After a long career on the big screen in movies like Waiting to Exhale, What’s Love Got to Do With It, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Angela Bassett has become one of the most recent additions to the troupe of actors that go from season to season to season on American Horror Story.We first saw her in Coven as the snake-charming, witch-cursing New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and in this season’s Freak Show, she plays the multi-breasted circus performer Desiree Dupree. We caught up with her to talk about subversive horror, playing against type, and shaking her head at the suddenly sensitive Michael Chiklis.
I love that you’ve chosen to work on American Horror Story. Does working with an ensemble cast feel very different from some of your other work?
I think the great pleasure about it for me is that I started in theater, and I love theater, and this gives me more of that feel. When you’re working with an ensemble, you’re all in it together, you know? And all of the parts are lifted up. It feels like every part is interesting and important and exciting, and there’s that intrigue of “Oooh, what’s she doing?” You sit in the makeup room just gobsmacked, reading the scripts.
How far in advance are you getting the scripts? When you’re about to film crazy scenes are you prepared?
We don’t get them that far in advance. Which I guess is kind of interesting, because we are as surprised as you are; we know a little bit more, but we are equally surprised. This season I have my relationship with Dell [Michael Chiklis], and it could go either way — am I going to leave him, am I going to kill him? Anything could happen in this world, and anything does happen. I mean, you could get your head cut off and come on back! [Laughs.]
I read an interview with Ryan Murphy where he said that this season when someone dies, they die.
I wouldn’t trust what he says — he cuts folks heads off. [Laughs.]
So many actresses and women of color are up against this “You’re representing all of us” attitude, and I imagine actors don’t want to have to constantly reinforce that — they just want to work. Desiree lives in the 1950s, is in an interracial marriage, and she has a hermaphroditic body that she’s using to actively help gay men tackle their sexual issues. There are just so many social issues wrapped up in her body, in her being, but it’s still somehow not up to her alone to be representative.
And that’s a big relief. In the world of Freak Show, it’s not like color is a non-issue — it’s there — but there are so many other issues, internal conflicts, and other conflicts that are very real for some of our actors.
In one of the last episodes that just aired, where Meep was killed, and Jimmy made the comment that “He’s not a freak, he’s just weird.” And the weirdness with Desiree is that yeah, she physically has some freakiness, but she’s just kind of strange and living her life in a way that’s a little strange, at least in that it’s abnormal to the time they’re in.
She carved out the best way to live out her life, to make a living, and she craves normalcy. I think they all do, in a way. Well, maybe Dell is too crazed. [Laughs.] But we all crave acceptance, and I think that’s the overarching theme of this season. That we all want to be accepted. We look different and think different and act different, but you can be ostracized primarily because of the way you look. That was the ‘50s, but it’s still prevalent, it’s always prevalent. We’re all human and in need of compassion.
How does that work on a set where you do have people who have lived with physical disabilities their whole life butting up against people who are sort of putting that on as a costume?
Initially it’s like preschool, like kids going up to each other and saying “Hi!” You know, we’re all going to be here together for a little time. When I got to the set I knew we’d have Amazon Eve [Erika Ervin] the tallest woman, and Mat Fraser, and on and on, and you know, we just all met each other in the makeup trailer, said hello, you shake a hand, and then you have to just broach things through gentle conversation. The last thing that I want to be is insensitive, but I find that asking questions earnestly is not being insensitive. And we have to have open conversations. We come away from this with a lot of respect and regard for our cast mates who have had to battle.
In both seasons, you’ve really been part of subverting some well-established horror tropes and advancing what people think about female bodies and the strength of women. You’ve got women who are murderers and abject killers, or women who are really aggressive.
It’s phenomenal, and that comes out of Ryan Murphy and his love and appreciation of women. He had a man cut out his tongue for one!
Some have said that Ryan Murphy doesn’t seem to appreciate women.
Especially with Coven, where some thought that women were unnecessarily brutalized.
I think he gives us a chance to have some fun, you know?
And you’re playing in a genre that doesn’t always have a lot of fun, or if it does it’s usually very campy. But with AHS, sometimes the campy or lighter moments are a relief.
Right! It’s very subversive. You know, I’m working with Michael Chiklis this year, and us girls will be having a great time, and he’s like, “Oh, this part is so sick!” I’m like, what? You did The Shield and you think this is sick? We have to just pat him on the back and say, “Aw, baby, you’re getting sensitive.” And he’s saying, “I’m so concerned about these writers!” Oh, Michael. [Laughs.]
Without giving too much away, is there anything about this season that you think is going to shock people, or that shocked you?
I haven’t been shocked since I found out that I’d have three breasts and a ding-a-ling. [Laughs.] That made me put the script down, walk away, and stop there. But I haven’t had to do that since then; I just take everything with a grain of salt.