It’s set in an institution for the criminally insane that Jessica Lange’s character runs, which is a really, really, really fun thing to do because you can write all these people locked up in it. And I guess if the first season was about infidelity, the second season is about sanity. What makes someone sane or insane? Sometimes the people you think are insane are actually the most sane of all. It’s fun to write about people who society throws away.
I haven’t said this publicly, but the new season is set in the sixties and Chloë Sevigny, for example, plays a character who was put in an asylum because she was a woman who likes sex, so her husband sends her away. At the time, you were able to put people away for that. Another character is institutionalized for being a lesbian. To me, there’s nothing more scary than somebody coming to you and saying they’re going to take you away and put you in a mad house and you have no legal rights and there you shall stay till the end of your days. That is a real horror. Everybody has felt people thinking, "You’re fucking crazy." Even somebody saying that to you is scary.
You’ve said the second season will be very much “The Jessica Lange Show.” Did you come up with the idea in response to how well she was received in the first season?
I actually had the idea first. I knew the first season was about a very contemporary haunted house, and I knew the second season was gonna be — if we were lucky enough to be picked up — about an insane asylum done in a very different way. I pitched it in the very beginning, and FX said, “Good. We hope the first season works ‘cause we love the second season.” I even know what the third season would be. There are very, very many different kinds of haunted houses in our culture. And there are a lot of different social topics that you can weave through that sort of prism.
You’ve compared the way you’re working with the same actors in the second season of American Horror Story with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre. But are you concerned about viewers being able to adjust to seeing the same actors in new roles?
I think they will. I think that people will love seeing Evan Peters, who was last season’s ultimate badass bad boy and this year is the hero of the show. It’s not like the actors are playing similar parts. They’re going to look different, they’re going to sound different, they’re going to have different accents. It’s a different time period. The actors are so excited to do that and hopefully their enthusiasm will translate. I mean, I would pay to watch Jessica Lange read the phonebook. And she’s so the opposite of Constance this year. Like, if she was the wilting Blanche DuBois character, there’s not a shred of that now.
Read much more of the interview with Ryan about his other shows and movies at Vulture.