'American Horror Story: Coven's' Jessica Lange: 'You just have to jump in and do it'
Save for the production team -- including executive producer Ryan Murphy ( "Glee") -- and returning cast members including Emmy and Oscar winner Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga and Lily Rabe, each season of the intense FX drama is quite fresh, with a new premise and set of characters. The first season, later given the subtitle "Murder House," was followed by last year's "American Horror Story: Asylum."
The show gets another huge reboot as "American Horror Story: Coven" premieres Wednesday, Oct. 9, with such notables as fellow Emmy and Oscar owner Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, and Tony winner Patti LuPone ( "Evita," "Gypsy") joining the cast for the franchise's third round.
Set and being filmed in New Orleans, the saga shifts between relatively modern times and the Salem Witch Trial-era past in focusing on a school for novice sorceresses, with Lange playing the "Supreme" witch. Paulson portrays her daughter, the school's headmistress, while Bates' and Bassett's alter egos will be nemeses in the segments reflecting the long-ago period.
Evan Peters and Frances Conroy ( "Six Feet Under") also return from the first two editions, and among other performers joining up are Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, Danny Huston, Christine Ebersole, Mare Winningham and -- back from the "Murder House" season -- Alexandra Breckenridge, Jamie Brewer and Denis O'Hare.
"It's been a huge adjustment to try to work this way without knowing for sure, or knowing at all, who the character is at the very beginning and what the journey is ... where the character is going," says Lange to Zap2it, who was Emmy-nominated again this year for the program after winning for its first season. "In some ways, it's kind of wonderful, because it allows you to work very much on the fly.
"The great thing about this entire cast is that you have to be brave. You just have to jump in and do it and not be cautious, because you've got 12 episodes to create [your] character, and you don't always know what the next episode is going to present for you. It's an interesting discipline in a way."
Lange is a big reason, and also was a major conduit, for Bates being on the show now.
"I went out for a drink with my friend Jessica after seeing the first season," the "Misery" Oscar winner reports, "and I said, 'You've got to get me on that show.' I kind of thought it would be maybe a couple of episodes or whatever, and I went in and met with Ryan [Murphy].
"And I must say that when he pitched this show to me, that little kid that lives inside all of us just started jumping up and down and running around and saying, 'I want to do it. I can do it like this ... .' "
Bates' "American Horror Story" role is the fact-inspired Madame LaLaurie, a mid-1800s society queen known to have mistreated slaves. That makes her a natural enemy of "voodoo queen" Marie Laveau, played by Bassett, who says she's read "two books about [Laveau], one that's more historical and one that's her life, but put into a novel form.
"I don't know exactly where it's going, so I'm sort of remaining open, just picking up little things ... along with talking to folk from [New Orleans] and just getting a take on how they see her and what they feel about her, trying to sense her power in the 1800s as this black Creole woman."
Another "American Horror Story" executive producer, Tim Minear, confirms that "some of the bigger themes this year are oppression of minorities of all kinds and, within that idea, minority groups sort of going after each other and doing the work of the larger culture for the larger culture. And there is a very strong theme of family, specifically mothers and daughters. These are some of the things we'll be exploring, along with laughs and scares and a few tears."
For Lange, working in New Orleans has been one of the most gratifying aspects of making "American Horror Story: Coven." She credits the city with having something "that is unique in this country, a kind of power. It has an authenticity that I think is lacking from most places in this country now. It has a sense of history, and the people live in the past and the present.
"When you are on the street there," adds Lange, "there is something that's so hypnotic, it's almost druglike, being there and working there. I'm thrilled, because I've been in love with New Orleans for a very long time. To have the opportunity to work there, it's like a great gift."
A recent Emmy nominee for the show as well, Paulson -- a co-star of the upcoming movie "12 Years a Slave" -- also considers her third "American Horror Story" stint a gift, particularly from the standpoint of the repertory company she's become a part of.
"You really get spoiled doing this," she allows, "because every year, you get to come back and play an entirely other person with the same group of people, probably some of the greatest actors anyone could ever dream of working with ... all assembled in one cast. It's pretty extraordinary."