Last season, Angela Bassett joined the cast of American Horror Story as the newest member of an already growing ensemble. If that wasn't intimidating enough, she had the enormous task of taking on New Orleans' most beloved figure as Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven. She proved not only could she hold her own against the likes of Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, but Bassett brought a new dominant force to the series -- something that Jessica Lange had provided throughout the series.
For her second season on the show, American Horror Story: Freak Show, she plays Desiree Dupree a "three breasted woman" with a "ding-a-ling." Brought to the freak show by her partner Dell, Desiree is a fierce presence in the series. In last week's episode we find out Desiree isn't a "freak" after all, and is one operation away from living and feeling like a woman despite not having male genitalia as she once thought.
Now with a new sense of place in the world Desiree is left to rediscover herself among the "freaks." Actress Angela Bassett was gracious enough to participate in a telephone conference to speak more about American Horror Story and what it's like to work with such a huge ensemble.
Is your character based on any person in real life?
Bassett: I'm not sure but I know there are instances of individuals that have these sort of characteristics. Today they're called intersex. In the 1950s the term was hermaphrodite but today that's considered passe, especially in that community.
What was the makeup process like?
Bassett: I went to an FX studio. They got a mold of my chest area, and then attempted to get the color and tone right. It still takes about forty minutes to paint it once it's applied.
What is it like working with such a powerful ensemble cast?
Bassett: It was one of the prevailing reasons for me to join the cast. I can't believe I get 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. Everyone is the ultimate professional and we have a good time. We all have an appreciation for this crazy world and the things we're asked to do stretches us and grows us. The fact that we get to come back year after year is a plus.
What kind of response do you get from the locals in New Orleans?
Bassett: I love New Orleans folk. I was really concerned portraying one of the historical figures of this city, who's so beloved and revered. I wanted to get it as right as I could, so I was really happy with the comments folks would make -- like I was the best Marie. I didn't run into anyone that was displeased. A lot of new eyes came to the series based on it being set here and those characters such as Marie Laveau and Madame LaLaurie. This year sometimes I get comments that it's demonic [Laughs].
Did you know what your part would be this season? What was your reaction?
Bassett: I didn't have a clue whatsoever what the part might encompass when I signed on. All I knew is that I had a great time the previous year and if that was any indication than it was going to be a wild ride. It was about two weeks before I was scheduled to start shooting that I got the script. I sat down to read it to see, and I read the stage direction -- African American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts and a ding-a-ling, and you go, "Oh my gosh!" and immediately close the page and have to walk around and process that for a minute.
Did you call Ryan Murphy?
Bassett: No I wasn't scared like that. I knew it was absolutely going to be something I had never done before, and what does an actor create but new challenges? It certainly was one of those.
Everyone says how demanding television can be as an actor. Since this is your second season on the show, how does it feel to try on another character? Is that the challenge?
Bassett: As an actor you're used to putting on characters and taking them off -- becoming characters and doing your research, but I think what I found most challenging about television and shedding one character and come up with another, is that there's this lag time before I get to see what the character is looking or sounding like. We start filming in July and the first episode is in October, and as an actor, you wonder if you're getting it right because you don't have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet. That's the little caveat of frustration.
Are you pleased with the response so far?
Bassett: Absolutely. Definitely.
Now that we know Desiree is 100 percent a woman, does that change your approach to the character?
Bassett: I don't think it'll change how I approach or how she acts. I think she's comfortable with who she is by and large. I think she's had to find a way to work and survive in the world. She's reaching for what she calls normalcy, which is to have a family and children of her own. I don't think it's going to make her more feminine or whatever it might be. I'm open but I don't anticipate the way she behaves. What influences that is how she's treated by others.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on FX on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
[Images courtesy of FX Network]