Interview: Angela Bassett

Written by Eric Gallegos

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Angela Bassett has taught us a lot over the years.

She’s taught us what love’s got to do with it, how to exhale and most importantly, how to get our groove back.

Now, with grace, elegance and intensity she is teaching us how it is to have three breasts and a ding-a-ling.

The Oscar-nominated actress is currently thrilling us in her role as the “hermaphrodite” Desiree Dupree on FX’sAmerican Horror Story: Freak Show. While only appearing in a handful of episodes you can’t help but like Desiree. Her strong and immersive personality coupled with her character’s recent revelation make her own of the most compelling players in a series rife with fantastical, larger-than-life characters.

Pop-Break had an opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with Basset. The veteran actress discussed what a great opportunity it was to work with such a talented ensemble as being a veteran of the American Horror Story ensemble, Desiree’s evolution and some wild AHS “all the season connects” theories. During the interview, she spoke in such an ecstatic tone — you can really tell she’s having a blast time playing the character of Desiree.

Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Is you character based on anyone in real life?

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

What was the makeup process like for you?

I go into my regular makeup artist. She applies the appliance [the third breast] to me, so that it’s there basically. Then I go over to the special effects trailer where her husband makes sure the edges and everything sort of blend seamlessly. I guess I can say that. From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. They’ll start with brown. They spray it on. They’ll go to the red, and yellow, and green. It’s amazing these colors and undertones that they claim you possess. You’re like, oh, those are weird, weird colors. Then he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own and based on that he’ll maybe go in, and do so more painting, and carry on.

Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX
Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX

What it’s like on the show working with FX and also working with Michael Chiklis?

The work environment is really wonderful. I mean, it’s a hectic, fast-paced sort of work environment, but the cast, the crew are tireless. They’re dedicated. They’re talented as heck. We put hours and hours in. There’s nothing but support from the network, which it’s evident from being picked up for another season, I believe I heard, after airing of the first show. That’s just indicative of the support that we experience.

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 of “do the scenes and finish the scenes.” He just gives you props immediately after, which is beautiful. I love working with him, kissing up on him.

Do you think the material on this season is extremely dark?

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?” 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.

Can you also talk about this unbelievably talented ensemble cast? It’s a very incredible collection of all-star talent assembled for one show.

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. Everyone is just an ultimate professional. We have a good time.  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.

Photo Credit:  Michele K. Short/FX
Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/FX

We saw the beginnings of a friendship develop between Desiree and Ethel (Kathy Bates), can you tease anything about the possible friendship or will they team up against Dell?

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 then they had anticipated. That can, and does happen, and has happened in the past. I’d like to be friends with Ethel.  We were such archenemies last year for all eternity as it turned out.

You seem to be enjoying the heck out of this role and last year’s role. When you signed on for this year’s episode for Freak Show did you know what the part was?  What was your reaction when you found out what the part was?

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, you know, 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?

Angela Bassett on American Horror Story: Coven Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Angela Bassett on American Horror Story: Coven Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Everyone says how demanding television can be as an actor with the hours, and this is your second season on a show with a pretty big ensemble. How does it feel to try on another character? Is there a learning curve?

As an actor you’re used to putting on characters, taking them off, becoming someone else, doing your research, working on that. What I found most challenging about television and shedding one character and having to come up with another is that there’s this lag time before I get to actually see what the characters are looking like, or sounding like, or how they’re coming across. We start filming in July and maybe, the first episode’s in October. As an actor you’re wondering if you’re getting it right because you don’t have the immediate reaction of the audience just yet; that’s the little caveat. I can’t say it’s a real crazy frustration. If there were something that you had to call that, that would be it for me.

Desiree seems to be very sexually charged and it [originally came off as] a survival mechanism due to her not feeling like she was 100% a woman. Now now that we know that she is, is that going to change how you approach the character and how Desiree acts?

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. 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. 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.

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

There was a time when he was kind, and good to her, and believed in her, and made her feel valuable and special. There have been moments over those years when they’ve been together where he’s crossed the line with her in the things that he says. He’s begged for forgiveness. It’s that same old thing sometimes it happens, when people are abusive physically. There’s been 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 that 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.

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One of the things on the show, clowns particularly, scare [a lot of people].  Is there anything that freaked you out on the show, this season or last, that just kind of got to you?

Oh, freaked me out? I think, well, when [Twisty] 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.

Ryan Murphy says that the seasons are all connected. Any idea how Desiree or Marie will both fit into the larger picture?

The only connection I was able to make was Pepper from Season 2 to Season 4. No, I haven’t thought about that. That gives me something to think about. Have you? Sounds like a great college term paper to me.

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

Sarah Paulson can make me laugh really easy, so can Gabby (Gabourey Sidibe) 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.

additional writing by bill bodkin

Catch Angela Bassett on American Horror Story: Freak Show every Wednesday night on FX

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