Cody Fern followed up an acclaimed role in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” with a devilish role as Michael Langdon in “American Horror Story: Apocalypse.” The role gave him the opportunity to work alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest actress earned him a whole new wave of fans.
Fern recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about how he got involved in “American Horror Story,” how is unable to fully put Michael to rest, and whether he will have a role in the upcoming ninth season. Watch the exclusive webchat above or read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Last year you appeared in a pretty key role in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which Ryan Murphy also produces, so when it came to “American Horror Story,” was it just a matter of Ryan approaching you for the role or how did you first get involved?
Cody Fern: Ryan called me into his office shortly after “Versace” had finished. I had just gone off to do “House of Cards” and I’d come back to do some final things on “Versace” and Ryan called me into his office and asked me, “What is it that you actually want to do?” We kind of had a discussion about what I wanna do as an artist and what I want to achieve as an actor and he said, “You know who you need to be working with? The greatest women.” And I said, “Yeah, I know. It’s a dream of mine to work with Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange.” Through the magic of Ryan Murphy, he made that happen. I was really thrilled. The idea he pitched me at the beginning was not the character I ended up playing, which was also a really exhilarating ride.
GD: At what point did you know that not only were you about to play the Antichrist but that you would actually end up playing such a big role in this season?
CF: I knew that I was playing Michael Langdon two days before we started filming so up until two days before, we had done some makeup tests and some hair tests and was starting to piece together that I was no longer playing who I perceived to be the hero of the piece, that I was going to be having a much darker role but I didn’t have any idea that it was Michael Langdon until two days before. They changed the character name ‘cause it was so under wraps. Then, that was kind of launched off so that’s when I knew. I didn’t know how big my role was going to be. I was just so grateful that it was as large as it was and they kept sticking it in there and fighting for me. I was really happy about it.
GD: What was the process of just figuring out how you were gonna tackle this role of Michael? Did you study previous depictions of the Antichrist in movies or TV or read the Bible, dealing with this sort of subject?
CF: I’m not a religious person but I am very interested in theology and particularly the intersection of theology and philosophy so I really wanted to understand when the Armageddon happens, what could bring that about from the perspective of a very damaged human being? What could cause somebody to do that? I did read the Bible. I read the Old Testament and the New Testament and I read other texts over the course of my study of theology. That wasn’t so much helpful as absorbing, taking in everything that was happening in America and in the world at that time, everything that was circulating in the ether. It was really about what was happening politically and what was happening in terms of the dark bent that society has taken on at the moment. There’s an obsession with serial killers and the dark mind and where people go wrong. The first challenge was I can’t play evil. There’s no way I can play evil. It’s a concept. You’re gonna fall into big trouble playing that. Looking at other versions of the Antichrist is not gonna help me because it’s not this story. It’s not these people and this world that Ryan has constructed. I did a lot of reading about different philosophies. I read a lot of Ayn Rand, which I like very much. I really looked at what it is to be motherless and to have an absent father. That’s what started to inform my choices with Michael, because he’s a young boy at heart. Things are spiraling out of control for him really quickly. Once I got all of those ideas, ideas, ideas attacking you and you’re trying to figure it out, then you just actually have to let go and play a human being. When I was able to really land in Michael’s skin as a very overwhelmed and afraid and emotionally needy and dependent boy, this man-child, I was able to then love him and leap off and fight for his worldview but it was about the humanization.
GD: I was really just fascinated by how it’s really gradually revealed in some ways how not in control he really is of his own destiny. This is forced upon him in some ways.
CF: That’s one of the great exhilarations of working on “American Horror Story” is you actually don’t know where it’s going as the actor. You are receiving scripts sometimes the night before you’re shooting the next episode because we’re really churning it out. You shoot and you shoot and you shoot and they’re premiering and it’s airing. You don’t know where it’s going. The writers keep a lot of things secret from you. They obviously tell you what you need to know. There’s this wonder of falling into, “Who’s this Michael Langdon, ‘cause I didn’t know him a week ago?” You’re constantly having to adapt to new scenarios, to new motivations, to new information and sometimes to fight for what you believe is right, but the majority of the time to just be grateful and take in the incredible writing that you’re getting and the wonder of the world that Ryan Murphy delivers to you. Particularly, that storyline fascinated me because we go from seeing, and how I played Michael, this very in control, very precise, scalpel in his precision, and he knows exactly what he wants, he knows how to get it. He’s at the full height of his powers, intellectually and sexually and emotionally. He understands his purpose and then we start to go back in time and all of that work that I’d done to establish that Michael when we come to understand how Michael has actually gotten here, if you go back and you watch the season in some way you go, “Ah, he’s not so in control. He’s really doing this because he has a vengeance for Cordelia,” which I loved. Sarah Paulson, what an actress! She’s the real deal.
GD: The way things end for Michael at the end of the season, where I guess you could say it’s like the thought experiment of, “Would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler” to prevent what was to come. I wanted to ask you hypothetically if you thought that that was the right move for everyone, ultimately?
CF: I don’t generally like to comment on interpretations of things, purely and simply because I think there’s a lot of ways to read the ending and what I liked about the ending, in particular, was that it presents the moral dilemma of what is right and what is wrong, and finally, you can’t stop the devil. He’s breaking down the door. So you got Michael but you have this other incarnation that has now been born, which is tragic in some ways also for Michael because you realize he’s being used. The son of Satan is not loved. He’s a conduit. There’s a lot, and for me, I don’t know how to act if I’m not completely in the skin of the character. Something about it always tears my soul asunder and I have a really hard time. That day shooting Michael’s death scene was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It stands alongside shooting the death scene of David Madson. It was difficult because for me, is it right or is it wrong? The way that I lived it was that there was this boy with these proclivities he couldn’t control, that he didn’t understand, that weren’t coming from him. It’s like having some form of schizophrenia. Very violent schizophrenia. I’m not justifying it. Nobody’s helping him. Everybody’s abandoning him. Everybody’s leaving him. Constance kicks him out of her house. We know later how much everyone uses him, so it’s a sad ending for Michael because it is the baby Hitler question, of, “Would you go back and would you do this?” It’s a hard one to answer, philosophically.
GD: It is. I don’t even know what I would say, honestly. It’s a tough situation.
CF: There’s so many areas of gray within it. What I loved about the ending, in particular, was the camaraderie of the women, of the coven. That line that Sarah gets to deliver about, “Satan has one son but my sisters are legion,” I mean… I wanted to say that line! (Laughs.) She said it so well.
GD: Well speaking of that, you did have the opportunity to work with so many great actresses this season. Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Frances Conroy, all the way to people like Harriet Sansom Harris, Sandra Bernhard.
CF: Harriet was so amazing. I was so emotional at the time that I met Harriet. She came in at the eighth episode and I was in this space so I regret not having more of an opportunity to interact with Harriet because I was so in my world, in my process at the time. Kathy Bates has been a hero of mine since I was younger and to be allowed in the same room as her was a dream come true. To call her a friend, as I do now, is unthinkable. The kindness that she showed. Sarah Paulson is just the real deal. She’s my hero. Sarah Paulson, I can now confidentially say, she’s my artistic hero. She understands the craft in a way that is so refreshing and fierce and it’s not just about her talent. It’s about her work ethic. I’m sure so many people go on about Sarah Paulson but it’s true, and it’s true about Kathy and Jessica Lange. Frances Conroy, who is this quiet, dutiful, very conscientious and it explodes out of he. It’s almost frightening in its power, her abilities. I was just so grateful to be along for the ride with these women and to get to act in scenes with them. It’s a masterclass.
GD: It’s an incredible cast.
CF: It’s an incredible cast, not to mention everybody else who is so phenomenal as well.
GD: So Michael Langdon has certainly received a big response from the “American Horror Story” audience with a lot of fans really, really emotionally invested in your character, to the point where some have made montages on YouTube and tributes and things like that. What has that fan experience been like? Have you seen some of these videos?
CF: I try not to as much as possible and not because I don’t like it but because it’s not… It’s wonderful. I think the response is wonderful. I enjoy that fans are so vocal and that they’re so kind and that they’re so giving. I particularly love fan art. That’s something that I’m so new to and I’m blown away when somebody wants to draw you or something. I’m so grateful for the response and I just try to remember that it’s not about me. It’s more about the work. It has a life of its own. I’m glad to interact with people now. It was overwhelming at first, I think, because I went from obscurity and particularly my life before acting was so obscurely different from how it is now. It took some adjusting. But now, I feel like I’ve come into my own a little bit more and I can hold my center. Particularly with fans, I love being able to be so giving because they are and it’s a wonderful response. I’m so glad people loved Michael Langdon, ‘cause I did.
GD: Has it been tough letting go of Michael?
CF: I haven’t let go of Michael. I really think that something is happening in society at the moment. People have more an interest in the darker aspects of life. I think it’s very Jungian and I think it’s very much about trying to understand the darkness within ourselves. I think it’s in the King Arthur myth, which is, all of the soldiers, the knights, decide whether they’re gonna enter the forest and all of them decide that they’ll enter the forest at which point is darkest to them, that they perceive to be the darkest. I think it really says something about walking into the heart of darkness and not embracing it in the way that it consumes you but about reining it in, about understanding it, about knowing what it is and searching in the places that you least wanna look. I got to do that with Michael Langdon. I got to go to some really dark places, and it’s fun. Playing out those dark things, that scene with Sarah where it’s long-haired Langdon, who was my favorite Langdon to play, ‘cause he was just so lascivious, he’s so in control. To be in a room with Sarah Paulson where she had that deformity on her back and to be playing this power game that ultimately ends in, “Take off your dress,” talk about what was happening in the culture at the time. It’s fun to investigate the other side of the coin and I understand it a little bit more now. I do need to say because it sounds like I am in some way fetishizing it, it’s the easier side of the coin. It’s easier to be dark. It’s easy to be evil. It’s cheap in life, but in acting it’s fun.
GD: Right, that makes sense. Speaking of working with great actresses, I wanted to touch on this quickly. You did have a recurring guest spot on the final season of “House of Cards” where you starred alongside great actresses like Robin Wright and Diane Lane. You’re playing this tech-savvy son of Diane Lane’s character who discovers some uncomfortable truths about his past. What was it like stepping onto that set of that final season, especially after they had also gone through a tumultuous moment?
CF: I had been watching “House of Cards” since before I started acting. It was a dream come true and particularly with Robin. I had been a fan of Robin since “Hurly Burly,” which Kevin [Spacey] was also in. It was an experience. It was a very interesting world to be a part of. It’s a very different rhythm. It’s a very different language. Obviously, there was a lot of tumult but I was very proud of what we were able to achieve and particularly for Claire Underwood. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of saying that it’s been about this woman all along and let’s stand behind her. That was the most important aspect of that, for me.
GD: It was just announced this week that “American Horror Story” Season 9 is gonna be called “1984.”
CF: “1984.” I wanna do it!
GD: Super intriguing, yes. We still have no idea if you’re even involved in it.
CF: Neither do I. That’s how Ryan rolls. We’ll wait and see. I have a pretty full dance card but I would certainly like to be a part of it. Ryan! But I’m super thrilled about the 1980s. I love the ‘80s, especially thinking back to the Blitz kids and the fashion and the hair. That’s right up my alley.
GD: We’ll see what happens. I think a lot of fans are definitely hoping you show up again.
CF: Oh, that’s nice.
GD: Thank you so much Cody Fern and best of luck at this year’s Emmys.
CF: Oh, that’s right! The Emmys!