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Ryan Murphy Talks the Inception of ‘Feud,’ Meeting Bette Davis

Wednesday night featured a who’s who of the Ryan Murphy universe as the writer/producer/director premiered his latest FX anthology, “Feud,” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Starring four Academy Award-winning actresses — Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Kathy Bates — playing four Academy Award-winning actresses (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Joan Blondell, respectively) the new eight-episode anthology chronicles the rivalry between Crawford and Davis as they set out to make “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in the later years of their career.

Lange stole the collective breath away from the gathered crowd when she arrived at a still-blocked-off Hollywood Boulevard in the same classic Cadillac Coupe DeVille that Crawford drives away in at the 1961 Golden Globe Awards during the show’s first episode.

“I have to believe that maybe it would please her,” Lange told Variety when asked how she felt Crawford might react to this story coming to the small screen. “Because I think we’ve dealt with her very fairly and I think we’ve really tried to get to the heart and soul of her and explain who she was and the decisions she made. I think we’ve been very respectful and honest and I can’t believe that she wouldn’t somehow be glad about that.”

“I read everything there was to read about (Joan),” Lange added, regarding how she prepared for the role. “I studied her films. I listened to every interview: radio, television. I watched all her movies. Everything that was out there. I studied the photographs – everything that was available. And then you let all of that sink in and just imagine the rest.”

Sarandon squeezed in her carpet appearance, en route to catching a flight to Jakarta, Indonesia, stopping to share a bit about what astounded her most in preparing to play Davis. “I was surprised, when I started watching her interviews, about how many things she said in interviews that I had also said. Because I don’t have the kind of ambition that she had, really. But the way she saw herself – I see myself as a character actor and so did she — for her, the work was important. I’ve never identified as a movie star, which Joan was. And that was part of (her and Joan’s) conflict — their different approaches to their job.”

Zeta-Jones, a Murphy universe newcomer, explained to Variety how she was brought into the project. “Well, I asked to meet Ryan — I don’t do that with very many people — and he graciously and humbly said he’d love to have a meeting with me. First, I knew I was going to love him and I just wanted to be a part of his team. I wanted to be in his gang. So, I went in and pushed my neck out and he sat down with me and we fell in love with each other. He gasped half-way through our meeting and went, ‘You have to play Olivia,’ and I just said, ‘When? Just tell me where to turn up.’ And here I am talking to you,” she said. “It was everything and more than I thought it was going to be.”

Murphy echoed the same feeling of mutual admiration from his first meeting with Zeta-Jones in his speech to the audience before the screening began. He thanked the creative team behind “Feud” and then regaled the crowd with a story about how he’d maintained a pen pal relationship with Bette Davis. In the last months of her life, he explained, she’d invited Murphy as a young man to come interview her for 20 minutes. The interview lasted four hours and ended with the two of them chain-smoking cigarettes together. Hence, the seeds of “Feud” had been planted.

Murphy also explained how he hopes this series represents a new breakthrough for women in film and television. “Feud” has 15 feature roles for women over the age of 40, and deals with themes of misogyny, sexism, and ageism. It also served as the genesis of his Half Foundation within his production setup at 20th Century Fox Television. The foundation is committed to making sure that half of all episodes he produces be directed by women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community. It’s likely to make an impact, as just the day before the premiere, FX announced that they’ve already picked up a second season of “Feud,” which will focus on contentious romantic relationship between Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

After the screening, the crowd poured across the street to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where party-goers feasted around the pool on fresh burrata and tomatoes, steak with chimichurri sauce, and chicken, while taking photos in director’s chairs labeled “Crawford” and “Davis.”
Attendees included several other Murphy series stars including Sarah Paulson (who also plays a small featured role in “Feud”), Cuba Gooding Jr., Darren Criss, and Adina Porter, as well as fellow “Feud” stars Kiernan Shipka and Dominic Burgess, and frequent producer/writer/collaborators Tim Minear and Alexis Martin Woodall.

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