Cody Fern makes one hell of a debut into the American Horror Story universe as the son of Satan.
In the last few years, Cody Fern has made quite the impression. He burst onto our televisions last year in Ryan Murphy’s true crime saga The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story as David Madsen. Thanks to that limited series and Fern’s sensitive and meticulously crafted performance, more people know Madsen and his tragic story.
After first accepting his first role in the American Horror Story universe, Fern had to create a role almost from nothing in order to play Michael Langdon. You could do anything if you’re cast as the son of Satan, but Fern had to approach the role in an unconventional way because of the secrecy around the series’ eighth season. As the season flashes forward and back, we get a true sense of how much Michael changes. We see him as a young, scared teenager who doesn’t have a true grasp of his powers (watch out Harry Potter), and then we see him as the incredible powerful entity as he squares off against Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Goode.
If you place Fern’s performances as Langdon and Madsen side by side, you will get a sense of his intelligence and emotional depth he brings. Langdon is a monster, of course, but he’s also a scared and lonely kid who only wants avenge the mother who was taken away from him. Does Fern to the impossible? Does he makes us feel for the spawn of Satan?
Cody Fern makes one hell of a compelling case.
What’s it like going from a very specific show like Versace where you have to play and honor the legacy of a real person to someone like Michael Langdon?
The thing about Versace was that it was heavily based in fact and partially based on dark elements of the final days of that making up David Madsen’s life. It’s something that we will never be able to pin down exactly. It’s incredibly tragic. The research that I did on that area of David’s life—separate from the research that I did on David—was very harrowing, especially dealing with the minutia of shock, Stockholm Syndrome, the survival instinct, and fight or flight. Particularly his own psychological makeup and in his fight to be authentic in the last moments of his life. That all came from the brilliant writing of Tom Rob Smith all contained in episode 4. I had a moment to jump into the most traumatic moment of his life and build backwards from there. That was kind of similar, in the reverse, of Michael Langdon. I started with Michael as an adult, and I wind backwards.
While Versace was very rehearsed and specific about certain psychological and physiological responses, Horror Story was a lot more freeing in the sense that I got to fill in the gaps and imagine who this person is today in a given situation. The other thing is that I didn’t know I was playing Michael Langdon until 2 days before.
What? That’s insane!
The run up to playing Michael was very small. I knew I was going to be in Horror Story for a few months, but I didn’t know who I was pitched to be playing. When I finally learned who I was playing, the first scene I had to jump into was the main interrogation scene with Sarah Paulson’s Venable. He makes her reveal her greatest shame and he takes control of the outpost. That was the first thing I had to shoot. Everything was going to be built from that scene outward. All I knew was he needed to have that huge amount of power.
Going up against Sarah Paulson was going to be a hard task, especially her as Venable. There was a lot of freedom in the sense that I got to respond to Sarah and listen to someone who had been on the show for 7 years before me And I admire her so much. It was a really intuitive, responsive process than a psychologically harrowing process. It was a lot more fun. I had to go from this strong, confident man to going to a needy, insecure kid whose powers are wielding out of control.
I had just re-watched some of the episodes recently, I had forgotten how drastic that change was when it goes back in time. Jon Jon Briones sort of finds you and introduces you to the Hawthorne School for Exceptional Young Men. Did you ever think what would have happened to Michael if he was never picked up and brought there?
I haven’t thought about that, but there is a sense of fate in the show. There is a balance of good and evil and how they are constantly colliding. The ending itself with the young boy being revealed as sort of the new Michael Langdon and shows that Satan is always knocking at the door. There’s always a sense of fate in everything that happens. It was always going to happen like this.
As we were going along, I was having that feeling about the script, so when you get new scenes you go go the writers and say, ‘I need to learn this on this beat’ and sometimes they have very specific notes and sometimes you have to collaborate more and find the best moment in the direction. In episode 8, the apocalypse was not caused by Michael wanting to fulfill his father’s prophecy and that it was, in fact, brought about by Cordelia killing Ms. Mead and Michael vowing revenge.
There’s some sense that the hero of the piece is Cordelia because she is able to sacrifice herself in the final moments and revert the apocalypse and go back in time. At the same time, the realization is on the table that the entire event was caused by Cordelia. It’s that kind of theory of that you pull the fabric, what else is affected? What is the butterfly effect? You move one little piece around and what pieces shift? In some ways, I feel like Michael ends up where he was supposed to end up because it’s fated. That’s the dance.
You mentioned Ms. Mead, and I love the motherly relationship you have with Kathy Bates. I love that breakfast scene.
I love when the camera swivels around and you see all the Satanic stuff behind her.
Can you talk about how you and Kathy built that mother/son relationship?
When Kathy and I met, I was watching Kathy since I was younger. She’s a hero of mine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Misery. I was awed to be in her presence. I sat beside her at dinner, and we started talking about out pasts and we realized that we share a commonality—a history. We really bonded immediately. We’d talk about art and acting and all the ins and out and we were so passionate about the same things, and we immediately connected on a very visceral level. I’d go to her trailer, and we’d discuss beats in the script. It would really come alive in those scenes, and we’d fight for things.It was a lot to do with chemistry.
Did you feel that instantaneously with her?
I felt that before I even met her.
I won’t go into it too much, but we share a commonality of pain with somebody. There’s an unspoken wavelength that we’re both o. I think she sense it in me and I sensed it in her. We didn’t know it was going to unravel that way with our relationship on screen. I had just said early on to the writers, ‘Please please please put me in a scene with Kathy.’ I had no idea that it was going to be so extreme and so wonderful.
That’s where we began. We had just become such compatriots that we were discussing the fine minutia of how they interact, how Langdon is being used, how the power dynamic shifts, how she is essentially in service of Satan but acting as his mother. She has this extreme concept of caring for the boy Michael Langdon but bring him up to a place for him to fulfill the prophecy. Because Cordelia kills Mead, Langdon finds a way to punish her and the coven. In some sense, the triangle is Michael, Cordelia, Mead. The three of them are tied together.
When I was watching some of the earlier scenes, I was struck by the physicality you bring to the role. I really noticed it when Michael is at the outpost and shows everyone the vial of pills. Can you talk a bit about the physicality of the role?
Physicality is always very important to me as an actor. If you look how David Madsen’s holds himself in episode 4 and 5 and how he holds himself when he comes to his father, it’s the same way that I think about embodying any character. There’s a sense of if I can’t embody and be in the body. You see self-help books where people talk about having out of body experiences. Have you seen those?
I’m always wanting to know about the in body experience. Everything being totally integrated. When Michael is older, there’s a theatricality to how he presents things because of the fact that he’s actually a little boy inside. There’s a part of him that’s posturing. Think about this. He’s been to all the other outposts and he says, ‘If this outpost falls, we’re doomed’ and he is going to maybe take none of the outposts members with him. He delivers this monologue and everything is fluid, he takes the pills out, he points. If you go back in time, you will see that behavior when he’s in front of the warlocks. Everything dances in how he does that magic.
In my mind, he’s drawing everybody in and everyone is following every precise movement that he’s making. So when he points to something, all of the other characters go to that point. There’s fun in that when he walks into the room with Venable and tilts his head. She gets the point and moves. And Michael is feeding off all those reactions. He’s slowing the beats down and is creating tension. There’s something devilish about someone who is so calm and precise.
In that first interrogation scene you have with Evan Peters, I even noticed he answers your questions much quicker than you ask them. He’s eager to be questioned first.
And Michael says, ‘And so you shall.’
In that scene, he asks Michael if he’s gay, and you take a beat before saying, ‘Would that excite you?’
And that’s the thing about Langdon. Every moment he has to get inside your head, and twist and distort and work your desires, he takes. There’s a moment Langdon has with Venable where he’s talking about this woman he saw and her kid is dead in her arms and Venable asks if he put her out of her misery. And he calmly says no. He’s drawn her into this and he knows she fails. He’s moving to a different rhythm now. She showed a moment of weakness.That’s how he works as the older Langdon. He’s really in his body—younger Langdon isn’t. I made very precise choices about that.
If you see younger Michael holding a spoon, he holds it like a young child holding it. How a toddler holds it. He’s 6 inside and just getting used to his big, lumbering body. How he moves how to react differently. I knew when we were moving back in time that we needed a stark difference. I’m going from playing someone essentially 25 or 30 to someone who is 16, so I had to make clear, wild swings.
I can’t imagine how I moved as a 16 year old. How I was as a teen isn’t how I move now.
There’s something about age not being linear in life that I love. For example, I feel younger now than I have in my life. We become more comfortable with who we are when we get older. Your body responded differently to that. It’s less freewheeling—we don’t throw it around anymore. In Horror Story, those needed to be clear, so when you’re seeing 16 year old Michael, you’re also seeing 6 year old Michael. A lot of the choices I was making was finding his precise mental age and what that mental age is like compared to his physical age. How he responds to situations emotionally, physically, and mentally. He might have the intelligence in a scene because of his age but he’s physically fit in his body yet. And emotionally he’s a child still. Does that make sense?
It does. You can sort of get a sense of that in the scene where you’re performing for the warlocks. Everything is so physically demanding there that he is having to juggle everything with his body and then his emotions of going through that process. Michael even says ‘I didn’t know that was inside’ when he makes the snow fall and the test gets out of control.
And that’s true but there’s three large things about that scene. There’s the men he’s trying to impress, especially this father figure. He advances through the test and the storm gets carried away and he unleashes it. The honest moment comes out there where he apologizes for it. At the same time, when everyone else goes to the fire, the camera reverses and I found something on the day that I wanted to add. The camera goes around Michael and you get this subtle look to the side and he sees John Henry, played by Cheyenne Jackson. Henry does not trust Langdon. There’s three transitions there: impressing this father figure, realizing this power, and then there’s the question if whether he gave too much away. Are they onto me? He allowed to get carried away, but he’s going to kill these people anyway. It’s a balancing act of pulling everybody in but keeping them at arm’s length and get all the information he can. It’s very delicate for Michael.
I had forgotten how much I love that scene with all these powerful men watching you tap into your powers.
That’s what I love about this show. It really was a fantastic season in terms of the political dynamic, particularly the power struggle between men and women. I love working with Ryan and the directors. If you really dive in and really say fuck it, the stakes of each moment in this over the top universe ground the characters. You can’t play fulfilling a prophecy—you ask someone to play evil and they’re going to be sniveling. By not playing evil—and playing innocent—you raise the stakes, because it’s something inside of him that he has no control over and he has a destiny that he hasn’t chosen.
Everybody around him is using him. Ms. Mead is giving him love but also guiding him where he needs to go, these warlocks are using him, and the witches come in and seek to destroy him. There’s no one coming down to Michael’s level and trying to figure out a way to resolve this. Nobody is doing that. Constance does, and she kills herself. The ultimate abandonment in one timeline from someone who kills herself to be with her other children.
When you lay it all out like that…
At what point does he decide, ‘Well, everyone says I’m a monster, I’ll be the best monster you ever saw.’ That’s my real question. He takes all the pain inflicted around him and turns him on the world.
The moment where the warlocks tell him that they know what he is, it reminded me of a much more sinister version of Hagrid finding Harry Potter.
Yes. And everyone is using Michael. Not to excuse what he does, but when I found out we were going back in time, I was obsessed with The Crown. It really coincided with Michael’s story.
One of my favorite things about Claire Foy, especially in season 2, is how you see she’s holding back. Michael doesn’t give away anything either.
Even plot wise, he’s born into something. Almost Royal. It’s this is who you are, this is why you’re here, and this is what you’re going to do You are going to sacrifice everything for my purpose which is the Queen’s dilemma. You are born into this family and you must not sacrifice everything for the crown. With the Queen, you must be pure and everything is thrown onto her. You must show no weakness, be strong at all times, you have to look this way and sound this way, With Michael, there’s a similar thread there. You are the son of Satan, and this is what you’re going to do.
I worked with the writers when we were doing the Church of Satan scenes, and something wasn’t working on the day. I remember that there was supposed to be this big, reverent moment where he walks and he soon realizes everything was going to be okay, but it wasn’t working. Rather than exhaust that, we focused on how sad it was. There’s no enjoyment in it. The only person who respected Michael enough to fear him was Cordelia.
I heard you have not yet been approached for the upcoming season, 1984. If you were to get asked to be part of that, is there any particular slasher trope you’d really want to embrace or destroy?
Jesus…there’s so much of the 80’s. I love slasher films of the 80’s. I was born in 1988, so I kind of missed that time, but when you’re a kid in the next era, you always look back at the era before. I really love the underground, punk world of the bliss kids. It was the birth of David Bowie with these semi-drag looks that are so artistic. It’s this incredible world that was born in this underground club. In terms of slashers, that’s a frightening genre. I don’t know if I’m a person to run around and scream, but there’s a real skill in it. Jamie Lee Curtis is the mother is the mother is slashers.
With Ryan Murphy, we all know it’s going to be simple.
Definitely not. I don’t know, man. We’ll see if I get involved. It all depends…it just depends…
American Horror Story: Apocalypse is streaming now.