It’s that time of year again! Tonight on FX, Ryan Murphy‘s hit horror anthology series American Horror Story returns for its fifth season. This year brings us American Horror Story: Hotel, and promises all the twisted visuals, outlandish antics, and general madness you’ve come to expect from the series. As always, the AHS cast boasts a number of returning players alongside a little new blood. Hotel stars Lady Gaga, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Matt Bomer, Angela Bassett, Finn Wittrock, Evan Peters, Wes Bentley, Chloe Sevigny, Cheyenne Jackson and Denis O’Hare.
I recently joined a group of reporters to speak with Murphy about the fifth season of his hit horror anthology series. He talked about how Hotel harkens back to the themes of Season 1, continuously creating new characters for his ensemble troupe of actors, what your favorite season of American Horror Story says about you, how Hotel connects with previous seasons, the Halloween episode, why hotels are inherently creepy, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below
American Horror Story is always a bit of mystery. What can you tell us about Hotel?
MURPHY: It is called “Hotel.” It’s set in a hotel. It’s set in Los Angeles, which the first season was as well. And what I’ve loved about this season is the hotel is set in Downtown Los Angeles, so we really deal with a lot of the American horrors, which is addiction…and on and on. And we were really inspired by the idea of a hotel. There was a surveillance video that went around two years ago that just showed a girl getting into an elevator in a downtown hotel that is rumored to be haunted, and she was never seen again. So that was around two years ago we started thinking of this idea.
When you bring back the same actors, have you unwittingly almost made your job harder because they create such memories in the audience?Is it harder to come up with characters that are maybe the opposites of the things that they’ve played before?
RYAN MURPHY: That’s a good question. I mean, I do feel that I feel the interesting thing for me about the show is it’s almost become a personality test when people come up and tell me what is their favorite season or what is their favorite character. And it always is different, and it changes every year. I do feel the pressure for this incredibly talented cast, as I know Brad [Falchuk] does, to try and give them something different, something that is challenging to them. And one thing that I always do with the cast every year is I always say, “What have you always wanted to do or what have you always wanted to play?” So this is a cast that’s very involved in a lot of those decisions.
But it sort of rises and falls. Some seasons, an actor will be specifically the lead. The next year, they’re supporting. Sarah has gone through that experience. Kathy has gone through that experience on the show; Angela as well. So I feel more pressure to just keep them around. Because one of the fun things about the show, I think, for the actors, why they love it, is because they all have one-year deals. And after this season is up, they can go do other things. That’s what happened with Jessica Lange. She decided she wanted a year off to do a play, which I bought for her, stupidly. So that has been, for us, what is the great joy of it, though, is it’s so unique and so fun to do that.
You mentioned that when people tell you their favorite season, it’s a bit of a personality test. Give us some sort of amateur statistics that you’ve been able to pick up about who likes which seasons.
MURPHY: I think the true horror fans love the first season because it really sort of is a very psychological season and it plays with a lot of very familiar tropes. I think people who really like drama love Season 2, Asylum. And then, I think you get into Season 3, which young people adored and we saw those numbers go up dramatically. The fourth season, I think, was sort of the most arty season, so then you get those fans. And I think that the season we’re doing this year harkens back to the first season, which is much more rooted in, I think, honest, primal fears as the first season was.
What do you feel like is going to be the biggest difference between Hotel versus the other seasons?
MURPHY: That’s a good one. I feel that, for me, it’s incredibly terrifying because it brings out fears that I have, which is people being under my hotel bed. I’ve always been freaked out by that. I think it’s sexier than any other season we’ve done, in particular because of the “Gaga” of it. I would say scarier and sexier…by far the most sexy season.
Do you think it’s going to help you get over that fear?
MURPHY: No. It’s made it worse. Yeah, we’re shooting a scene where somebody comes out of a mattress, so that’s been terrifying. We built a mattress that somebody has been sown into a mattress and was not dead. Things like that.
The idea to link the seasons in some way, did you always have that in your head, or did you come up with that later?
MURPHY: No, I always wanted the show to have a certain mythology because I had never done that in my career. I pitched [that to] John Landgraf the first season — when nobody knew that it was going to reboot every year — that I did want some characters to come back. I wanted to wait a while. We started out heavily last season and it gets heavier and heavier as the show goes on.
You didn’t want people to focus on that too early? Was that part of it?
MURPHY: Well, I wanted to set a group of characters that you knew and loved before they went back.
What can you tell us about Max Greenfield’s role?
MURPHY: He plays a addict. He checks into the hotel and tangles with Sarah Paulson. Again, that’s just from my love of Max. Our children go to the same school and I’ve always loved him as an actor. I love him in New Girl. He and I briefly had spoken about him being in The Normal Heart, but he had a scheduling difficulty. I always just wanted to work with him. I went with him. You know, he’s been doing comedy and I said, “I have a feeling that you can and want to do something really fucked up.”
He said, “How did you know?” so he cut off his beautiful hair and dyed it and then we had to let the roots grow in. I think he’s lost thirty pounds, which is odd because his wife is due to have a baby any day now. She’s nine months pregnant and he’s living on celery water, so she’s not happy about that. Yesterday I talked to him his waist size I think was down to a twenty-seven so he’s really committed to it and he looks amazing. He’s super cool and he does — probably the most disturbing scene we’ve ever done, so he really pushed himself as an actor. I was proud of him.
That’s a high bar
MURPHY: Yes, I would say.
You seem to be getting more and more musical as you go on. Who’s stepping up to the mic this year?
MURPHY: No one. No singing. I feel like that was a fun thing. That just happened by accident in season two with “The Name Game” and then people seemed to like it so much. Then Jessica loved it so much that every season she said, “I want to sing again. I want to sing again,” and I thought for the Freakshow season it made sense. I wanted to do a Baz Luhrmann thing with it, but I think we’ve done that and we’re not going to do it again.
Were you inspired by any particular hotel when you were bringing together all those stories?
RYAN MURPHY: Well I was always very obsessed with The Hotel Cecil that is downtown, which is where the Night Stalker’s rumored to have stayed and where they had the video of the girl getting on the elevator [and disappearing]. That place has had its share of bad publicity over the years, but that was one. I think, in a certain way, we do a very loving nod to the film The Shining in the first episode. It’s a wink and a nod. I would say those two.
When you say that Lady Gaga has a relationship with Angela Basset’s character, do you mean that in a romantic sense?
MURPHY: Yes. A romantic and sexual sense, yeah.
How do you balance the inclusion of these characters in previous seasons without making the timeline too long?
MURPHY: I don’t know. We never think about that. Before we start the season, particularly this year — this is the first time we’ve ever shot a season in the same city twice — so of course in the season some of the characters who were in Murder House, it only makes sense that some of them would probably have had some relationship with this hotel. It really starts from a place of story I think.
There’s always a massive Halloween episode. How are you doing on the Halloween episode?
MURPHY: We’re doing a two-part … well, we always do a two-part Halloween episode, but our Halloween episode this year is called “Devil’s Night”. I’m directing it because I love the script so much…I can’t give this to anybody else. It’s Lily Rabe is coming to that episode and she’s playing Aileen Wurnous which is really fun and bizarre. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will tell you that she’s at the centerpiece of that Halloween episode and that’s who she’s playing.
Is there something inherently lonely about hotels?
Do you think it builds on people’s fears?
MURPHY: Well particularly the hotel that we’re … Our hotel was built in 1930 and it’s sort of an art deco masterpiece and it’s going into ruin that once was were everybody in town went. Then it fell out of favor and fell out of favor and now it’s like a Skid Row, derelict palace. It’s really also a rumination. I feel the loss of culture in Los Angeles but also about how Los Angeles is coming back. A lot of fashion is now moving from new York to LA, which is exciting, so we’re dealing with that. It really is about exploring revitalization and every topic like that.
When you were on the panel, you said about that triangle with Matt and Cheyenne, did you mean Matt and Finn?
MURPHY: Actually, it’s all of them. I’m sorry, I misspoke. It’s three of the guys and one woman. It’s Angela, Finn, Cheyenne and Matt. So she’s quite a busy lady.
Jessica Lange is taking a year off. Is it possible she could return next year in Horror Story?
MURPHY: Yeah. You know, what happened with that is that season two Jessica Lange told me her great regret at this point in her career is that she didn’t get to do Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway. She had done it to great acclaim in London and other people had the rights to that so I spent a year just as a present to her, trying to get those rights. I have never done anything on Broadway before and it was very daunting, but finally after a year, we got the rights and I said to her, “I have a present for you,” which was that play.
That play is happening in the spring and she really wanted to take some time off and to prepare for that part because it is such a massive undertaking. I think they start rehearsals later in the year so it would not have worked with our production schedule. Yeah, I mean, I talk to Jessica all the time and Jessica is one of those actors that if I went to her with the right part, I know she would say yes and she’s said that to me. She’s open to doing another season. Two or three, maybe if the part is big enough, the whole season. That’s always how it starts with her.
As someone working television, what do you make of this season? There are so many remakes of shows that we’ve seen before, familiar brand titles. You do more remixes that you do remakes.
Is there a dearth of creativity? Do you think that it’s okay?
MURPHY: I don’t know. I find it really interesting, you know? I find it really interesting about taking something that worked and wanting to redo it. I don’t know that I would ever be interested in that as an artist, but some people are and I certainly understand it because it’s so hard to get attention now.
If you can get into the marketplace with a title that is known like Prison Break. It makes sense that you as a network programmer would say, “Well, let’s make some noise.” That if those creators have something interesting and new to say as I know they are doing with X-Files. I think that’s cool. I’m interested to see how it all plays out. I don’t think I would ever do it. They talked to me about doing it with some of my colleagues and I’ve said, “No.” I’m interested in new stuff.
Some of your Scream Queens have been on American Horror Story, Lea did Glee. So when it came time to working on these two projects were any of the actors going, “Oh, no! I want her in this one.” Was it hard to decide where to deploy Emma Roberts, for instance?
MURPHY: No. Emma was always the lead of that show and I told her that. That if she was the lead on that show, she could go back and maybe do one or two episodes of Hotel. She decided to do that. Excuse me, I have the hiccups. That’s another example like Darren Chris. I was sad to see him go. I love him. I was so proud of what he did with Hedwig and he had told me specifically, “Hey, I don’t want to do light stuff anymore. I want to do dark. I want to do dark. We were creating a role and that had a lot of scenes with Kathy Bates so I called up Darren and he said, “You want to do a real fucker who gets tussle with Kathy?”and he said yeah. I have great fondness for those actors who are on that show.
You have these great female pop stars. Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Stevie Nicks. Is that just a personal desire for you to have those people on the show or is there something specific that you feel that women like that have?
MURPHY: Well, I think they’re pretty awesome and amazing but with all of those women it’s from a place of pure fandom with me. I love Ariana, I love Stevie Nicks since I was a child, and the same thing with Gaga. She called me. That was one of the great fun days. Always from a place that I just love them.