with because he’d already tried the more prescribed or institutional route of, “Let me see if I can prove that I’ve cured you, and then they have to let you out.” But, when that doesn’t work, and he knows it won’t, on some level, he can be more radical about it and she already has more faith and trust in him, and she’s more likely to go along with it. It’s an incredibly manipulative tactic that works to a tee for him. I think that’s what that was an example of.
How has your real life friendship with Sarah Paulson impacted your scenes with her, especially as things get darker and darker?
QUINTO: Well, I have such a respect for Sarah, as an actress. It’s a rare and unique opportunity to show up to work with a really good friend. Oftentimes, friendships are formed on set and through these experiences of working together, and it’s even a richer experience when you already have that foundation of friendship. There’s implicit trust and sensitivity to each other, and our needs and instincts and individual processes. It’s really a remarkable gift, in a lot of ways. We also are able to have more fun and laugh at the situation, a little bit more. There’s less awkwardness to cut through. I think it strengthens the connection that the characters share, whether it’s friendship or torture or hostage, whatever it may be. I love going to work, anyway, no matter who I’m working with, but particularly with Sarah, I think she’s doing such wonderful work on the show. I also just love watching her character and the journey she’s taking. She’s gone to so many extreme and challenging emotional places, and done it so beautifully and dynamically. I just think her work is so incredible. It’s been a joy for me, this whole experience.
Now that viewers know Thredson’s very dark secret, will you be getting into the psychosis behind the psycho and show why he’s doing this?
QUINTO: Yeah. Next week’s show is called “The Origins of Monstrosity,” and it really dives into a lot of the roots of the characters in this world. So, a lot of things will become clearer and even more disturbing, in the next couple of weeks.
Has everything about Dr. Thredson been a ruse, or is there a side of him that believes in psychiatry?
QUINTO: I think he definitely believes in it. Part of being a psychopath is an ability to dissociate from one reality and create another one, completely. I think he does that expertly. His level of medical training, intuition and instinct is something he’s very skilled at. I think that’s what allows him to get away with it as long as he does. So, I think he does believe in it, which is another layer of tragedy in the character. He could have been something else. He could have made a more significantly positive contribution, had he only re-channeled his traumas and energy.
Why is Dr. Thredson selecting the victims that he’s selecting?
QUINTO: You’ll find out much more about that in the coming weeks, so I won’t spoil it by being too specific. It all traces back to one source of trauma that then branches out to include all of these unfortunate women.
What did you think of the fan reaction to the big reveal?
QUINTO: At least the things that I’ve scrolled through seem supportive and excited about the direction the show’s going in. I’m sure I’m more likely to have those people reach out to me than people who aren’t excited about it, which is sort of the nature of Twitter. But, I don’t know. I hope people are into it and on board with where it goes from here.
Will we find out if Dr. Thredson is still Bloody Face, in the present day?
QUINTO: Yeah, you’ll find all that out. I just read the next episode, and it was pretty freaky and cool. It’s really driving to a point very, very well. The storytelling structure is really going to pay off in a really great way. I think all of the questions people have, and that the episodes airing now are generating, will be answered. That’s my instinct, having read almost up through the end now.
Having been involved with Season 1, did co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk allow you to have input into your new character in Season 2?
QUINTO: Yeah, I had a few conversations with Ryan and Brad, before we started. I asked some questions and had a chance to contribute to what I would like to see, but once they got going, their engine just drives all of us forward, in surprising and unexpected ways. The vast majority of that comes from them, and I bring it to life. That’s how I see it.
You’ve played some very different characters, with Sylar, Spock and now Dr. Thredson. Which was your favorite and most fun to play?
QUINTO: That’s a good question. I feel like each one of those experiences was so profound and unique. My last six years has been just full of growth and creative fulfillment. I don’t know. It’s hard to narrow it down to one that’s my favorite. I feel like they’re cumulative, in a lot of ways. As far as the TV aspect of it goes, I would say that I feel more settled, as I’m getting older. My experience of things feels somehow more complete. So, Thredson has been very satisfying to me, in that regard. I just feel like I’ve been carrying more of my experience with me into my work. As I get older, that deepens, which is cool. I just try to do good work with good people, and I’ve been so lucky, in that regard. As long as that continues, that’s all I can ask, really.
What are you recognized for, most often?
QUINTO: As it’s gotten more frequent, over the years, it’s maybe for more than one thing now, or people just know me. I just try to meet people where they’re coming from. If it’s about a particular project, then I talk about that. If it’s about something more general, like my support of the President, or other ways in which they might know me, then I talk about that. But, I don’t really keep track of what it’s for. I don’t tally it up, so much.
Which storylines are you excited for people to find out more about, as the season goes on?
QUINTO: There’s the Kit storyline. I really love watching Evan [Peters], who I think is fantastic. I really love what Lily [Rabe] is doing, now that she’s got the devil inside. I think that’s just such a delicious story and she’s doing such great stuff with that. She’s really fun to watch. And I can’t take my eyes off Jessica Lange. She’s so committed to her ferocity of instinct. It’s so riveting and inspiring, at the same time. I love working with these people. I wish I had more to do with James Cromwell. He and I have never really crossed paths, but maybe there’s something to look forward to there. We’ll have to wait and see.
What have the physical challenges been, with this role?
QUINTO: It’s an interesting point that you bring up, in terms of the physicality of a show like this. A lot of us have had to go through some pretty intense physical experience, whether it’s Chloe Sevigny’s characters legs being removed and her having to embody that, or Sarah Paulson having to endure the physicality of her character’s electroshock therapy, or any of the people who have been murdered or attacked or killed. We all have the capacity to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, in the stories that we’re telling and in the make-believe, pretend world that we live in when we go to work, every day. But, our bodies aren’t so discerning. When you put them through such intense, relentless, overwhelming stimulation, it can have an effect, certainly physically. We have to take care of our bodies. Exercise is an important element of being an actor, on any level. Further than that, we have to just make sure that we shake it off. I’ve never had trouble shaking anything off, but this character and certain things that have happened have been a little harder to leave at work. I think that line is important to maintain the clarity, but that’s my particular perspective on it. I’m grateful to be able to do that.
When you signed on for this, originally, did you know the show would be an anthology?
QUINTO: No, I didn’t know. When I did it the first time around, the timing of it worked out really well for me. Star Trek got pushed, so I ended up having a little bit of a window that I didn’t expect to have. So, Ryan called and asked me [to be on the show], and it ended up being four episodes in that first installment, but I didn’t know what it would be. It was in the middle of that that he actually brought up the idea of the second season being entirely different. That was the beginning of the conversations, which really intrigued me. I had been exploring the possibility of another specific job that would have been a more traditional TV structure, and it was really exciting, in its own way. But, when Ryan presented this plan to me, it just seemed like there was no question that it was a little bit more unique and exciting to me, because of that. That made my decision pretty clear.
How does the asylum itself help you get into character?
QUINTO: Our production designer and the art department have done such an extraordinary job creating this immensely oppressive, overwhelming environment, which does have actual characteristics, depending on what part of the set you’re shooting in. I just think it’s a gold mine of information and an opportunity for action and activities, along the way. It’s just such a full environment that we work in. It’s great. And that continues, in the coming weeks, because you get to see much more of the lair in which Lana is being held captive. The asylum itself, with the hydrotherapy room and what that evokes, and the bakery, and all the cells and offices, gives that institutional feeling. I went to Catholic school, growing up, and it really evokes a lot of the same imagery. The iconography and statues are so well realized in the world. I’m really grateful to the creative team behind that because they do remarkable work.
How do you prepare mentally to play this dark, demented role? Do you enjoy it, or do you find it more of a challenge?
QUINTO: It depends on the scene. There’s different levels of preparation for different scenes and different kinds of work, so I have a combination of things that I do. I usually just find some solitude and some quiet, in a corner of the set where there’s not a lot of traffic or people around, and do what it is that I need to do. I listen to music a lot, if I need to get into a particular space. I do stretching and breathing, and take time to mostly be quiet and find the stillness. I think that’s important. Yeah, I love playing characters that go to extreme places, and I love to explore different kinds of psychological landscapes, so it is ultimately a kind of fun, but it’s also complicated and colored by the depth of the nastiness of it, at certain times, as well. That can be the challenging part.
Do you have any interest in returning for Season 3?
QUINTO: I just read today that the show got picked up for a third installment, so that’s very exciting. I’m so glad it’s doing well. People are responding to it, and FX has been so supportive and innovative with the stuff that they’re doing, so it’s great to be a part of it. I haven’t had any conversations with Ryan [Murphy] about what he’s thinking for the third season, so I have no idea. I love my job and I love the people that I do it with, and I always want that to be the case. I know he has plans. If they involve me, I’m sure I’ll get a call, at some point. But, I don’t know anything about it. I’m just focused on getting through the rest of this season and moving on to the next phase of stuff that I have lined up.
What do you think makes a good horror story?
QUINTO: I think stories that reflect societal fear back at the audience on some visceral level are the most compelling kind of horror stories. That’s what this show is doing, in a lot of ways. It tackles issues that have relevance to our modern society through another point of view or time period, filtered through different perspectives, and really getting to the root of what drives us as a society, as a culture and as an audience. I think that that can be really scary. That’s what’s really happening, in a lot of ways, with the characters that we’re all playing this year and in the scenarios with which they find themselves.
Why do you think horror shows play so well on cable TV, and do you think the networks can learn from that?
QUINTO: I think the networks already know that it’s because the boundaries can be pushed further on cable, and there’s not necessarily anything they can do about their own restrictions. The kinds of stories that they’re telling on network TV are also compelling and really rich and good, in their own ways, in so many cases. But, I think there’s obviously a sense of collective anxiety in the world that we live in. It’s very complicated and precariously perched, in so many ways, such as environmentally, politically and socially, and some of these shows reflect that back. The most effective kinds of horror storytelling tap into that kind of primal fear that all of us share, and that builds within society and needs an outlet. These shows that are able to be so bold, graphic, uncompromising and unflinching stand to serve that purpose and are this receptacle for all of that collective anxiety. I think that’s important, actually, in a social function, especially in a world that has as much anxiety as the one that we live in does. In some ways, it’s exhilarating, but it’s also a little bit scary that that reflects the world we live in.
Do the writers and producers ever worry about going too far?
QUINTO: Well, I think that they’re certainly sensitive. Ryan’s a very sensitive artist, so I think he’s constantly striving for balance in his work. He never wants to go too far to one extreme direction or another. I think there’s a process of refinement that a show goes through, as its post-production happens, and Ryan’s a part of that. And there are checks and balances to make sure that it’s driving in the right direction. I think, so far, it is, in a lot of ways. But, it is more uncompromising this year. It is tackling more things at once, and really diving in and examining. It feels like it’s pulling the audience along, in a really dynamic way, so hopefully that’s generating a response. It seems to be, with people coming back and watching, week after week.
What is too far for you? Is there a line that you won’t cross, in horror?
QUINTO: It’s funny you should ask that. After I read the next episode, I was asking myself the same thing. If there is a line I won’t cross, I haven’t reached it yet, at least on this show. It think it’s particularly circumstantial, in that I would know it, if I was ever in that situation. But, things are handled with enough respect, and professional and creative acumen, in the world of American Horror Story, that I’ve always felt safe and supported. Those are the two most important elements: trust and professionalism. We have those, in excess, at American Horror Story, so that’s good.
How do you see the state of horror in movies?
QUINTO: Horror has gone through some style transformations with the success of micro-budgeted movies like Paranormal Activity. My production company actually produced a micro-budget found footage horror movie that we just finished post-production on and are in the process of taking to the marketplace. You can do a lot more for less now. With less time, less money and less resources, you can still generate some really significant, scary content. I think that studios are fluctuating in their reactions and their relationships to this kind of storytelling, so there’s a little bit of a sea change in the feature world, which could also have something to do with the emerge of really successful horror series on television. They can be a little more tried-and-true or evocative of old school horror storytelling. But, I think it’s exciting, no matter how you cut it. I’m grateful to be a part of a series that’s taking steps forward and innovating, in different ways of storytelling and content exploration.
Which aspect of the business do you enjoy the most, and are you hoping to direct, at some point?
QUINTO: I would love to get myself to where I feel like I’m ready to direct. I’m not there yet, but I aspire to that, for sure. My passion is acting, and has always been. It’s what brought me to this point of being able to diversify and do other things, and I hope it’s something I’ll continue to have a passion for. I can’t see that changing. But, I’m also really fulfilled by having a production company and producing movies, and learning about how that works and happens. It’s a totally, entirely separate skill set and it’s one that I happen to also enjoy. So, I intend to cultivate all of those things until I can’t anymore. That’s my goal. I love to be challenged and busy, and so far, so good. I’m just going to do whatever I can to continue to encourage that.
Do you have a dream role, that you haven’t gotten to play yet?
QUINTO: I never tend to think like that. It’s so strange because if I look back at the experiences that I’ve had, that have been so instrumental in my growth as well as my exposure, I could have never predicted that they would have happened, or would have never necessarily thought to wish for them to happen, but they happened in very unique ways. I tend to have an openness toward that and a faith in that, that’s served me, so far. I just hope that that continues. I try to make informed, intelligent decisions. I know what I respond to when it presents itself. With my production company, it’s a little bit different, in terms of developing material for myself. I know the kinds of stuff I want to do and the direction I want to go creatively with my career, in that regard, but I don’t think of it in terms of a dream role. We’ll see how it all unfolds.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX.