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It’s tradition when American Horror Story comes to PaleyFest that series co-creator Ryan Murphy reveals more information about the upcoming season, and on Friday – the closing night of the annual celebration of television in Los Angeles – he didn’t disappoint: Michael Chiklis will join the cast of the 1950s-set Freak Show as the father of Evan Peters’ character and the ex-husband of Kathy Bates’ character.
It not only marks the return of Chiklis to FX, where he played Detective Vic Mackey for seven seasons on The Shield, but the culmination of Murphy’s efforts to bring the Emmy winner into the show’s repertory of actors that includes Bates, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson.
Reflecting on their first meeting, Chiklis said he told Murphy, “I’m terrified and I’m going to do it.” He hinted that the material, still a guarded secret, not only scared him on a visceral level, but made him wonder if he would be up to the challenge. “As actors, that what we love to do,” he said. “To take risks and take chances and do things that are challenging.”
“We’re going to scare you,” he added.
Following a screening of the Season 3 episode “Burn, Witch. Burn!,” in which Frances Conroy’s character is set ablaze at the stake, Murphy and Chiklis were joined on stage by stars Bates, Paulson, Conroy, Peters, Gabourey Sidibe, Denis O’Hare, Jamie Brewer, Angela Bassett and Emma Roberts, co-creator Brad Falchuk and producers Dante Di Loreto and Tim Minear.
Conroy revealed the toughest part of shooting that episode was allowing the dogs to get at the kibble sprinkled around her body to make it appear as if they were nibbling at her character’s charred flesh. “These dogs didn’t recognize me” she said. “I felt these dogs coming at me and remember thinking, ‘I’m a little worried!'”
Bassett, who appeared on stage carrying the prop of Bates’ severed heard, said she delighted in playing a villain. “It was so much fun,” she recalled. “It was good that [the fans] were pleased and excited by it. I was, too, because you can only play good for so long.”
Bates recalled how she first learned of her character’s fate. “I went to the studio one Friday to get my hand cast,” she said. “I was almost out the door, and I had this premonition, then they said, ‘We need you to come back in and get your head cast.’ I kind figured it out from there.”
She also remembered the hard time the cast had getting through the scene in which Bates’ head is revealed in a box on a table. The sequence required the actress to stick her head through a cut-out in the table so Lange and Paulson would see her inside upon opening the box. “[Jessica and Sarah] open the box and they’re in hysterics! I thought, ‘We’re never going to get through this scene!’ And I said to Jess, ‘It’s come to this. Classically trained and it’s come to this.'”
Murphy credits that training as one of Coven‘s greatest assets. “To be honest, it was just the most amazing group of women to be on TV,” he said of why the season resonated with the audience. Although the network always supports them, the creator remembered a research group warned that a predominately female cast might lead to a downturn in ratings. “‘It feels more niche,’ they said. [I think] it took off because of the amazing talent we were able to wrangle for this past season.”
Asked why they chose to focus on witches, Falchuk explained, “Each season is about something behind the genre, and it became this idea about mothers and daughters, and that’s what this season was really about. You can’t have a more female genre than witches.”
While it was a story about women, the season featured Peters and O’Hare in prominent — if often mute — roles, and both actors were game to perform without their voices. “I was relieved,” O’Hare joked. “Everyone else had their little scripts memorized and I was always, ‘I’m ready, let’s go!'”
“It was amazing to be able to not have to learn your lines,” Peters added.
Reminiscing about the season, Murphy discussed how Stevie Nicks’ role came about. “She was one of my big things growing up. I loved Fleetwood Mac and I particularly loved her,” he said. “When I first moved to Hollywood used to say, ‘Ooh, Stevie Nicks the White Witch, which I thought was quite exciting. So when we started to write this season, I thought it would hilarious if Jessica’s character was friendly with Stevie Nicks,” he recalled. Initially, Nicks was only going to allow the series to use some of her music, but after reading a few of the scripts, she let Murphy know she rearranged her schedule to fly back from Europe to be part of Coven. “She’s really awesome, sweet and incredibly gracious,” he said.
The cast enjoyed its time in New Orleans for Coven. Bates admitted she liked her view of the W Hotel’s pool. Peters recalled the frenzy with which they took in each of the city’s famous eateries. Sidibe told the story of the cast’s pre-Halloween near-bar fight. “So we’re going to the bar, we don’t know where we’re going. We’re holding hands and walking in the wrong direction for 15 minutes; there was one person leading us,” she recalled. “Anyway, we get to the bar and the people we were meeting have left. There’s these people, four of them, dressed as outer space; one was a nebula –”
“Wasn’t one of them a Smurf?” Paulson interjected.
“Yes!” Sidibe shouted in agreement. “The show’s already on, so people know us and these people are following us,” she continued, getting up and pulling Paulson out of her seat to demonstrate the next part of the story. “All of a sudden, the nebula glitterbombs Sarah!” Sidibe then demonstrated Paulson’s reaction and the hair-mussing pushback that followed. As Paulson sat back down, Sidibe added, “You are tough.”
“Emma’s asking if she was there,” Murphy said.
Roberts, an avid viewer of American Horror Story, was overjoyed to be asked to join Coven. “I’ve been a fan of the show since the first episode; I was hooked,” she said. “I got a call from my agent telling me there was a part on the show. I was literally playing it cool on the phone, but jumping up and down in my house. These actresses were so amazing.”
Roberts was also surprised by the popularity of the GIF image of her character saying “Surprise, bitch.” “That GIF, I had no idea that it was going to become that. I woke up the next day after that episode [aired] and I had emails from my friends with that in it, and to this day, it’s tweeted at me all the time.” She tried to recreate it and post to Twitter, but found the results embarrassing. “I have a lot of bad ‘Surprise, bitch’ videos of me that will never see the light of day.”
American Horror Story: Freak Show premieres in October on FX.