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Leslie Grossman on How Columbine, Trump and ‘Real Housewives’ Influence Her ‘American Horror Story: 1984’ Character

To hear “American Horror Story” star Leslie Grossman tell it, she a bit like “The Comeback’s” Aunt Sassy in the “1984” season — at least in the first few episodes when “it’s all a bunch of kids and here I am, the old lady” in high-waisted shorts, hiking boots and knee socks. But as episodes of the ninth season of the “American Horror Story” anthology franchise went on, her character, Margaret Booth, was revealed to be so much more than just a conservative and religious woman who purchased the campgrounds on which she had survived a massacre in her teenage years.

“Margaret is the extreme ultimate example of religion and money and how it’s ultimately so corrupting and allows people to behave in the most disgusting of ways,” Grossman tells Variety.

Margaret was, in fact, the one actually responsible for that massacre. And years later, when the show jumped to 1989 in its time period, Margaret was no longer hiding behind religion at all: She was an unbashedly ruthless woman, this time in real estate, scooping up properties where atrocities happened and trying to make a mint off of them as tourist attractions.

“When we time jump, I think Margaret decides that her god is going to be money and that is what she is going to worship, and she’s now connected to her truest self and all bets are off,” Grossman says. “When we see her in her religious iteration and her money iteration, I think we see that playing so clearly right now in our politics. People are using religion to justify horrific bias and hatred and the worship of money and what it’s done to our society and our politics. I don’t think that being a billionaire is something to be proud of. The reason I love J.K. Rowling is because she’s the only person to ever fall off that Forbes list because she gave away so much of her money.”

Once the show moved Margaret into 1989, Grossman notes that “Ivana Trump, for sure, was a mood board, and that whole Trumpian world was absolutely an influence” in the look and style of Margaret’s new “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” life. But, a big fan of the “Real Housewives” franchise, Grossman couldn’t resist using Mama Dee Simmons from “The Real Housewives of Dallas” as an influence, as well.

Grossman shares she did a lot of research into the psychology of “people who are not burdeoned by a conscience” for the role. On the one hand, this had her researching “the white evangelical Christian cult [that] is using religion to justify hurting other people, denying other people their rights, bigotry,” but on the other, she also drew a lot from Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters.

“Eric Harris was a true sociopath and would trick his therapist and trick his family. And that’s what Margaret did in the first few episodes: She decided to come up with a persona,” she says. “It was endlessly fascinating, especially because it’s not something I can innately relate to. So to find out why — why did this person do this? Why didn’t everyone around them know? Why weren’t they stopped? Well, they were brilliant at tricking people.”

For Grossman, who self-describes herself as an average wife and mother, playing someone who isn’t redemptive has been more fun than challenging. “There’s something wildly freeing about it because I’m a person who’s always so concerned with everyone else’s feelings, and it’s refreshing to play somebody who does not care,” she says. “Obviously this is an extreme example, but I also love that it’s a woman and there isn’t anything soft or maternal or redeeming about her through and through.”

Although “American Horror Story: 1984” has taken one of its killers — Ben aka Mr. Jingles (John Carroll Lynch) — on an arc of redemption because he was made a monster, Grossman notes that Margaret simply is a monster — “evil through and through,” as she puts it — and “what is more fun than seeing someone who truly has it coming get what she deserves?”

American Horror Story: 1984” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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