Jessica Lange is once again clad in black and doling out painfully severe punishment on the set of FX’s American Horror Story. But while last year she portrayed the severe nun (and caning enthusiast) Sister Jude on AHS: Asylum, this go-round Lange stars as the glamorous Fiona, a powerful witch (and couture enthusiast). Standing on the New Orleans set of AHS’ latest incarnation, Coven, Lange lectures her young student witch Madison (Emma Roberts) about a recent public display of magic that went awry. ”You were a sloppy little witch bitch,” chides Fiona, decked out in a Gucci peplum dress. ”And sloppy’s going to put us all in jeopardy.” Counters Madison, ”Go to hell, you stupid hag!” With a casual flick of the wrist, as if she were swatting away a fly, Fiona sends Madison flying across the room into the wall. No cutesy Bewitched-style nose crinkles in this world. ”I just came up with that this morning,” Lange says later of the magical hand gesture. ”I thought maybe the best thing is just to keep it as simple as possible and make it like a mother scolding a child. I don’t want to make it into too much hocus-pocus.”
Don’t worry, Ms. Lange — when it comes to American Horror Story, too much is never enough. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s acclaimed, devilishly outlandish anthology series — nominated for a field-best 17 Emmys this year — is rebooting once again with a fresh premise (witches living in modern-day New Orleans) and several returning cast members (Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare) in new roles. While last season, set in a 1960s mental asylum, was unapologetically bleak (see: a legless, boil-covered dying Chloë Sevigny crawling toward a playground of children), Coven will be a little more fun. Says executive producer Tim Minear, ”I would say it’s not as grim…. It’s definitely horror and it’s definitely intense. But there’s more of a wink.” (Case in point, the first episode is called ”Bitchcraft.”) New faces this season include a stellar roster of actresses: Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, and Kathy Bates. But one thing hasn’t changed about AHS: the level of secrecy employed by Murphy and his team…even for those stars who came to the table with an Academy Award. ”I’ve only read the first four [scripts],” says Bates, who asked her friend Lange last year to lobby Murphy for a job on the series. ”I have no idea where it’s going to go, but it’s just a kick-ass season.”
As with the previous installments, the idea to tackle witches came from Murphy’s wild imagination. But the topic also seemed a natural fit given the show’s ongoing theme of female empowerment. That said, adds Minear, ”female power doesn’t always necessarily mean good power. I mean, Dorothy’s great, but the Wicked Witch of the West is awesome.” In Coven’s universe, the WWOTW would be Lange’s Fiona. Labeled a ”Supreme” for her mighty magical abilities, Fiona is witch royalty, descended from Salem, Mass., spell casters.
The murder of a young witch near New Orleans inspires Fiona to return home from L.A., where she’s been living the high life, and reunite with her estranged daughter, Cordelia (Paulson), the headmistress of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. (Like an all-girls Hogwarts, the school has been a safe haven for young witches since 1868.) The student body — and witchy bloodline — is dwindling due to coven members who are fearful of reproducing and passing on their powers, as well as forces determined to destroy the lineage. Teases Minear, ”Let’s say that Miss Robichaux’s Academy is set upon by multiple outside adversaries.” One enemy faction is the voodoo witches. ”There’s sort of two formidable clans of witches in New Orleans,” continues Minear. ”The voodoo witches were there first, and the Salem witches fled to the South from the persecution of the North, and these two factions are ancient enemies.”