Delving into, and contending with, your innermost emotional and psychological fears as society’s most frightening qualms continuously unfold in front of you, is one of the most intriguing aspects that endlessly draw viewers back to watch the acclaimed FX horror anthology series, ‘American Horror Story,’ every week. From eerie houses haunted by its former deceased occupants, possessed and violent religious figures and doctors, vindictive witches and an ostracized troupe of performers in a self-described freak show, the Emmy Award-winning franchise is constantly shocking its cast, crew and audience with the devious and shocking characters and situations it presents.
In celebration of the Blu-ray and DVD release of ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ earlier this month, Shockya was generously invited to visit the show’s set in New Orleans for a press and fan event. Actress Jamie Brewer, who starred as the enigmatic clairvoyant Nan in ‘Coven,’ was in attendance at the event to discuss her experience filming the season. She was joined by Naomi Grossman, who is reprising her role as Pepper from the franchise’s second season, ‘Asylum,’ in the current cycle, ‘Freak Show,’ as well as the series’ costume designer Lou Eyrich, to talk working on the show. The event, which was held at the Buckner Mansion, the location that served as the fictitious Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies throughout ‘Coven,’ also included an advance screening of ‘Freak Show’s second episode, ‘Massacres and Matinees.’
The guests who attended the event on Saturday, October 11, just three days after the series’ record-breaking fourth season premiere, ‘Monsters Among Us,’ drew over six million viewers, by members of the New Orleans Blackhat Society. The society, which refers to itself as a “loose collective of Witches and Pagans from the local community,” and house historian Andie Anderson divulged facts about the Buckner House’s past.
Walking around the white pillars that adorn the porch, which wraps around the entire 24,000 square foot mansion, Anderson revealed the landmark location has become a popular place for filming in recent years. Besides ‘Coven,’ the Buckner House has also appeared in last year’s action crime thriller, ‘Bullet to the Head,’ which featured Sylvester Stallone and Sung Kang, and the 2012 fantasy horror adaptation, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ starring Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Throughout the first floor of the Buckner House, which cotton pioneer Henry S. Buckner commissioned to be built in 1856, every room was filled with various costumes that were featured in ‘Coven.’ The featured costumes, which were created by Eyrich, included the red gown, red lace gloves and red woven belt worn by Frances Conroy during her portrayal as Myrtle Snow; the grey maid’s dress and apron sported by Kathy Bates as she played Madame Delphine LaLaurie; the black and pink Ted Baker dress Brewer donned; and the black Gucci Peplum dress and black leather gloves worn by Jessica Lange during her performance as Fiona Goode.
After the screening of ‘Massacres and Matinees’ at the Buckner House, Brewer, Grossman and Eyrich generously took the time to exclusively talk to the press during roundtable interviews about working on ‘American Horror Story.’ Eyrich expressed her appreciation of the continued opportunities the show’s co-creator, writer and director, Ryan Murphy, has offered her on several of his television series, including ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘Glee.’ While the costume designer highly praised Murphy’s ideas and work ethic, she did reveal how ‘American Horror Story’ has been drastically harder than their previous television collaborations together.
The designer admitted that “every year I say I can’t do another (season), because it’s too hard” to create more elaborate and distinctive clothing for all of the unique characters that have been on all four seasons of the show. She noted that she usually works “16 hours a day, six days a week-I’m on the set (at least) 90 hours a week.”
Despite the long hours she endures on the show, Eyrich instantly changed her mind when she was told the current season was going to be set in the title freak show. The designer admiringly noted that the show creator “always pushes me (to do my best work).” After she meets with Murphy and “he tells me his overall vision and what tone of (the season) is, I go away and do my research. Then I do my tone boards for each character. We then meet again and we go through each board.” She added that Murphy pushes her to do her best work while they discuss their ideas for the season.
With the show creator’s support, Eyrich quickly readapted to the long schedule on the set, which is once again located in New Orleans. She came to once again embrace the schedule, in order to create the clothing for Lange’s character, Elsa, as well as her troupe of performers and the citizens of the surrounding area in Jupiter.
Starting her days at 5am and working nonstop until 2am the following day, Eyrich has to design and fit 36 speaking parts per episode. Many of the major characters have seven to eight costume changes in each show, and she has to finish each one before the actors arrive on the set. While the designer noted the series is rewarding, it’s also very exhausting. “The hardest part is to stay focused because…often we do double up days, which means we’re doing two different episodes on the same day with two different sets. So you have to remember who’s on this unit or this unit,” the designer explained.
The creative process is also difficult because the actors “fly in from New York and LA, and you meet them at 5pm and everything has to be altered. You have to get (the costumes) prepped, aged and out to the trailer. The (actors’) call time is 6am, so you have not even twelve hours (to finish the outfits),” Eyrich added. The designer added that she’s grateful she has a supportive crew, many of whom are local to New Orleans, to help her finish the costumes on time.
While filming ‘Coven,’ Eyrich added there were several challenges in creating costumes that could endure the stunts, due to “the stabbing, slicing and (such action sequences as) landing on a fence through the heart.” So she would create multiple sets of each costume-“we had to have three to five of the same thing”-in case one set was damaged during filming. But there were times when she was upset she couldn’t use an outfit she really wanted, as “you could sometimes only find two instead of three (sets). You’ve searched so hard to find the (sets you do have, and you start) slicing and dicing them, and throwing dirt on them. Then you’re like, ‘I just spent 200 dollars on that dress (I can no longer use).’”
While Eyrich does at times experience disappointment over not being able to use the costumes and designs she originally envisions for the characters of ‘American Horror Story,’ she humbly noted that the actors do approach her after their scenes, and express their love of the outfits she does make for them. The actors at times have mentioned to her that her designs gave them a better sense of their character’s mindsets during their scenes.
The designer stated that she thinks the cast embraces her costumes, as she’s obsessed with perfecting each outfit. “I talk to the actors before I ever fit them. We talk about the character so when I’m going through the sketching and designing process I think about what they have in mind,” Eyrich further explained.
Eyrich gave an example of working with Danny Huston, who played the Axe Man in seven episodes of ‘Coven.’ The actor offered the designer “a lot of input. He actually sent me pictures he thought would work. He did his own research on the Axe Man and he brought a lot to the plate for our first fitting,” she said.
While speaking with Huston helped Eyrich create the look of the Axe Man’s wardrobe, she was rushed to complete his outfits in “a matter of three days from when I talked to him to the day he shot, and all his suits had to be custom made.” Since there were four replicas of each suit the actor wore, the designer described the process of making his costumes as being “very fast and furious. But we nailed it. Through his collaboration, he got what he wanted, and wrote me a very nice email afterwards.”
One of the biggest challenges Eyrich was faced with during the ‘Coven’ shoot was the infamous red dress Myrtle wore before she was burned at the stake the second time. The designer originally was looking for a Balenciaga dress, as it was scripted that the character comes out in a red dress and screamed the name of the French fashion house.
But while researching the process of securing a Balenciaga dress for the show, she realized they couldn’t afford the brand. So Murphy reassured Eyrich, telling her “’It’s not literal. She’s just saying it as a crazy Myrtle thing.’ So we were then able to broaden it out….we hit online and my shopper Bob found (the Carolina Herrera dress they ultimately used).”
While Eyrich declared the dress “was the perfect thing,” she added “there was a lot of stuff in the press afterwards saying ‘That’s not a Balenciaga dress.’ I was like, “Well, it was never meant to be.”
While she did face some challenges on finding the right styles and designs for the characters’ costumes, Eyrich thought dressing guest star Stevie Nicks was incredible. “I used to tour on the road, so I had toured with a couple of (Nicks’) people in the past. Stevie brought suitcases of relics of the past that were amazing,’ the designer revealed about the Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter.
Nicks did try clothing on for Eyrich, and the two talked about the entertainer’s character, and what she’d be doing in each scene. The singer “was so into it. But she did end up wearing all of her own clothes,” the designer added.
After working on contemporary and historic clothing for ‘Coven,’ she turned to the faded glamor style for ‘Freak Show,’ which is set in 1952. “Elsa’s once-great freak show carnival is now a dying art. They’re out of money and they’re being thrown off the land. So we were going to use very ‘Dust Bowl’ sad neutral tones.”
While Eyrich was initially going to make the costumes beige and other neutral colors, once they “started doing the fittings and knew we were shooting it here (in New Orleans), we realized a lot of the outside has this green grass and colorful buildings. We decided to shift it into something much more colorful, like the Technicolor like the old movies of the 1950s. We started watching those movies with these splashes of polka dots, stripes and shiny golds and greens,” she said. The designer also revealed she’s “really glad we changed (the original designs), because it looks much more interesting now on the screen.”
While all of the characters are interesting to dress on ‘Freak Show,’ two of the most notable characters are Twisty the Clown, who’s played by John Carol Lynch, and Elsa, the freak show’s leader. The designer revealed that dressing the clown “was a big transition from what I originally thought it was going to be to what we ended up on. A lot of it came once we met (Lynch).”
But Eyrich ended up working more closely with Lynch than she initially expected to as she was creating Twisty’s clown suit. The collaboration came from the fact that they “knew we were going to be shooting in July and August here and it gets so hot. (Also,) I had designed this one piece but then we decided (Lynch) needed to be able to get out of the costume quickly when they said cut…(Then we could) get him out quickly so he wouldn’t get so hot in the costume. So we had to do two pieces with easy access to get it off,” the designer said.
But the premise that Twisty has been wearing the suit since the 1930s remained intact. “Something happens and he flees and you don’t know why, but now he’s wearing the costume,” Eyrich said.
Another notable costume the designer created was the blue suit Lange wore for the ‘Life on Mars’ musical number. “That’s (another) one of those things where I thought it was going to be one thing, and then I had to shift it. We had a different outfit designed for (Lange). Then one day Ryan turned to me and said, ‘We need a blue suit for Elsa. She’s going to sing ‘Life on Mars.’”
Murphy wanted to match the suit Elsa wore with the blue eye shadow she had on during “the dressing room scene the first time you meet Paul- our seal boy- when he comes in and says five minutes to Elsa. I’m like, ‘What’s with the blue eye shadow?’ I thought I need to design the suit to match that.’”
So Eyrich took inspiration from David Bowie’s famous suit from the early 1970’s and made it more feminine and fitting for the ‘40s. “We gave it the big shoulders and the big lapel. Then we did a little Marlene Dietrich twist to it and put (Lange) in a tie and did the androgynous thing.”
While the suit has already gained infamy from the show’s fans, the outfit “wasn’t (Lange’s) favorite outfit. She got used to it, but at first she was like, ‘Wait–what? I’m doing what? I’m singing what?’ But now it’s become quite the sensation, I hear,” Eyrich further explained.
Grossman, who also found it very flattering that Murphy asked her to return to ‘Freak Show,’ especially after she initially played Pepper on ‘Asylum.’ She’s the first actor to appear in more than one season of ‘American Horror Story’ as the same character. Since she’s still in the beginning of her acting career and working hard to prove her natural talent, she noted that “having an actual (character) name without having a number attached to it was really great.”
While she initially assumed that Pepper would be a very minor character throughout ‘Asylum,’ the actress “really had no idea it would turn into this-that there would be ‘Pepper for President’ posters and that I would be here reprising the same role two years later.”
Grossman was honored that Murphy brought Pepper back for another season, and she figured “it meant I did something right.” But she was initially concerned about her character’s fate during ‘Asylum,’ “when I disappeared after the third episode…I had four, five episodes where I thought, ‘What happened? Did I fall in? Did I suck?’ I didn’t know where I had gone, only later to find out I’d been abducted.”
When asked if she created a backstory that ties ‘Freak Show’ and ‘Asylum’ together for Pepper, Grossman said she feels “like the writers are going to come up with that, and it’s going to be surprising. I don’t want to confuse the situation too much. Whatever I come up with will pale in comparison to what the writers will come up with.”
While she tries not to reveal in the fact that she’s one of the few select characters who aren’t subjected to dying during ‘Freak Show,’ she has “heard that basically (during the second half of the season), we go two by two. There’s pretty much two deaths an episode or so. That’s the rumor,” Grossman emphasized. But she’s still “glad I’m safe. But we’re always wondering, who’s next?”
Getting back into Pepper’s mindset, as well as the physical transformation she had to once again go through to get back into character, was a lengthy process. “I typically arrive on set, put on a robe, lay back, close my eyes, and let them go to work. Two and a half, three hours later, I’m Pepper. It’s pretty much a prosthetic nose, brow and ears, and of course they’ve got some crazy teeth and contact lens for me,” Grossman revealed.
“For ‘Asylum,’ I actually wore a wig (during shooting), because I was trying to go through the rest of my life without looking like a Hare Krishna,” the actress explained about her hair. “But now (for ‘Freak Show’), they actually shaved it, and I think that’s because of Salty, my little sidekick.”
Speaking of Salty, who’s played by Christopher Neiman, Grossman teased that in real life, “I’m an only child, and I like it that way. So having a brother has been a little bit trying for me. I’m just kidding.” (laughs)
While Grossman then insisted the cast and crew is a caring family, she added that “what actor doesn’t (want to be a part of) an on-screen murder? If not murder, who wouldn’t want to showcase the loss of their sibling? Salty presents all sorts of juicy screen-time for Pepper, and for that I’m really grateful.”
Grossman then revealed that while Pepper was also featured in ‘Asylum,’ she’s not necessarily contracted for the whole season of ‘Freak Show.’ “But I am alive twelve years later, so I know I can’t die (during ‘Freak Show’). I do have a certain sense of job security.”
Grossman also discussed whether or not ‘Freak Show’ will have a supernatural element like ‘Asylum’ had. While she stated she doesn’t necessarily know yet if the paranormal will factor into the current season, “when I watched ‘Asylum’ episode one, it was just this cornucopia of all things scary. But I think ‘Freak Show’ is about freaks. This does seem like a more human story, and I think in that regard it’s almost scarier because people are afraid of the unusual.”
With ‘American Horror Story’ being such a free-spirited show, Grossman said she’s surprised “every single time I read a script, I’m breathless as I turn the pages. I just read the newest episode last night (Friday, October 10, 2014), and I swear I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You can’t do that. **SPOILER ALERT** You can’t kill the biggest names in the series half way through!’” **END SPOILER ALERT** While the actress doesn’t yet know what’s going to happen at the end of the season, she is “afraid Pepper might be the only one left.”
One of the most surprising sequences Grossman witnessed during ‘Freak Show’s filming so far was the orgy scene included in ‘Monsters Among Us.’ She added, “I can’t wait for the Blu-ray of ‘Freak Show.’ They have to include that [scene]. We choreographed that. I remember Amazon Eve’s leg up in the air. Her leg is like seven-feet long and one of the little people was swinging around it like it was some stripper pole,” the actress further detailed.
“I’ll never forget hearing Ryan say, ‘Hump the leg! Hump the leg!’ It was just like, ‘What are we doing? What am I in?’ Fortunately I know that this is a legit production,” Grossman joked. “But had I not known, I’d think, ‘What kind of porno did I find myself in?’”
Brewer was also excited and honored when she was asked to return to ‘American Horror Story,’ for a new role in ‘Coven.’ “Honestly, it was amazing that they asked me back. Since I wasn’t in the second season, it was an amazing feeling to be called back. Given the chance to do something different was great,” she said.
The actress also said the transition back into the popular series was made easier because she was close to everyone on the set. “The writing staff, including Brad Falchuk, for sure, is incredible. Brad has an amazing writing ability. The rest of the crew, including Michael Goi, who works on the photography, and Monte Haught, the hair department head, is also great,” she said. “I can’t forget Ryan Murphy,” Brewer also exclaimed.
The actress further expressed her admiration for Murphy by saying he “arcs the characters so well, we really didn’t know who was going to be the next Supreme witch. It was amazing to me that they arced Nan so well that she could have been the next Supreme.”
Brewer also laughed when discussing how there’s a behind-the-scene feature in which she argues with Sarah Paulson over who will be the next Supreme. Paulson, who’s currently playing conjoined twins Bette and Dot on ‘Freak Show,’ stated that she should be the next ruler of the coven, as she’s the biological daughter of Lange’s character, Fiona Goode.
Brewer also said she was impressed by everything on the set of ‘Coven.’ “From the hats we wear to the costumes to the props, especially the axe, everything was amazing,” Brewer gushed.
In addition to expressing her appreciation for the rest of the cast and crew of ‘Coven,’ Brewer also discussed her gratitude for being able to film on location, especially at the Buckner Mansion. “All the exterior shots are on location. The exterior of the academy is out the front door of this house. The balcony shots that included me, Emma Roberts and Gabourey Sidibe, as we overlook Luke (played by Alexander Dreymon), my love interest, and (his mother, Joan, who was played by) Patti LuPone, was done in the back of the mansion,” the actress explained. Brewer’s admiration for the look, feel and history of the Buckner Mansion reinforced the idea that having the right location for an intriguingly frightening storyline powerfully heightens the emotional and psychological scares of any enthralling series.
Watch Brewer and Eyrich discuss their experiences working on ‘American Horror Story’ at, and check out photos from, the show’s event at Buckner Mansion, below.
Written by: Karen Benardello