LOS ANGELES — Actors love playing all different kinds of characters; it is their grand passion. But Angela Bassett was dumbfounded when she discovered she was going to play a gender-challenged character on FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show.”
“I didn’t have a clue whatsoever what the part might be, what it might encompass when I signed on,” says Bassett.
“I just knew I had a great time the previous year, and if that was any indication, it was going to be a wild ride. I think it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to come down to start shooting that I got the hot-off-the-press script. I sat down to read it to see. And I remember wondering, ‘Now, HOW I am going to know who I am?’
“Then you read the stage directions: ‘African-American woman in her 40s, hermaphrodite, three breasts, and a ding-a-ling.’ You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ You immediately close the pages, and have to walk around and process that for a minute.
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“I just knew that it was absolutely going to be something that I had never done before. What does an actor crave but new challenges? This certainly was going to be one of those.”
Bassett, 56, is best known for her touching portrayal of Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and roles in “ER,” “Spike Lee’s Malcolm X” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
Bassett, who earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, says achieving that goal so young was a matter of determination. “I wanted to be an actress and wanted to survive,” she says.
“I wanted to be in the number of actresses who work all the time. How could I assure I’d be in that number? Well, if I wanted to be a doctor, I’d go to school. If I wanted to be a fireman, I’d train. Why do I think I can be an actress and just jump out there? So I applied to drama school. ‘What’s the best drama school? Yale drama school is touted as the best.’ I applied to the best and had faith about it and prayed about it and tried to increase my chances and got in.”
Since she graduated she has essayed a staggering variety of roles, but none quite like this one. “What they’re called is ‘intersex,’ today. In the 1950s, of course, the term was ‘hermaphrodite,’ but today the terminology is considered passe, especially in that community,” she says.
Prepping her physically for the role is complicated. “I go into my regular makeup artist. She applies the appliance (the additional breast) to me, so that it’s there, basically. Then I go over to the special effects trailer where her husband makes sure the edges and everything sort of blend seamlessly … From there, he and the other special effects gentlemen will begin to apply the paint. They’ll start with brown. They spray it on. They’ll go to the red, and yellow, and green. It’s amazing these colors and undertones that they claim you possess. You’re like, ‘Oh, those are weird, weird colors.’ Then he’ll take a photograph of it to make sure that it appears as if it’s my own and based on that, he’ll maybe go in, and do some more painting, and carry on … That’s it. It takes maybe from start to finish about an hour — just enough time to check out a Netflix episode of ‘Orange is the New Black’ or something.”
Coming in 2015
“Better Call Saul”: Don’t make any plans for Feb. 8 and 9, that is if you know what’s good for you. And, believe me, he’s going to convince you that he knows what’s good for you. Saul Goodman will be back with his own television show, “Better Call Saul,” on AMC. (Remember Saul was the lawyer who kept Walter White and a bunch of other miscreants out of the pokey on “Breaking Bad”?) Bob Odenkirk plays Saul in this prequel in which we see him before he’s adopted the name of Saul Goodman and is still plain ol’ Jimmy McGill. The show will take place six years before Walter White’s apotheosis. It’s created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, authors of “Breaking Bad.”
“Love, Lust, or Run”: Stacy London used to tell women “What Not to Wear” and quickly divest them of their jeans and T-shirts. But the stylist is back and this time she’s dressing them down rather than dressing them up.
On the curiously titled “Love, Lust, or Run,” premiering on TLC Jan. 23, London commandeers feathers, frothery and foolery to convince women that style is simple elegance rather than ostentatious distractions. “Why does everybody have to buy into a trend? I don’t believe in that. I believe style is what works on you and finding that.”