BEWARE: Minor spoilers ahead!
One of the primary reasons American Horror Story is such a treat to watch is the prodigious wealth of talent drafted to don the skins (in some cases, literally) of the show’s often engrossing and terrifying characters. We’ve seen big names like Jessica Lange, Dylan McDermott, Kathy Bates, James Cromwell, Zachary Quinto, Connie Britton, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, Joseph Fiennes, Denis O’Hare, and Ian McShane among countless others scintillate our senses as well as scare the ever-loving trousers clean off our unsuspecting limbs.
But what I love about this show and its casting methodology is that it doesn’t just aim for the heavy hitters, it also scopes out undiscovered and/or undervalued talent for equally important roles. So, to conclude this week’s ‘Welcome back, Coven!’ barrage of American Horror Story coverage, here are a few tips of the hat to some of the show’s inspired casting choices:
5. Naomi Grossman as Pepper – Asylum
I’m willing to bet anyone who’s seen Asylum has failed to shake from their mind the image of Pepper, Briarcliff Manor’s favorite microcephalic inmate. Though we are initially led to believe Pepper drowned her sister’s child and sliced its ears off, Pepper’s jubilantly playful nature is such that we, the audience, can’t help but be won over by her projected innocence. Additionally, Pepper’s condition also makes it difficult for her to verbally communicate beyond sporadic bursts of single words. However, upon closer examination of her expressions and body language, you can tell there’s a voice stifled deep inside her that is desperate to burst free, an apt personification of almost every single character’s struggle in Asylum. This duality is handled remarkably well by Grossman, who is not microcephalic and had to perform under a profusion of prosthetic make-up, which only adds to the degree of difficulty.
4. Fredric Lehne as Frank McCann – Asylum
In Asylum, there were many possible outsider points of view from which we as a viewing audience could have chosen to experience Briarcliff. We could have easily seen it through the eyes of the journalist turned hostage, Lana Kane, played by Sarah Paulson or from the perspective of Kit Walker, the accused Bloody Face murderer, played by Evan Peters. For me, the choice was always the dutiful prison guard Frank McCann played by veteran character actor Fredric Lehne. Though most might have written Frank off as a cookie cutter tough guy with a uniform, I always got the sense that there was much more to this character. He was diligent in his duties, but there was always this faint stain of regret on his face that told me he was in no way amenable to the dubious goings on at Briarcliff. Frank was the perfect moral compass for our use in navigating through the underbelly of Asylum‘s shock and terror, which is all a tremendous credit to Lehne’s understated performance.
3. Jamie Brewer as Nan/Adelaide Langdon – Coven/Murder House
Originally, Jamie Brewer was going to be my number four on this list, but after seeing her bold turn in the most recent episode of Coven, I couldn’t help but give the girl a promotion for her portrayals of the Down syndrome-afflicted Nan and Adelaide Langdon. There’s always an inherent risk in writing characters with disabilities of any sort. In the writing process, it’s easy to picture how it will play out in your head, but there’s no guarantee that the casting process will unearth your perceived image of perfection. While I can’t speak for the writers of American Horror Story, I feel confident in stating that Jamie Brewer is just about as close to flawless as one could get. What impresses me most about Brewer, who made her television acting debut as Adelaide, is how she imbues her performances with such a strong sense of identity. Yes, she has Down syndrome, but that doesn’t make her any less of a person than all the other characters. Such is the challenge issued by Brewer to her viewing audience and their preconceived notions of individuals with Down syndrome. There’s an infectious vitality to both Adelaide and Nan that almost magnetically attracts a viewer’s interest. It’s no wonder Brewer’s characters so frequently draw the romantic attention of other characters’ love interests; she’s just that awesome.
2. Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow/The Angel of Death/Moira O’Hara – Coven/Asylum/Murder House
This seems an odd choice considering how well established Conroy’s acting career is. She had her breakout role in the HBO series Six Feet Under and enjoyed four Emmy nominations for Best Actress in a Drama Series and even won a Golden Globe for her performance in that show. As if that weren’t enough, she also received an Emmy nomination for her role as Moira O’Hara in Murder House. So then why, you might ask, is she on this list? Simple. Despite her prolific status, Conroy is frequently cast in minor or supporting roles that do not offer her much screen time, which is a testament to her complementary nature as an actress. Take the most recent episode of Coven for example, where you have dominating figures like Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Jamie Brewer, and Lance Reddick comprising the brunt of the story space. With so many other towering performances, it’s easy to overlook the short scene where Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow offers tranquil advice to another character whilst demonstrating her skills on the theremin. That is Conroy’s contribution to this show in a nutshell; she has perpetually been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise aggressively uneasy world.
1. Evan Peters as Kyle Spencer/Kit Walker/Tate Langdon – Coven/Asylum/Murder House
If we are to thank American Horror Story for anything, it should be for the discovery of the transcendent Evan Peters. It’s easy to take Peters for granted, as he’s been in the main cast of every season so far and has gotten considerable screen time in each (with the slight exception of Coven). For me, Peters is the peak of this list simply because the man has literally been dragged through hell and back three times (and is rumored for a fourth venture to said underworld), held his own with Oscar-winning talent, and has lived to tell the tale. Peters, who had only done bit parts in movies and TV before American Horror Story, reminds me greatly of Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad. Both actors’ talent is heavily steeped in an intense emotional depth and honesty and a seemingly uncompromising alacrity to carry out physically demanding tasks for the good of the character and story. These attributes are easy to overlook in a passive viewing, but are anything but simple to carry out. In a sense, though, Peters is at an even loftier level than Paul because he has had to play three different characters with completely different characteristics, a range that never ceases to blow my little layman mind.
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a review of next week’s episode of Coven—“Protect the Coven”—after it airs on January 15 at 10:00 p.m. on FX. And for the love of all that is right in the world, do yourself a favor if you haven’t already and check out American Horror Story’s first two seasons, available on Netflix, at your local entertainment retailer, and via the Internet at large.