‘Scream Queens’: Emma Roberts on Learning to Love Her Mean Girl Character

Emma Roberts was in the middle of shooting “American Horror Story: Freak Show” when Ryan Murphy called to tell her he was working on a new show — and that he had in her mind for the lead. She admits she’s nervous — but she’s ready to step in to the spotlight.

What made you sign on for the show?

I love those movies — “Heathers,” “Jawbreakers,” “Mean Girls” — that explore that female high school dynamic. I feel like I haven’t seen a show or a movie that’s done that well in so long. When I finally got to read a script, I was so pleased and excited about the way everybody was written, the way they talk was really stylized and unique. You could tell, just from the pages, that the show was going to have style.

What did it mean to you to be number one on the call sheet?

It was really scary. Everyone kept saying I was number one on the call sheet and I was like, “The call sheet means nothing, stop it!” because I was starting to feel pressure. To me, I was just so excited to work with Ryan Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis. I feel like once you start thinking about the pressure and worrying about what people are going to think, that’s when it all goes downhill. I like living in my little “Scream Queens” bubble and playing the character the way I would want to watch it.

Yu Tsai for Variety

How much did you work with Ryan in developing the character?

Ryan had it pretty thought out. He texted me her name one day: “Chanel Oberlin” — I love a cryptic message from Ryan! When I finally got to read a script, she’s so fun because she’s larger than life in her mind. No one says no to her. She’s president of the sorority. She’s the queen bee. She’s wildly inappropriate, but at the same time, you see behind the façade where she’s in a very bad relationship with her boyfriend and that’s her weak spot. I think Ryan does that so well with his characters where he gives you these in-your-face characters and then he slowly starts to peel away the layers. Nobody is who they seem.

What’s the most challenging part of playing her?

The most challenging part for me is making her likable. She says things that are completely ridiculous and insane and to make that funny instead of offensive has been hard. The second that I start thinking she’s offensive, she’s going to be offensive. I have to justify her to myself and love her and find things that are redeeming about her. Otherwise, people aren’t going to like her.

This is your third show with Ryan Murphy. What has that relationship meant to you?

I’ve known Ryan forever. He’s really good friends with my aunt. When he wanted me to do “American Horror Story,” I was so grateful to him that he gave me that opportunity because it was a time in my career where I didn’t look old, I didn’t look super young. People didn’t think of me for darker material. They thought of me for the good girl, and he gave me Madison Montgomery on “Coven” without having me audition, without asking any questions. I think he’s so genius at picking people out for these roles and giving them chances to do something different.

What do you think the message of the show is?

What I love about this show is that there’s this underlying feel of girl power. As a young woman, that  is so important. I think you hear us on the show and the way we talk to each other sometimes is awful. But at the end of the day, and you’ll see this later on in the season, we’re looking out for each other. We’re going to have each other’s backs. Chanel might call you a bitch, but when push comes to shove, she will save your life and that’s what I love. To them, the world and the killer is scarier than each other. They have to find a way to stick together to fend that off.

You’re all living on location in New Orleans. How has the cast gotten along?

All of us were thrown in New Orleans together, and it’s almost like we have our own sorority within this fake sorority where there are so many different personalities. We always say, “That’s a whole other show than the one we’re shooting.” I’m really glad this show is shooting in New Orleans because it’s forced us to all be closer and to take care of each other. With other shows, it can feel like a 9-to-5 where you see everyone at work and then you go back to your life. We’ve all made friendships with each other outside of work in all different ways and I think that that kind of makes the experience all the more special. Abigail slept over at my house the other week. Billie Lourd and I, we live literally a block away from each other. There have been nights where I’ve gotten scared and I’ve called her and been like, “I’m walking back to my apartment from my garage. Will you stay on the phone with me?” To know that you have girlfriends who are in the same boat as you is really, really nice.

What have you learned from working with Jamie Lee Curtis?

I remember thinking when I read the script, “She is going to kill this role.” I’d never met her before so I was pleasantly surprised at first of all, how funny she is. She is laugh out loud funny. She always checks in with everyone on set. I look at her on set all day, not even the way she is as an actor but the way she is as a person.

How has this experience changed you?

It’s definitely been the hardest I’ve ever worked. I’ve learned how to really focus on work. On “American Horror Story,” I only worked a few days a week. On this show, I’ve really put 110% of myself into it. I’ve tried to focus on being present at work. There was one day where I went up to Lea (Michele) and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to memorize this and I’m freaking out. I don’t know what to do. What did you do on ‘Glee’?” She said, “You’re going to do it and you’re going to nail it.” She goes, “You never mess up. Just go home tonight. Take a bath. Read your script and get some rest and you’re going to do an amazing job tomorrow.” Having everyone’s support, too, it makes it that much easier. The next day, she was like, “See? You didn’t mess up once.”

And I have to ask about those clothes.

It could be a lot worse than a two-story closet and vintage Chanel at work every day! We’ll have finished a 12-hour workday and then they’ll be like, “Emma, would you mind having a fitting?” and I go, “Would I mind? I’ve been looking forward to this fitting all day.” In the mornings it’ll be 8AM and everyone comes to set and everyone’s like, “Ooh, what’s this? This is cute. Oh, what’s that? Who makes that? Where’s that from? Oh, I love that. Oh, you look gorgeous today.” There’s a five-minute fashion show in the morning. Everyone’s already put their name on the pieces that they want and we’re not even halfway through. Luckily, no one has my size foot.

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