Ryan Murphy has never been known for keeping his schedule light. In addition to running Glee and American Horror Story, planning to direct a feature-film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s AIDS drama The Normal Heart, and writing the all-star musical One Hit Wonders for pal Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, and Cameron Diaz, he now will also run The New Normal, a new NBC comedy premiering this fall about a gay couple who decide they want to start a family. The show stars The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells and The Hangover’s Justin Bartha alongside Ellen Barkin, who plays the bigoted, ultraconservative grandmother of their surrogate. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he found time to sit down with us for a Vulture Transcript, an in-depth conversation covering everything from the “hard road” of making Glee (which concludes tonight) and his plans for next season, to details of the next, sixties-set season of American Horror Story, to his response to those who think his shows blow up too fast.
Three TV shows and two movies … how do you stay focused with so many ongoing projects?
I don’t know how to answer that other than I just have a passion for all of them. They feed each other. I never get bored; I’m always excited. It just feels like a very circular gerbil wheel of creativity, to be quite honest. I started off as a journalist when I was young and I did not get paid unless I wrote three stories a day. So I was brought up with that mentality, that productivity was a good thing. And I do have a great support system and bosses who understand.
And will you be the showrunner for all three of your series?
Yes. I’m still the showrunner, but Brad Falchuk [co-creator and co-executive producer on Glee and American Horror Story] is working really closely with those writing staffs. And we’re bringing on people to Glee who have run other shows, so that’s very helpful. Ali Adler co-created The New Normal and has run and staffed many rooms before. That show also will have a very overexperienced staff that we’re bringing on.
Last year, FX president John Landgraf told me what he loved so much about American Horror Story was that you had planned it as an anthology, which would keep things fresh and new for you. Is it a fair assessment to say that you like the beginnings of things best?
Certainly I am aware people say that about me, which I always find interesting and I guess I understand it … well, yes and no. I would say for American Horror Story, I do like the freshness of that and I love that show because it’s a miniseries; it’s a beginning, middle, and end.
When you write stories 22 episodes a year, it’s a daunting task. Even though Glee is sometimes a hard road, I am very excited about writing a multi-year arc. For example, Rachel Berry, meeting her as you did, hopefully by the end of her journey she will be a star. That’s a very long, long period. That’s harder, because you don’t get instant satisfaction. But I know where she’ll end up; I know what the last scene will be. The New Normal is also a really great template because I know the last scene of the first season is the birth of that baby. It’s a five-year plan — first season is about getting ready for the baby, second season is about the baby, the third season is like, “We’re in our fucking mid-forties and we need to have another baby!” New Normal is almost like a weird hybrid of Glee and American Horror Story. It’s good for me to write to something in the long and the short term.
One of the things your critics say is that your shows have a supernova quality. They ignite and everyone’s talking about them, and at some point they inevitably fall back to earth. Then those critics fall all over themselves saying, “Yes! This is what we’ve said all along!”
I suppose I get what that is about because the things that I have done so far in my career seem to have started with a big burst of attention. Magazine covers, awards, nominations — all that stuff that you really can’t create or control. So I get that by comparison the third season of Glee was maybe not as sexy and shiny and red hot as the other seasons. People said the same thing about Nip/Tuck and the fourth season wound up being its highest rated in that show’s life of seven. I guess what I have learned is that people can say what they want to say, and I respect it. Everybody has a right to put people in a box or a niche because that’s their job. I used to do that [as a journalist]. I don’t think that’s true about me, but time will tell.
At the beginning of this season of Glee, you said no big tributes, no guest stars. But the truth is, you began doing both in the second half of the season. What happened there? Do you feel pulled in both directions?
I don’t feel that I’m pulled in those directions. And you know, the first season, which now everyone has put a halo on, did exactly that: We had guest stars, we had the Madonna tribute. .. I think the thing about the fan base is you can’t take anything too personal because it all comes from a place of passion. There are some people who love the characters. There are other groups of people who love the spectacle. When you do the spectacle, the people who love the characters get pissed. “Fuck them, why aren’t they doing a Brittany and Santana story instead of a Michael Jackson celebration?” Then when you do the opposite they’re like, “You know, where’s the tribute to Frank Sinatra? This is bullshit.” You just can’t win. So I think you try to do the best that you can, and I really do respect the fans, because I think it’s a young audience, and I think it’s a very Internet-savvy audience. We care about the show and we care about the characters and the tributes, but it’s a young, rollicking show by design. I get that sometimes people fall in and out of love with it in the course of two episodes.
It’s also hard when you do a show that no one thought would work — even the people who ran the network did not think it would work. Some of the critics thought it was gonna be five episodes then out. And I think that it’s a show that the fans made. They found it, they loved it, they bought the music, they turned it into a phenomenon, they bought the tickets for those concert tours, they created the ability to do multi-platforms, they had a really strong proprietary grasp on it. I think the critics did, too, and I think a lot of the bloggers did. So whenever you have something like that, and then you evolve and you grow and you try different things and you experiment and you risk, [they say] “We don’t like it, go back to what you used to do.” And then you say “Well, we are kind of doing what we used to do, but I understand how you would see it was different.”
I will say the story for season four gets back to the underdog status [for the characters] and that will appease people, maybe. Sometimes I feel that you can’t win. It’s just a volatile group of people that watch it, and for that, I like their passion. Anybody who’s ever done a show about youth has told me they went through this exact same thing.
What did you think of Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly saying next season would be a “creative renaissance” for the show at the network’s upfront?
I don’t think that Kevin was particularly a fan of what I was trying to do with the beginning of this season. We did an episode of all show tunes, we did several of them. There was the West Side Story thing that I loved, but I don’t think the audience did. Kevin wants a Glee that’s about Top 40, pop culture, big stars. So I know that he loved the end of this season, and I went and pitched him the next season and I think he loves it because it’s very pop-culture-based. We’re doing a great tribute right off the bat, another Britney Spears episode. Many of the characters will be starting over as underdogs, which is a good thing for the show. I really made an effort, talking to all the regulars about it.
What do you mean?
We had a meeting, and you know that we’ve become like a family, and I said to them anybody who wants to stay on the show will stay on the show. I asked all of them, “What do you want to do? What are you interested in doing?” That said, the show next year will have less characters than we’ve ever had and I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think that you’ll see a show that suddenly you don’t recognize. A lot of people have been writing Dianna [Agron]’s off the show, Amber [Riley]’s off the show — they’re not off the show.
You know why they’re saying that about Amber, though. Amber tweeted that she had “closed a chapter” of her life.
I think she was talking about a bittersweet feeling of, “I’ll never be in the choir room with that exact group of people.” At least that’s what she told me. When I read that [tweet], I said, “I think people will misconstrue that.” She’s excited about where her character is going. They all are. I wanted to do the right thing by all of them. I think that was the problem in the media last year when people thought that I was getting rid of Lea [Michele], Cory [Monteith], and Chris [Colfer] because I couldn’t talk about the spinoff. “Oh, you’re getting rid of my beloved characters? Fuck you, I hate you, how dare you.”
I wanted the actors to know that if they wanted to have a home, they have a home. If they want to explore new and different things while having a home, that’s also an option. When I told them about the next season, they liked it because they all get to grow and be back to struggling, [wondering] where is my place in the world. I think that the fans of the show will grow up with them.
What about Will Schuester? Do you feel like there are more stories to tell for him, especially since he’s about to become happily married?
He doesn’t get married.
[Laughs.] We have really good things planned for Matt [Morrison], and we have really good things planned for Jane [Lynch]. What I like is they will no longer be playing the same stories. Jane needs to get a new enemy and fast. Same for Matt. Matt has to have a new challenge and a new thing. We did not want to repeat the formula we’ve done. The show will be very different, but I think very satisfying.
So, Jayma Mays, Mark Salling … everyone is coming back?
They’re all coming back. Anybody who was a regular is coming back. Everyone said yes. That doesn’t mean everyone will be doing 22 episodes, but everybody wants to stay in our family, in our world. But there will never be a day where you’ll see another Glee tour with all those same people. That won’t happen.
What do you think of Glee moving to Thursdays after The X Factor?
I think it’s a really great night of television. I love Britney. I think Britney’s going to bring a lot of eyes to that screen and the flow of a musical show into a musical show is great. It’s always what I wanted. I’d been begging for that for two years. I wanted to be on after American Idol or X Factor just because when I’m watching Idol, and I’m having a fun, young pop-culture experience, I don’t want to watch a hard drama after. Thursday is going to be a night of pop-culture celebration for Fox. There’s gonna be a lot of tie-ins that we’re gonna do. I also love that we’re gonna be at nine, which we were before, because I think we can go back to a little bit more [mature] writing. We’re doing that.
Both Glee and your new show, The New Normal, are set in Ohio.
Well, I’m from Indiana. So to me when I was a little kid growing up, Cincinnati was the glamorous New York of it all. But after the first episode of The New Normal, everyone moves to L.A., so there’s no more Ohio. The surrogate Goldie comes out to try and go to law school in L.A., and grandma isn’t going to let her do that alone, so she also comes out. She’s got a real estate license, so she’s going to be selling condos. I really love Ellen Barkin’s character Jane, this idea of women in their forties and fifties who are now single and having second lives.
Tell me about the inspiration for The New Normal. Series star Andrew Rannells said his character is based on you.
If I was much better looking and could be played by Andrew Rannells, yes. My partner David Miller and I have been talking about having a family for a year, and we’ve been going through some of that process. It’s just fascinating, and I was telling [chairman of 20th Century Fox Television] Dana Walden about it and I thought it was a really great idea for a show. But there are a lot of other characters in that show who are not based on people in my life, people who are also going through “the new normal.” Georgia King (Little Dorrit) plays [Goldie the surrogate], a woman who wants to have a better life for her daughter.
What do you do when you’re pregnant and you want a date? What do you do if you’re Ellen Barkin’s character and you’ve been single for a long time and you move to Los Angeles and have a one-night stand with a 25-year-old guy? It’s a lot of different ways of looking at families and the way our society is different now, thus the title. But that was my way in, certainly, my own story. I love that experience of going into a writers’ room and saying, “Oh my God, this happened to me last week, what do you think?” and then working on that experience. That show is very personal to me.
You’re engaged now. Are you still talking about having kids?
Yes, still talking about it. It’s a long process. We’ve known each other for fifteen years, we’ve been together for two, but even like four years ago we started talking about, “What if we had a baby as friends?” So it’s something that we’ve always been very interested in and what to do about it.
I think it’s something that’s definitely in the water in terms of society talking about it, and there’s a lot of controversy with both pro and con sides to the story. All of that is addressed in the show. But you know it’s also interesting to write and deal with somebody like Barkin’s character, who is a staunch Republican, who is definitely going to vote for Mitt Romney, who is definitely not down with gay people, and definitely doesn’t think gays should have a family. To articulate that in a dramatic scene — that’s interesting for me.
The New Normal is a half-hour, which isn’t something you’ve tried before. Why now?
When I was growing up my favorite show was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I loved all the stuff that Norman Lear did. This show in a weird way is a salute and an homage to his work in that it’s really about tackling social issues. The seminal childhood TV viewing experience for me was the episode of All in the Family where Edith almost got raped. Also on Maude, when Bea Arthur made the decision to have an abortion. I remember watching those shows and talking to my parents about them, and it was a way for my parents to talk about those things with me and feel comfortable doing it. So it really is something I’ve always loved since I was a kid, that form. I’m interested in doing a family show that presents difficult, sometimes controversial topics wrapped up in a very loving arena. This show is surprisingly gentle and very loving.
I’ll admit that I read the script for the first episode and teared up a little bit.
I’m surprised how many times people watched that pilot and say how emotional they got watching it. It’s about people who are looking for connections in life and about the power of family. There’s something there for everybody, even conservatives.
Do you know a lot of conservatives?
I do know a lot of conservatives. I wouldn’t say I hang out with a lot of them [laughs], but our writing staff is very diverse. In an election year, it’s an interesting voice to get out. This season on Glee we had a Christian character, who very much stuck to his guns and did not have sex. I like doing those people and those voices and trying to remain true to them. The important thing about the Barkin character, and she feels this too, is that I really wanted her to be a modern-day Archie Bunker. That voice is not on television right now.
You’re about to host a fund-raising dinner for President Obama, who just two weeks ago endorsed gay marriage. Is this dinner a result of that proclamation?
No. I was asked to do this dinner many, many months ago. I always have supported him. He made that statement the week the invitations were sent out, so it was interesting timing. What he’s done has ignited a lot of passion and ignited his base and made people eager to work for him, to really work hard to get him reelected.
What do you serve when you host the president?
[Laughs.] I’m just in the middle of all that. I don’t know yet, but his staff obviously has a large say in it. It’s going to be 80 people coming to my house, and it’s very exciting and an honor because I really believe in him.
To move on to your other show, American Horror Story was about marriage and infidelity set in a haunted house. What is the second season about?
It’s set in an institution for the criminally insane that Jessica Lange’s character runs, which is a really, really, really fun thing to do because you can write all these people locked up in it. And I guess if the first season was about infidelity, the second season is about sanity. What makes someone sane or insane? Sometimes the people you think are insane are actually the most sane of all. It’s fun to write about people who society throws away.
I haven’t said this publicly, but the new season is set in the sixties and Chloë Sevigny, for example, plays a character who was put in an asylum because she was a woman who likes sex, so her husband sends her away. At the time, you were able to put people away for that. Another character is institutionalized for being a lesbian. To me, there’s nothing more scary than somebody coming to you and saying they’re going to take you away and put you in a mad house and you have no legal rights and there you shall stay till the end of your days. That is a real horror. Everybody has felt people thinking, “You’re fucking crazy.” Even somebody saying that to you is scary.
You’ve said the second season will be very much “The Jessica Lange Show.” Did you come up with the idea in response to how well she was received in the first season?
I actually had the idea first. I knew the first season was about a very contemporary haunted house, and I knew the second season was gonna be — if we were lucky enough to be picked up — about an insane asylum done in a very different way. I pitched it in the very beginning, and FX said, “Good. We hope the first season works ‘cause we love the second season.” I even know what the third season would be. There are very, very many different kinds of haunted houses in our culture. And there are a lot of different social topics that you can weave through that sort of prism.
You’ve compared the way you’re working with the same actors in the second season of American Horror Story with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre. But are you concerned about viewers being able to adjust to seeing the same actors in new roles?
I think they will. I think that people will love seeing Evan Peters, who was last season’s ultimate badass bad boy and this year is the hero of the show. It’s not like the actors are playing similar parts. They’re going to look different, they’re going to sound different, they’re going to have different accents. It’s a different time period. The actors are so excited to do that and hopefully their enthusiasm will translate. I mean, I would pay to watch Jessica Lange read the phonebook. And she’s so the opposite of Constance this year. Like, if she was the wilting Blanche DuBois character, there’s not a shred of that now.
How aggressive are you in pursuing the talent you want for your projects? You wrote Madonna a love letter to get her catalogue for Glee and Lange has said on more than one occasion that you swept her off her feet.
Well, Chloë Sevigny is a perfect example where I had written this role that I really wanted her to play. I finagled a little and got her number, and I convinced her to meet with me and I said, “I love you for the following reasons, these are the reasons why I think you should play this role, and I kinda won’t take no for an answer, so please … ” That’s how I do the show: I call people and say I’ve always loved your work, you have to play this part. I’m passionate about actors and I’m passionate about showing actors in different lights. She’s playing a really screwed-up but very important part that she’s never played before, and I think she responded to the fact that somebody saw that in her and was interested in bringing something else out.
How did One Hit Wonders come together? And come on, is this really going to happen with that cast?
That was about Gwyneth Paltrow. Gwyneth had done Glee and loved it so much, and said, “I really wish that I could have done what I did on Glee in a movie, but they don’t write them anymore,” and I said, “Well, we should do that. You should be a producer. You should find a piece of material that you love, and you should be the boss.” She called a couple of her friends, and came back to me and said they would also love to do a musical. So I came up with an idea and then we had a dinner and pitched them all and they loved it ‘cause it’s very raunchy.
That must have been some dinner.
It was literally like sitting with the spotlight on us because it was attack of the blondes. It was hilarious. Everyone was looking like, “What the hell is going on at that table?” because we were laughing and pitching. I obviously think the world of her. I would do anything for her. And it’s true they don’t write a lot of movie musicals, but this one is very contemporary. Andy Samberg is doing the music and playing a role. And we’re doing it for a price, which is great. [Co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment] Amy Pascal really gets the importance of female stories. I think it’s really important to have female producers in this town and female stories.
You’ve also got a star-studded cast for The Normal Heart, including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer …
That is another passion project. I love Larry Kramer’s advocacy and I love him as a person, and I think young people need to see that story. I came of age during AIDS and the terror of that and the sadness and the death and the overwhelming despair. I love the story of these guys coming together and saying okay, the government is not helping us, we need to do something. Larry has been writing the script for several months with me. The other day I wrote him and said, “Were you ever scared? We need to do a scene about that.” But he said, “I was never scared, I was just angry.” So, now there’s a scene about that. It’s a big privilege for me to talk to somebody who I feel is such a great, important historical figure. We’re shooting it in two halves. We’re shooting for four weeks, and then we’ll go down and Matt has to lose like 25 pounds and then we’ll resume.
So other than your own many projects, what are you obsessing over in pop culture right now?
You know what is really great? I love that Joss Whedon finally got that big, huge kickass hit [in The Avengers] that he has deserved for so long. I love him. [Editor’s note: Whedon directed the “Dream On” episode in the first season of Glee.] Book of Mormon I continue to marvel over; Venus in Fur, because [Nina Arianda] is a big star. What else … I love Girls on HBO, because it’s brave and cool. I love The Walking Dead. I know it just ended but, yeah, I never miss an episode. It’s the one show I always have to watch live.
People weren’t into the first half of this season when the group was stuck on the farm, but if I were in a zombie apocalypse, I’d want to stay on the farm, too.
It’s very hard for people after the first season to love you universally. Does that ever happen anymore?
I think because every episode gets reviewed now online.
True, true. I get that, yeah. When I started off with Nip/Tuck, I remember they would review the first episode and the last episode and that was it. They never, ever wrote about anything else. And usually those are two episodes where you put a lot of time and energy, so for the most part it was always pretty good for shows. But yeah, right now there’s a much bigger spotlight on everything because of the Internet.