Angela Bassett Talks American Horror Story: Freak Show

Bassett recently participated in a conference call to discuss her initial reaction to Freak Show, the physical transformation the character calls for, and collaborating with such a distinguished ensemble - that includes Jessica Lange and Michael Chiklis.  

Q: Is your character based on any real person in real life.

Well, of that I’m not sure, but I know that there are instances of individuals who have this sort of characteristic.  What they’re called is intersex, today.  In 1950s, of course, the term was hermaphrodite, but today the terminology is considered passé, especially in that community.

Q: What was the makeup process like for you?

Well, I went to an FX studio, FX office and about, let’s see; I think it was three women and three men that took to cast a mold of my chest area and then attempt to get the color right, you know, the color, the tone, that sort of thing.  Of course, the tone is very difficult and it still takes about 30, 40 minutes to paint it once it’s applied.

American Horror Story: -Freak Show Angela Bassett & Kathy Bates

Q: You seem to be enjoying the heck out of this role and last year’s role.  I was wondering when you signed on for this year’s Freak Show did you know what the part was?  What was your reaction when you found out what the part was?

I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, what it might encompass when I signed on.  I just knew I had a great time the previous year, and if that was any indication, it was going to be a wild ride.  I think it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to come down to start shooting that I got the, you know, the hot off the press script.  I sat down to read it to see and I remember wondering, “Now, how am I going to know who I am?”  

Then you read the stage direction, “African American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts, and a ding-a-ling.”  You’re like, oh, my gosh.  You immediately close the pages, and have to walk around, and process that for a minute.  You’re thinking, “What does that mean?”  Oh, my gosh.  If they thought I was crazy demonic last year, what are they going to think this year?

Q: There’s a lot of really heavy material going on throughout every story line and your character, especially the last season and this season, is responsible for delivering a lot of humorous lines that kind of break up the episode’s really heavier moments. Since you’re dealing with such dark material on set for 14 hours a day or so, are there any particular people behind the scenes that provide a little bit of levity to get you through those heavier scenes?

Let’s see, well, Sarah Paulson can make me laugh really easy, so can Gabby when she’s around.  I haven’t gotten the opportunity to spend any time with her this year.  But, Sarah is pretty funny to me.  Michael is light-hearted.  Emma is pretty crazy, especially last night, it was she and I till midnight outdoors in the cold.  She’s pretty funny.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Sarah Paulson

Q: Is there anything that freaked you out on the show, this season or last, that just kind of got to you?

Oh, freaked me out?  I think, well, when he took that mask off, and I saw where he had put a gun in his mouth, and shot half his face off, you know?  The way the little people treated him, which spurred him on to do that.  I didn’t like that.  That sort of freaked me out, just how people treat one another.  He was innocent in his mind, so taking advantage of that.  Pushing him to that point.  That was a lot for me.  That made me very sad.  I guess not freak out, but really, really sad.

Q: Can you also talk a little about this is an unbelievably talented ensemble cast, but even Michael said he was absolutely blown away.  He said it was insane.  Can you talk about what that’s like?  It’s a very incredible collection of all-star talent assembled for one show.

That was one of the prevailing reasons for me joining the cast.  I couldn’t believe I’d get an opportunity to work with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates in a lifetime, especially at the same time.  It’s wonderful.  In some years, I mean, well, last year most of my scenes were with Kathy and Jessica.  This year, mostly Chiklis and now Emma Roberts and the like.  We’ll see.  We’ll see.  Everyone is just an ultimate professional.  We have a good time.  We have a good time with it.  We all have an appreciation for this crazy world and the things that we’re asked to do.  It stretches us and grows us.  The fact that we get to come back year after year and they fashion some completely new insanity for us to play out is a plus.  It’s thrilling.

Q: Because this season’s theme revolves around a troupe of performers - do you feel like the American Horror Story cast is sort of a family of performers as you go from season to season?  Do you feel like more of a part of that now that this is your second time on the show?

Absolutely.  I feel like it is a traveling troupe of performers.  That’s true.  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.  We’ve got some other new faces.  I feel like I’ve been around the block at least one time with them.  I feel more comfortable.  I was excited.  I’m still excited, but I feel more a part of the family this year, most definitely.

Q: Everyone says how demanding television can be as an actor with the hours, and this is your second season on a show with a pretty big ensemble.  How does it feel to try on, I guess, another character?  Is there a learning curve?  Is that the challenge within itself?

As an actor you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else, doing your research, working on that.  I think what I found most challenging about television and shedding one character and having to come up with another is that there’s this lag time before I get to actually see what the characters are looking like, or sounding like, or how they’re coming across.  We start filming in July and maybe, the first episode’s in October.  As an actor who wonders if you’re getting it right because you don’t have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet; that’s the little caveat.  I can’t say it’s a real crazy frustration.  If there were something that you had to call that, that would be it for me.

Q: I’ve really found Desiree to be very sexually charged.  I always kind of thought that it was a survival mechanism due to her not feeling like she was 100% a woman, but now that we know that she is, is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?

No. I don’t think it’ll change how I approach or how she acts.  I think she’s comfortable.  I think she’s comfortable with who she is, by and large.  I think she’s just had to find a way to work and survive in a world that she’s always been reaching for what she calls normalcy, to have a family, a real family, and children of her own.  I don’t think it’s going to change and make her more feminine or whatever it might be.  No, I don’t.  They might write her so differently, so I’m open.  I’m open, but I don’t anticipate it’ll change the way that she behaves.  I think what influences that is how she’s treated, how she’s treated by others.

Q: Do you think she might demand a different kind of treatment now?  I guess, especially from Dell?

Well, she’s walked out on him.  She does demand a different kind of treatment.  I guess honesty.  Honesty for one, but that’s just not a desire of her as a freak, it’s just desire for her as a human being.


Q: How does your character view Michael Chiklis?  Do you think that she really sees the good in him in spite of him being like this bully, this monster?  Or does she him as a monster?


Yes.  I think she did find someone, you know, that there was a time when he was kind, and good to her, and believed in her, and made her feel valuable and special.  I think that there have been moments over those years when they’ve been together where he’s crossed the line with her in his speak, and his speech, and the things that he says.  He’s begged for forgiveness.  It’s that same old thing sometimes it happens, when people are abusive physically.  I think there’s been maybe some emotional abuse throughout the years, but always never crossing the line, and completely crossing the line, or she’s weighing if I give this up, what do I lose?  Can I move on from this?  Can we move on from this?  Can we remain together?  

American Horror Story: Freak Show Michael Chiklis


I think there has come a point in last week’s episode where he crossed the line of no return.  She thought she knew who he was, but she found out she was living with the enemy.  There’s something about him that was dishonest and disloyal.  They were there for each other.  They told each other their painful truth.  I think he crossed the line.  Sometimes that happens and you can’t go back.  You can’t make yourself go back.


Q: What’s the process that turned you into Desiree?  How does she get that third breast?  How long does it take to put on?

Well, I go in. I go into my regular makeup artist. She applies the appliance to me, so that 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.  I guess I can say that.  From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. They’ll start with brown. They spray it on.  They’ll start with the brown.  They’ll go to the red, and yellow, and green. It’s amazing these colors and undertones that they claim you possess.  You’re like, oh, those are weird, weird colors. Then he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own and based on that he’ll maybe go in, and do so more painting, and carry on.

Q: What was your initial reaction when you first tried on the prosthetic?

Well, I was glad it wasn’t on my face.  I’m claustrophobic.  It’s amazing.  You can just a little after about 14 hours of it being on.  The initial appliance was extremely heavy.  I think it was made of silicon.  It started out fine, but after about hour number 12 and on it became hot and heavy.  I believe it started sagging, which I’m like, what is the point of having three sagging breasts?  No, this is not good.  They reworked it and made it out of foam, which I was so, so pleased about because it’s the difference of night and day.  Still after about 12 hours that internal heat, you begin to sweat.  You begin to itch.  You can’t really provide relief because you can’t get to yourself, you know? You’re scratching foam.  It’s much lighter.  It’s much more bearable.  I guess I’ve grown accustomed.

Q: Can I ask you [about the] the material [it’s] extremely dark, correct?

You know, that’s what Chiklis says.  I go, wait a minute.  Based on the type of shows that you’ve done, you consider this real dark and strange?  I think he says dark and strange.  Yes, it’s a little dark because it’s dealing with, I guess, how so-called normal folk view those who are atypical or different.  That can get a little bit dark.  I’d like to think that what’s dark are the secrets of men’s hearts; envy.

"American Horror Story: Freak Show" airs every Wednesday at 10PM PT/ET on the FX Channel.

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