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‘American Horror Story’s’ Leslie Grossman Teases the ‘Layers’ of Her ‘Apocalypse’ Character

As socialite Coco St. Pierre Vanderbilt in the eighth installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology drama “American Horror Story,” Leslie Grossman has drawn inspiration from a real-life socialite on a competing network: “The Real Housewives of New York” star Tinsley Mortimer.

“Tinsley is not as ruthless as Coco is, but there are definitely things I borrowed from her,” she tells Variety.

Coco started the “Apocalypse” season concerned about growing her social media following, but very quickly had to shift gears to focus on surviving as a nuclear holocaust loomed. Luckily, her father had secured her a $100-million spot in Outpost 3, a special shelter set up for the elite — both the wealthy, and the genetically gifted. She made it there, despite flying on a plane without a pilot, and spent 18 months listening to the same song on a loop, eating dwindling amounts of rations, and staring at the same small group of people — until a seeming savior but actual anti-christ arrived in Michael Langdon (Cody Fern).

“I love that Ryan can create this entire universe and do what he wants and follow his own rules, which is why I think his shows have such fervent followings — because they’re so unique and so different,” Grossman says.

Here, Grossman talks with Variety about peeling back the layers of her “Apocalypse” character, how the sets and hairstyles are lending themselves to her performance, and the freedom she finds in not knowing where the storyline is going.

How will Coco deal with Langdon once it’s time for her to sit down with him to determine if she should be chosen for the Sanctuary?

I think that Coco probably thinks this is just a formality — that of course it’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll be picked as a chosen one. The thing that’s really fun about Langdon showing up is that he’s been able to peel back the layers on a lot of those characters.

What will Langdon expose about Coco?

You will learn more about Coco. There are layers [to her]! I can say that. I cannot tell you what those specific layers are, but they are there — things that I’m like, “No way!” It’s been really fun. You will get a full picture of who she is and why she’s there — why she is important to that specific group of people.

With the exception of the opening of the premiere episode, Coco has been confined to the Outpost bunker. Do you find the bottle-episode style claustrophobic at all? Are there things you have to do to shake things up on set?

First of all, the sets are so gorgeous — they’re so beautiful — and the work and the care and the attention to detail that have gone into them. And also, as an actress of a certain age, I am thrilled that we are using a lot of candlelight this year — that has been really terrific. It hasn’t felt claustrophobic for us. The only thing is, because with this underground bunker it is so moody and dark, it’s a little bit like being in Las Vegas when you [don’t] have a sense of what time of day it is. “It’s three o’clock in the morning, who knew how long we were in there!?” It is a little bit of a sensory deprivation zone, but it has not been claustrophobic or anything like that. The furniture is actually so comfortable — the couches and all of that — and it’s kind of nice to be in that moody, pretty, well-lit environment. I would like to be seen in that lighting at all times, so I’m thrilled to be on those sets.

Does the “sensory deprivation zone” element lend itself to the emotional arc through which you need to take Coco?

I have to say that all of the departments, the work that they do is so incredible, from the hair and makeup to wardrobe to the set design, everything helps you. All of those elements come together to really feel that mood. When I’m wearing those purple dresses, and I’m corseted into those things, and I have on the great jewelry, and I have really ornate hair this year — all of those little pieces lend themselves, they do a lot of the work for you.

Have you been able to leave the bunker?

I visited Ms. [Sarah] Paulson while she was directing, so that was really, really special and fun. I don’t want to tip anything, but I think it’s going to be fun for people who have watched the show for many seasons, getting to revisit things. I think they’re honoring how much people love and are attached to past seasons.

In speaking to Coco’s hair, it really unraveled in the first 18 months, but then was back to being so well-put-together once Langdon arrived. 

Michelle Ceglia, who does hair on the show and is truly brilliant and has a few Emmys under her belt, has really taken Coco’s hair and run with it. They really wanted [Coco] to have different hair in every single scene, basically, so the 18 months later when you cut and my hair just looks bananas, we’d had nothing to do and Mr. Gallant had just been tripping out and probably teasing out my hair for days and days and days. I honestly have very little to do with my hair — that is Michelle’s creative process, and I just let her do what she wants. She puts a tremendous amount of thought behind it and is very specific about which scene it will be in and why.

It seems like Gallant would be spiraling worse now after his ordeal with Langdon, and taking it out on, or neglecting, Coco’s hair, though.

Maybe that’s the one place he feels he can control.

With this being your second season in the “American Horror Story” universe, how has your process of finding the character evolved, now that you are a bit more used to going into scenes without knowing much about a character’s backstory or even where she’s going throughout the season?

It is certainly very different to work when you have no idea what happens in the next episode, you don’t know what your character’s arc is going to be. But I actually find it incredibly freeing because when you audition and you get the material really far in advance, you have this feeling of, “Well it better be perfect,” and so you flip out and you really attach to these choices that you make. And then when you get an audition that’s a cold reading, I always find that I tend to do better in those circumstances because I have to make an immediate choice and stick with that choice. I also like that because I don’t know what’s happening next I’m not playing towards something. I have to be very present in that moment, make it just about that scene, and it is the way that that show works and it’s actually been good for me because I am a control freak — someone who wants to know as much as I can in advance and plan as much as I can in advance, and there is no planning to be done. So in a weird way it’s relaxing and freeing because I can turn myself over to the process. And everybody else is in the same boat, so it’s not like somebody else is at a huge advantage; we’re all doing this together, so it sort of increases camaraderie. You bond on that adrenaline.

How much have you found yourself leaning on directors, even if they are different week to week, versus just trying things a variety of different ways on set?

There is a lot of discussion that happens on set about what’s happening in this scene, is this where we want to go with it? The directors and producers are very open to having big discussions about, what does this mean? There’s always a producer on set. They can confirm for you what you’re thinking. You’re working with people who are really at the top of their game, so I feel really comfortable with them and that they know exactly what they’re doing. I trust them — that if I’m making choices that aren’t correct someone will come in and say, “Try it this way.”

Have there been moments so far this season where you were asked to try something a different way because it tipped too much to come or was radically different from where she needed to go?

No, that hasn’t happened, but because this is a crossover season, there are questions about what happened in Season 3 and what does that mean? There is a lot of discussion about past seasons and how this connects to what we’re shooting right this minute — because I wasn’t in those past seasons. Even though I watched them, I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge in my head. So it’s been a learning curve.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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