Q & A: ‘American Horror Story’ stars Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton Talk About Their Own Supernatural Experiences and How They Try to Keep Scenes “As Real As Possible”
American Horror Story is one of the weirdest and scariest shows on TV right now. It has a fantastic cast, crazy plot twists and a guy in a rubber suit. What’s not to like?
In the show, Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott play Ben and Vivien Harmon, a married couple who buy an old mansion in Los Angeles that, unbeknownst to them, is called “The Murder House.”
I talked to Connie and Dylan in a conference call about the mythology of the show, whether they’ve ever had a real supernatural experience and how they try to keep everything “as real as possible.”
American Horror Story airs on Wednesdays at 10pm on FX
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes
How much did you know about the characters and their back-story going into the show?
Connie Britton: Well, I—and Dylan, you tell me if this is the same for you, but I think we actually didn’t know very much, but what was fun was it felt like it was sort of in … as we were going forward with Ryan and Brad. So, it feels constantly as though we’re back story and discovering who these people are, which is, to me, really fun and kind of adds to the mystery of the whole thing.
Dylan McDermott: Yes. It kind of unravels as we go. I don’t think we know exactly where we’re going. So, it’s kind of fun to just open up the scripts and realize, “Oh, I didn’t even know this about myself.” So, that’s kind of the best part about the show. As far as next season goes, do you know if your characters are a part of it? Because there’s been some speculation that the seasons were each involving the family with the previous family possibly being ghosts. What do you know about going forward?
Dylan McDermott: I think it’s sort of, again, open ended. We’re not quite sure about the next episode, never mind next year. So, we’re just sort of flying by the seat of our pants, which is, again, it’s all discovery here. So, I don’t think we know.
Connie Britton: I don’t know that Brad and Ryan know. It’s such an evolution. It feels like we just really do watch this thing come to life, and it’s really fantastic.
Connie, I know that you, for one, probably wouldn’t have been a viewer to check out this show knowing your horror film aversions. Why do you think the audience has not just been good, but it’s growing, and we’re getting increases week to week?
Connie Britton: I actually really, really attribute that to Ryan and to Brad, and they listen because you ask the question in that way and you know about my aversion to horror. When we first—even when they were shooting the pilot, I was still very unclear about what the show was going to look like. And what I think is so brilliant about what Ryan and Brad do is that they have a very distinct vision that is so outside the box of anything we’ve ever seen before, and they have such a great talent for bringing that into fruition and that’s what they’ve done. And I think audiences, even audiences who weren’t—it wasn’t their natural inclination to like a show like this, I think audiences are really drawn to and really appreciate being challenged and seeing something that they’ve never seen before.
In such an intense show like this, were either of you ever uncomfortable with something that happens in the script, and you try to change it, or do you have any power over where the Harmons go?
Connie Britton: I think we have a lot of power over it, but I also think that the things about the script that make me uncomfortable are the things that are what make it interesting to me as an actress. So, if something was really—like, I mean, listen, I was not comfortable with the Rubber Man in the pilot, and I was convinced that the Rubber Man was going to go. But I really, again, I really—I’m so always amazed that Ryan and Brad can come up with something that I think is just going to be hideous and awful, and I’ve grown to really trust them to create it in a way that is only interesting. So, I kind of keep my mouth shut at this point.
Dylan McDermott: After masturbating in the pilot, what else is there? I couldn’t be uncomfortable again.
Have either of you had a supernatural experience in real life? And if not, do you believe in that kind of thing, or do you just think it’s all kind of made up?
Dylan McDermott: For myself, I did have one in 1989. I don’t believe in this kind of stuff at all. I’m kind of cynical in that way.
But I was in … Louisiana. I was doing a movie. I was in the car with two other people at night. And the headlights washed over this ghost-like figure around midnight in Louisiana.
I don’t know if that’s specific to Louisiana or not, but I did see this. And they did see this sort of ethereal being suddenly, and we all just sort of didn’t say anything for like two minutes. And then, we all brought it up.
So, that was the only time in my life that I actually saw something and felt things, but never saw anything before like that. So, I have to say I did have a real experience. And also, I’m not that person, but that’s the only time I ever had it.
Connie Britton: Well, I also am not a big believer in ghosts, or I don’t really walk around in fear of ghosts. But I have definitely had an experience with ghosts, which was in Italy. I was staying at this really amazing, old Tuscan villa. It was my friend’s house.
And I woke up in the middle of the night and heard all kinds of moving around upstairs above me and furniture moving and voices, and I thought that something must have—some plumbing must have exploded or whatever. And then, I asked them about it the next day, and they said, “Oh, no, no, no. No, nobody was up at night. Nothing was moving. Nothing was happening.”
And then, it came out that they were very aware that the house was haunted, and they told me all kinds of stories and the various … ghosts that they’ve experienced while they’re there. And I have never, and this is my friend’s house, I’ve been back several times, and I never, ever can sleep at night when I stay there.
One of the fun things about the show is the way it goes back and forth between comedy and horror and melodrama. How do you play some of the scenes that can be so ridiculous at times? And has there ever been a scene that’s just been so ridiculous you’ve had trouble figuring how to play it in the moment?
Dylan McDermott: I think that Connie and I try to keep it as real as possible because we’re probably the most grounding part of the show, but I think that’s really important so it doesn’t become just a freak fest. So, I think that mostly we try to keep it grounded in reality so people can be rooted in something, rooted in the family. And every once in a while, yes, I’ve had to put on the rubber suit a few times myself.
Connie Britton: So, that’s always a big laugh.
Dylan McDermott: Yes. So, that’s always fun to put that on. And I think you just have to go with it. There’s no parachute in this show. There’s no net.
We just are all in this together, and I think that’s what makes it so much fun is that everybody’s making the same show here. And we’re all going for it. And so, I think that’s why it’s working.
Connie Britton: Yes. I have to say when I first read the pilot and talked to Ryan about it, I thought it was very serious and dark. And I was actually talking to my cousin about it, and she said, “Oh, if it’s a Ryan Murphy show, there’s definitely going to be tongue in cheek.” I’m like, “No, no, no, no, not in this show.”
And so, but I’ve come to discover that that is, I think, a trademark of their shows. And what I found, just as Dylan was saying, I think we are the grounding characters of the show, but what’s really fun, to me, is I find that I can play the scenes very straight and very real, and they just end up being comedic because of the way they’re written. And that’s always really—the best kind of comedy is the kind that you don’t have to work very hard at. It just sort of happens out of circumstance.
The mythology that’s being created on the show so early on is already incredibly dense. As actors, has it been a challenge to keep all of these plot lines and keeping everything straight fresh in your head?
Dylan McDermott: Well, I think that’s the great thing about the show is the complexity of it. Most of the time people are aiming so low on television. They’re trying to reach that common denominator, especially on network television.
And when you see a show that is so ripe and rich with all these story lines and all these questions, and it’s almost like a puzzle every week, if you were trying to figure it out. I have friends texting me all the time saying, “Is this true? Is this happening? What’s the relationship of Tate and Jessica?”
They’re trying to figure out this story, and I think that’s why people are intrigued by the show is that it’s not so easy to figure out. People are smart, and people really want to have something to watch that’s interesting and intelligent. And this show offers that.
And a lot of television just doesn’t offer that. It’s just too easy. And it’s really the complexity of the show that makes it stand out.
What initially intrigued you about your roles? And then, looking into it, what made you say, “I want to do this?”
Dylan McDermott: Well, for me, I had heard the story on it. I hadn’t read the script. And as soon as I heard the story, I had a huge instinct to put this project that I don’t think I had since The Practice. For whatever reason, I was instantly drawn to it.
And hearing about the house, hearing about being a psychiatrist, hearing about this fractured relationship and family and the horror aspect, this Roman Polanski-esque vision of the show and Ryan and Brad and Connie and all the pieces were just like immediately intriguing to me. So, I was so attracted to it, and I hadn’t even read the script. So, a lot of times, it’s instinct.
And then, when I did read the script and met with everybody, I was just like—it was just a big yes for me. And I know that a lot of actors were afraid of the nudity and the sex and the violence of the show. But I was that guy running into the burning building as everybody was running out because I just thought it was a great concept for a TV show.
Connie Britton: You know, it’s actually—it’s the opposite. I wanted to do something—I wanted to do something that was really, really different from what I had just been doing.
And so, Ryan—when I sat down and talked to Ryan, which was kind of early on in the process, he basically presented it to me by saying, “This is going to be like nothing you’ve ever done before.” And not only that, but it was actually going to kind of turn what I’d just been doing on its ear a little bit, so, going from this wonderful marriage on TV to this completely damaged marriage.
And to me, that was interesting and the style of it being so different, and it just seemed like a great gift and a great opportunity for me to—and I loved—Ryan is very collaborative. And that’s something that I’ve learned is really important to me too. And so, I loved his sense of collaboration about it. And so, I just felt really fortunate to dive in even though it felt really risky and scary.
Connie, your character seems to be the only one that has it together. She’s freaked out and everything, but she’s the only one that doesn’t seem to have a darkness about her. Is that one of the things that drew you to playing this part?
Connie Britton: Well, yes. I think that what I was interested in was that she is somebody who’s been very strong and together in her life. And she’s kind of watching her world crumble around her. And I like the idea of somebody like that falling apart and seeing them in conflict with themselves in the midst of disaster.
And to me, I like to play different things as an actor, but one sort of common denominator is I do like to play characters that—I like to play women who are empowered in some ways, even when they’re going through crisis or even when they’re going through conflict or difficulty. And so, it’s always interesting for me to, in the midst of that, to find where their power comes from. So, that’s been the fun part and the challenge for me with this character, and it’s also fun to see her falling apart a little bit