Ryan Murphy on the Premiere of American Horror Story: Coven and What’s Next for His Witches

Photo: Michele K. Short/FX

[Spoilers ahead.] According to American Horror Story: Coven lore, real witches were smart enough to escape the Salem witch trials of the 1690s by fleeing to New Orleans. The present-day coven is ruled by an all-powerful Supreme, Fiona (Jessica Lange), who is obsessed with recapturing her youth. Conveniently, she’s unearthed local legend Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who viciously tortured slaves in the 1830s, but is still very much alive nearly two centuries later — the result of a curse from vindictive voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett). And that’s only a fraction of what went down in tonight’s super-sized Coven premiere. Vulture rang up series co-creator Ryan Murphy to ask our most burning questions, like how the heck do you kill off the delightful Evan Peters so fast? Is there anyone on Fiona’s side, and is it really just the perils of aging getting her down? And on whom did he model Hollywood starlet Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts)? He obliged and then some.

Fiona’s less than thrilled about getting older  ditto evil Madame LaLaurie  which is a running theme in your projects.
Well, there’s a reason why Fiona’s aging: It’s not because she’s dying or because of a natural process. It’s because the next Supreme has declared herself and her powers are growing and they’re sucking the very sap from Fiona. Some people have written about my obsession with women and aging, and it’s like, no, that’s not it. I’ve done that before. I did it on Nip/Tuck. I was interested more in the idea of, “Fuck, I’ve had this amazing life. I’ve traveled the world. I’m friends with Shirley MacLaine. I’ve had sex with Mick Jagger.” She’s that kind of lady, and it’s very hard for people in power to give up power. That’s the real idea. She’s not feeling well and she doesn’t understand why her vitality is slipping, and it’s really because a new witch in town is sucking her dry.

I noticed that the drug she thinks holds the secret to eternal life is called RM47 … interesting. [Think: Ryan Murphy, 47.]
[Laughs] You know, I had no idea about that. [Series co-creator] Brad Falchuk wrote that scene. I blame it completely on Brad. It wasn’t until I saw the first cut of the episode that I was like, “Wait …” I think he was making fun of me. I think he was being mean, saying I was born in 1947, an inside joke that even I didn’t catch, that damn Falchuk.

So have we met this new witch in town?
I can’t say. I can say Fiona kills one of the witches in the third episode. She doesn’t want to give up being the Supreme. She thinks she’s figured out who’s next in line, and that person pays.

She doesn’t seem to have many friends. Her daughter, Cordelia [Sarah Paulson], really hates her. Will we get into what happened between them?
Yeah. Fiona dropped her off at the school when she was a young girl, just as Fiona was dropped off. I don’t think she thought there was anything wrong with it: You have these skills, you go to this school, you learn to deal with the powers. But Fiona is a harder nut, and Cordelia’s resentment over being dropped off and abandoned runs quite deep. It’s very much a Terms of Endearment Shirley MacLaineDebra Winger relationship.

Sarah Paulson’s character on Asylum went through a lot. In Coven, she’s playing the a conservative headmistress. Will her journey be less fraught this season?
Not at all. The fun thing about booking Sarah is that she’s got such range. I wanted to do something that started at 1 and goes to 10. Cordelia becomes quite unhinged, and quite dangerous, and perhaps the most deadly of all the witches. Something heinous and absolutely horrible happens to her in the Halloween episode, both parts 1 and 2. It spins her around. And actually, the basis for her character is Bewitched [laughs]. I always thought about what would have happened if Samantha had listened to Endora and gone dark. She leaves, ditches suburbia, goes crazy, you know?

You also told me Frances Conroy would be playing one of Fiona’s nemeses from their high school days. What else should we know about her?
She plays a council member for the coven, a collection of bizarre, funny witches who protect the coven. One of their rules is if you are caught as a witch killing or harming another witch, they burn you. So she has an entire episode where she puts Fiona on trial. It’s as if Diana Vreeland were a judge. 

How did you settle on the unique powers of the younger girls?
They were things that were attributed to witches back in Salem. One had been accused of fucking someone to death. The truth of the matter is the guy was probably a hemophiliac who got too excited. Clairvoyance, the power to read minds, the power to move objects, those are old tried-and-trued things that witches were burned for. The one we took liberties with, and that I love, is Queenie’s [Gabourey Sidibe] power: the human voodoo doll. That ability to do something to yourself and have it transfer to someone else is a voodoo-esque power that some voodoo witches do have. We just gave it to a Salem witch. And Queenie’s gonna be tempted by that Marie Laveau/Angela Bassett voodoo magic. Just wait.

It seems as though Marie Laveau cursed Madame LaLaurie with eternal life, which I assume might be how we see Marie in the present day? 
Right, the idea being she’s still in New Orleans, or that’s what people say. The Salem witches like Fiona are not immortal and Fiona wants to change that, at least for herself. 

Earlier you had told me it would be a witch-off, Salem vs. voodoo.
Yeah. The Salem witches and the voodoo witches have been at war for years and years, but something happens where they question that and wonder if instead they should join forces. They realize there’s a common enemy.

Is the movie star, Madison (Emma Roberts), based on anyone?
No, not really. I’ve known Emma for a long time. I’d see her out, and I always used to joke, “You smoke cigarettes really well. You need to play that girl. You need something cool, smoking cigarettes and wearing fur,” and she would laugh. Finally I just wrote her the part. It’s not based on any one person  I mean, she’s all those girls. Emma’s fearless. You’ll see in the upcoming episodes we ask her to do pretty out there, amazing things, including the most disturbing scene we have ever done on the show.

Evan Peters is a series regular, but his character Kyle is killed when Madison flips the bus. What do you want to say about how he returns?
The second episode is called “Boy Parts.” Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] is devastated because she had feelings for this boy. Madison wants to make it up to her. So they go into Cordelia’s stash and steal a spell. They go to the morgue, and it turns out all the boys have been horribly dismembered in this crash, and so Madison gets this brilliant idea. “Fuck it, let’s build our perfect boyfriend.” So they take all the best parts they like and create this teenage Frankenstein. Evan really loves playing him because he gets to do something almost like a silent movie, very physical and crazy. He watched a lot of those Frankenstein origin movies, but he’s come up with his own physical thing which is really amazing, and quite naughty.

I loved the way he and Zoe met. It reminded me of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo & Juliet when they see each other through that aquarium.
They are our Romeo and Juliet. They’re the romantic couple. They have a hard road, too. She can’t have sex with anybody because she kills them.

But he’s dead.
But he’s dead. It’s going to be fun.

Speaking of dead frat boys, are you anti-Ed Hardy?
[Laughs] I have no comment on Ed Hardy other than I think Fiona doesn’t care for Ed Hardy.

When did you start thinking about witches?
During season one. Jessica and I were talking about how she was always attracted to that Salem story because her granddaughters are actually descendants of the Salem witches. I found that to be very interesting and cool, so I started researching it. I really locked into it when I thought about the witches story as sort of a metaphor for any persecuted and hunted minority group in this country.

How do you begin to do your research?
To be quite frank, we went to New Orleans because Jessica really wanted to live there and shoot there. Once you land on a city, it helps because from there we realized New Orleans is ripe for horror. I started to research Madame LaLaurie and the Marie Laveau and the Axeman [Danny Huston] and all of these mythical monsters, real-life people who became mythical. The funny thing is they were never caught. They disappeared into the ether, which I liked.

I knew Nicolas Cage bought a lot of weird stuff, including a pyramid tomb, but I didn’t know he also once owned Madame LaLaurie’s house.
I know. Isn’t it amazing? And everything, for the most part, that she did and does on the show, there’s actually a record of it. We were pretty true to all that. She was a pretty twisted sister.

Ryan Murphy on the Premiere of AHS: Coven