The fourth season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story has added a lot to the repertoire of FX’s hit horror anthology: killer clowns, a traveling freak show and, in actress Angela Bassett’s case, a third breast.
“The initial [breast] appliance was extremely heavy, I think it was made of silicone, and it started out fine, but after hour number 12 it began to be hot and heavy, and I believe it started sagging. What’s the point of having three sagging breasts?” Bassett laughed, speaking with Spinoff Online and other outlets about American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Portraying the three-breasted, intersex Desiree Dupree, who’s married to circus strongman Dell (Michael Chiklis), Bassett explained how she physically prepared for the role, even as she sat in the makeup chair as her fake chest was applied.
“I went to an FX studio, FX office, and about three women and three men cast a mold of my chest!” Bassett laughed again as she recalled the full makeup process. “I go into my regular makeup artist and she applies the appliance to me so it’s there, basically. Then I go over to the special effects trailer where her husband makes sure the edges and everything sort of blend seamlessly … It takes maybe, from start to finish, an hour, just enough time to check out a Netflix episode!”
Bassett joined the cast of American Horror Story last year when she appeared in Coven as New Orleans Voodoo queen Marie Laveau. While the Oscar nominee knew a great deal about New Orleans and prepared by reading up on the real Laveau, there was no one historical equivalent for Desiree.
“I know that there are instances of individuals who have this sort of characteristic and what they’re called is intersex -- that’s today,” she said. “In the 1950s, of course, they were called hermaphrodites but today the terminology is considered passé, especially in that community.”
As Freak Show is being filmed in Louisiana, Bassett told reporters she regularly hears from people on the street how much they enjoyed watching her as Marie Laveau.
“I love New Orleans, so I was really concerned portraying one of the historical figures of this city,” she said. “I wanted to get it as right as I could, so I was really happy with comments that folks would make, that I was the best Marie or they really enjoyed my interpretation of Marie and they were pleased by and large.”
“Sometimes I do get comments that I’m, how do they say, demonic!” Bassett added with a laugh.
While last season’s Coven centered on a group of witches fighting for power, Freak Show is set in 1950s Florida and follows one of the two remaining carnival freak shows, Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Unfortunately the locals’ prejudices, a serial-killer clown and myriad secrets threaten to end Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) livelihood, along with the lives of the freaks. When asked whether she considers this season darker than Coven, however, Bassett laughed.
“You know, that’s what Chiklis says! I say, wait a minute, based on the type of show you’ve done, you consider this dark and strange?” Bassett laughed again. “But it’s a little dark. It’s dealing with how so-called normal folks deal with those who are atypical or different. So that can get a little bit dark … what’s dark is the secrets in men’s hearts.”
“There’s a little enjoyment in the misfortune of others, not to their ultimate detriment, but we get a little enjoyment in doing worse off, getting into trouble,” Bassett added, citing the exploitative nature of the American freak show. She also told reporters there’s a freak show still operating in California, “But it’s more like the tattoo thing, the sword-swallowing thing.”
That brought her to working with Chiklis and the rest of the cast, which includes Kathy Bates as bearded lady Ethel and Evan Peters as “lobster boy” Jimmy.
“The cast and crew are tireless, they’re dedicated, they’re talented and we put hours and hours in,” she said.
As for working with Chiklis, who plays the abusive and secretly gay Dell, “Working with Michael has been a dream come true. Of course I’ve been a big fan of Chiklis from The Shield days on and on,” Bassett said. “He’s a lot of fun, he’s like a big kid, and he’s so encouraging and supportive. … You do a scene, he just gives you props immediately after, which is wonderful. I love working with him.”
In fact, the actress said the prevailing reason she joined American Horror Story, and agreed to a second season, was the cast.
“I can’t believe I get an opportunity to work with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates in a lifetime, especially at the same time. But it’s wonderful. Last year most of my scenes were with Kathy and Jessica,” Bassett said. “Everyone’s just the ultimate professional and we have a good time because we all have an appreciation for this crazy world and the things we’re asked to do in it. It stretches us and grows us, and the fact that we get to come back year after year and they’ve fashioned an entirely new insanity to play out is a plus, certainly!”
However, Bassett confessed the one frustrating element of American Horror Story is not knowing her character’s full arc, as actors get scripts one at a time, closer to shooting dates, while the writers bang out the next round.
“That’s the thing, we really don’t know what’s coming … that’s the aspect of this that makes it a little frustrating or difficult for us,” she said. “I guess we don’t have input but we might have influence.”
As for what she’d most like to see this season, the answer is simple. “I’d like to be friends with Ethel. We [Kathy Bates and Bassett] were such enemies last year, for all eternity!” Bassett laughed.
She also admitted that when she agreed to come back for a second season she had no idea what her role would be on Freak Show.
“I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, what it might encompass, when I signed on,” Bassett said. “I think it was two weeks before I came down to start shooting that I got the, you know, hot-off-the-presses script. So I sat down to read it and I remember wondering, how am I going to remember who I am? You know? And then you read the stage directions: ‘African-American woman, 40s, hermaphrodite, three-breasted, ding-a-ling.’ You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ You close the pages and have to walk around to process that.”
“If they thought I was crazy-demonic last year, what’ll they think this year?” Bassett laughed.
One of the first twists the writers threw at Bassett was Desiree’s biological and gender identity. While Desiree was introduced to the audience and the freak show as being intersex, revelations in last week’s episode “Pink Cupcakes” revealed that she is, in fact, entirely biologically female.
“I don’t think it’ll change how I approach her or how she acts. I think she’s comfortable with who she is, by and large,” she said. “She’s found a way to work and survive in the world, but she’s always reaching for what she calls normalcy, to have a family and children of her own. So I think it won’t change her. I think that influences how she’s treated by others.”
Those include the abusive Dell. “She’s walked out on him! So she does demand a different kind of treatment, honesty for one!” Bassett said. “But that’s not a desire for her as a freak, that’s a desire for her as a human being.”
Expounding upon Dell and Desiree’s relationship, the actress defended her character’s decision to stay with him until “Pink Cupcakes.”
“I think there was a time when he was kind and good to her and believed in her and made her feel valuable and special,” she said. “But I think there have been those moments in the years they’ve been together where he’s crossed the line with her in his speech and things that he’s said and he’s begged for forgiveness.”
“It’s that same old thing sometimes that happens when people are abusive physically, and I think there’s been maybe some emotional abuse throughout the years, but never completely crossing the line or she’s weighing, ‘If I give this up what do I do, can I move on from this, can we move on from this, can we remain together?’” she added. “I think there has come a point in last week’s episode where he crossed the line of no return.”
Asked whether the scene in which Desiree attempts to cheat on Dell with the much younger Jimmy was awkward, Bassett chuckled mischievously.
“Well, not too awkward with a cute boy!” she replied.
Although the season thus far has added Twisty the killer clown, murderous con men and a demon that preys on freaks on Halloween into the mix, by far the scariest moment for Bassett was in “Edward Mordrake Part 2,” where the suicide attempt of the kill-happy Twisty was revealed.
“When he took that mask off and I saw where he put a gun in his mouth and shot half his face off, you know, the ways the little people treated him, spurred him on to do that, that stuff sort of freaked me out, how people treat one another,” Bassett said. “He was innocent in his mind, so taking advantage of that … that makes me, I guess not freak out, but very, very sad.”
As for Murphy’s recent revelation that all seasons of American Horror Story take place in the same universe, “The only connection I was able to make was Pepper!” Bassett said, pointing to the microcephalic patient from Season 2’s Asylum, who also appears in Freak Show.
“Sounds like a great college term paper to me!” Bassett joked.
As the actress was called back to set, she ended with a heartfelt thanks to those who enjoy her performance as the often-funny Desiree, and praise for the cast and crew.
“This year I feel more a part of the family, you know, having been here before, having established those relationships, not the brand-new girl … I feel more comfortable,” Bassett concluded. “I feel excited, I feel like part of the family this year.”
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.