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Academy News
March 18, 2015

What an Evening!

An Evening with the Women of American Horror Story had more comedy than horror.

Libby Slate

For an evening devoted to American Horror Story, it was filled with laughs.

For four seasons now, the FX anthology series American Horror Story has presented tales of haunted homes, the criminally insane, witches and circus freaks, along the way garnering eight Primetime Emmy Awards, of 51 nominations thus far.

But gather a panel of prominent female cast members from those seasons, and you have the makings of another show: American Ha-Ha Story.

Consider this exchange, for example, between Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates, who appeared together in Coven and Freak Show.

Describing how gratifying it is to act opposite three-time Emmy winner Jessica Lange (not in attendance), Paulson said, “As emotional as she is when the camera is on her, she’s that emotional when the camera is on you. I think that’s a very rare thing, to have a person give you that.” She then turned to Bates: “You don’t do that.”

Retorted Bates – herself an Emmy winner last year – “You’ve got to give me something to work with.”

Audience members roared with laughter, as they did frequently throughout the night. The occasion was the Television Academy event “An Evening with the Women of American Horror Story,” held March 17 at the Montalbàn Theatre in Hollywood, which also featured actresses Jamie Brewer, Connie Britton, Lily Rabe and Gabourey Sidibe, executive producer-writer Jennifer Salt and producer Alexis Martin Woodall. Debra Birnbaum, executive editor, television at Variety, was moderator.

Britton, now starring in ABC’s Nashville, had been fresh off of portraying a small-town Texas football coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights when she was hired for the first season of AHS, which was later subtitled Murder House.

Ryan Murphy, who created the show with Brad Falchuk, guaranteed that she would not be doing anything similar to that five-year gig.

“Ryan is an incredible visionary,” Britton said. “The idea of this was very scary to me, and I wanted to do something that was very scary.”

Indeed, noted Salt, Murphy is the “lynchpin” of the show, “Ryan Murphy is … enthralled with women …. [S]trong women and interesting women and tough women and gorgeous women and glamourous women,” she said.

“Every single kind of woman is what he lives for, and bringing them to the screen and giving them great things to do is what he lives for.”

And those women have come through, beginning with Lange, who was praised by many of the panelists.

Viewing dailies from the first episode, Woodall watched Lange and Britton in a scene she described as “Two powerful tigresses, just circling each other in the room. I remember thinking, ‘We have a hit.’ You cannot look away.

“And it’s every single person you cannot look away from – they’re all so fierce, they’re all so powerful. It’s that combination of Jessica’s intensity and everyone else’s – it’s very exciting to watch. You go to the footage [in post], and you have everything to work with.”

Lange recently announced, however, that she won’t be returning to the show.

You can expect Murphy’s vision to continue, though. For this past season, when he told Paulson that for Freak Show she would be playing conjoined twins and have two heads, her reaction, Paulson said, was, “I’m going to choose to imagine that that will never come to pass. I didn’t know how they were going to do it. He didn’t know [either], but he said, ‘That’s what I want you to play.’” And she did.

Paulson is the only cast member whose characters have never died. Rabe reprised one of her characters, Sister Mary Eunice from Asylum, in Freak Show; Murphy has said that all the seasons are connected, but hasn’t revealed how.

“That was so exciting and so unexpected because when you start each season, you have to say goodbye to this person you played,” Rabe said. “I definitely thought I had worn that habit for the last time. It was so brilliant, tying it together that way. So typical of Ryan.”

Changing characters is like being in repertory theater, the women agreed. They enjoy each season’s ensemble storytelling.

“That’s the best part, working with all these people who are so talented,” said Sidibe, who had regaled the audience with her own animated tale of learning Latin for her role and the hugely swollen lip and other havoc she believes the words wreaked on her. “My best scenes were with the Seven Wonders [a contest of the Coven witches’ powers], everyone together. It’s like being on a playground. It was like we were a boy band!”

For all the levity, there were also serious moments. Bates asked everyone to observe a moment of silence in memory of cast member Ben Woolf, who died in February after being struck by a car.

Bates had earlier said that she joined the show after her previous series, Harry’s Law, had been canceled and she’d had a double mastectomy. “I needed help! … I came to life after all those difficult months.”

And Jamie Brewer, who has Down syndrome, said of being on the show, “It’s an amazing feeling for someone with Down syndrome. I love it.”

She is fascinated by the show’s costumes, and modeled on the catwalk during New York Fashion Week in February. “I couldn’t have done this without all you guys.”

The next installment of AHS, titled Hotel, begins airing this fall. Lady Gaga has been announced for the cast, but when the women on stage were asked who would be returning, they kept silent; only Salt raised her hand.  

The event was a presentation of the Academy’s Activities Committee, co-chaired by Tony Carey and Michael A. Levine.

Watch a replay of the evening here.

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