Angela Bassett Discusses ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’

Angela Bassett American Horror Story Freak Show Interview
Angela Bassett as Deiree Dupree in ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show’ (Photo by Frank Ockenfels / FX)

Angela Bassett hasn’t even thought about Ryan Murphy’s recent revelation that all of the seasons of FX’s American Horror Story are tied together. Bassett, who took part in a conference call to chat about playing Desiree DuPree in American Horror Story: Freak Show, said she hasn’t considered it yet. “The only connection I was able to make was Pepper from season two to season four. No, I haven’t thought about that. That gives me something to think about.”

Bassett’s character, Desiree, is one of the most fascinating of Freak Show‘s ensemble and the Oscar nominated actress says she’s thankful to have been given such rich material and to be a part of this amazing cast. And fans of the series are equally thankful Bassett tackled the role of Desiree as she’s delivered one scene-stealing scene after another.

Angela Bassett American Horror Story: Freak Show Interview

Is your character based on a real person?

Angela Bassett: “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 the 1950s, of course, the term was hermaphrodite but today the terminology is considered passé, especially in that community.”

What’s the makeup process like?

Angela Bassett: “Well, I went to an FX studio, FX office and about…let’s see…I think it was three women and three men it took to cast a mold of my chest area and then attempt to get the color right, 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.”

Can you talk about working with Michael Chiklis?

Angela Bassett: “Working with Mike has been a dream come true. Of course, I’ve been a big fan of Chiklis from The Shield days and The Commish, and on and on. He’s a lot of fun. He’s like a big kid. He’s so encouraging and supportive during the scenes and finishing the scenes. He just gives you props like immediately after, which is beautiful. I love working with him, kissing up on him.”

Do you think the material is extremely dark?

Angela Bassett: “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.”

The show has an incredible ensemble cast. Can you talk about working with this great collection of actors?

Angela Bassett: “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. 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.”

We’ve seen the beginnings of a friendship develop between Desiree and Ethel. Can you tease anything about the possible friendship or will they team up against Dell?

Angela Bassett: “That’s the thing. We really don’t know what’s coming in the subsequent episodes and the subsequent scripts. That’s the aspect of this that makes it a little bit frustrating or difficult for us. I guess we don’t have input, but we might have influence. We’ve played it as good, good friends. It remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll see that in the writer’s room and it’ll take them down a different road than they had anticipated. That can and does happen, and has happened in the past. We’ll see. I’d like to be friends with Ethel. We were such archenemies last year for all eternity as it turned out.”

When you signed on for this season of American Horror Story did you know what the part was? What was your reaction when you found out what part you’d be playing?

Angela Bassett: “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 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?'”

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?

Angela Bassett: “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.”

Do you think there’s something in our human nature where we want to see people who are kind of worse off than we are and we kind of revel in that? Do you think there’s some psychological basis for why people have wanted to see that, apparently, over a long period of time?

Angela Bassett: “Our human nature? I think I would tend to agree. There might be a little of that, where there’s a little enjoyment in the misfortune of others. Not to their ultimate detriment, but a little bit of enjoyment for them doing worse off or getting into trouble; the whole thing about like, watching a car crash or something, when we slow down, and rubberneck and look. I think it might be. There is, I think, one freak show out in LA, out in Santa Monica, Venice Beach or something. I haven’t visited there, but I’ve seen some footage of that. I think they may even have a reality show themselves. It’s more like a tattoo thing and a sword swallowing thing.”


Now that we know she is a woman is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?

Angela Bassett: “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.”

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

Angela Bassett: “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.”

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

Angela Bassett: “I think she did find someone 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?

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.”

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

Angela Bassett: “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.”

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

Angela Bassett: “Well, I was glad it wasn’t on my face. I’m claustrophobic. It’s amazing. 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.”

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 who provide a little bit of levity to get you through those heavier scenes?

Angela Bassett: “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.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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