Cody Fern broke hearts and broke out with his performance as David Madson in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” But now he has re-teamed with Ryan Murphy for “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” in which he plays the demonic Michael Langdon, who can snap the necks and stop the hearts of those in his way with just a flick of his wrist.
Fern says after working with Murphy on “Versace,” the prolific producer asked him when he’d next be available because he knew he wanted to get him on “Horror Story.” But he did not tell Fern exactly who he would be playing right away.
“[Ryan] pitched me a character with long Dorian-esque hair, that had a lot of power but also a significant amount of vulnerability,” Fern tells Variety. “I didn’t know I was playing Michael Langdon until a week before we started filming.”
The main pitch, Fern continues, was that Murphy told him he’d be working with “extraordinary women,” and the two had a “gush session” about Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates. He also “pitched me as the good guy in the scenario and the hero in the scenario,” which Fern found funny because he actually thought the villain would be more interesting.
“But how it all shakes out in the end, I’m playing both of them, in a way,” he says.
Here, Fern talks with Variety about why he doesn’t consider Michael Langdon to be evil, how he prepared for the role he knew so little about, and who could possibly stop him.
How is your process to get into the character different on a show like “Horror Story” where you don’t know where he’s going compared to “Versace”?
I think it’s almost like two different genres or methods of performing, insofar as the way you would prepare for being in a Tennessee Williams play is completely different than how you would prepare to be in a network TV show. That’s how drastic it feels. With “Versace,” after I had gotten the role it was two weeks of preparation before I started filming, and I had read Maureen Orth’s book, I had been able to get a hold of photos and really start to inhabit the mind of David Madson. I had a whole bunch of markers about his life and his choices and how he came to be where he was — the emotional line of the character. I was able to take certain cues from David’s life to start to inform the basis of who he is, whereas with Michael Langdon…his character name was different, the way he was pitched was different, so I had walked into something that I didn’t really know at all. But in saying that, there were certain clues as to how I would play the character. With both I had very little preparation, but “Versace” was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, research, research, research, physicality, figuring out his voice, et cetera. With “Horror Story” it really was, “You’re going to run, you’re going to jump off this cliff, and trust that that Ryan Murphy is going to catch you.” So I just ran head-on into it and jumped off the edge of that cliff.
What did you do need to do for yourself to be comfortable jumping?
I knew that I had to come in with very strong choices about his physical life and his vocal life and how he controlled himself in a room — because playing power is difficult, but playing evil is impossible. Everyone is saying, “Oh he’s so evil, he’s so evil” … [but] I don’t see Michael Langdon as an evil character. I don’t even see him as a bad character. I see him as somebody with a lot of purpose.
What makes you say a character who is the antichrist is not evil?
I think there are different categories of evil: There is cruelty and there is destruction and you look at societal evil of today [where] you have things like sexual assault and rape and burglary and murder — there are many different layers of what is evil. And I think one thing with Langdon that you come to recognize, and a choice that I really wanted to center Langdon on, is that Langdon doesn’t think about destruction, he thinks about creation. Where everybody else thinks he thinks about burning the world down, he knows that he’s burning the world down because from that, something new will bloom. And the world has come to a place where there is so much hatred, there is so much war, there is so much crime — everyone is betraying everybody, there is greed, there is jealousy, there is rage — and he, of course, is the son of the devil, who is absorbing all of this and thinks that there is a new way. The world so far, under God’s image, is clearly not working out. And if this is God’s image — this is how Langdon sees it — then he just pushes that and takes people further down that path. … In episodes two and three in particular, you see that Langdon doesn’t actually do anything with his bare hands. He pushes people’s buttons, he tempts them and seduces them and brings out their greatest fears and desires, and then they go about enacting horrific evil while he watches. He acts as a conduit for other people’s evil, I suppose.
He may not have had to kill Misty’s tormentor in hell to get her out of there, but he did it anyway. So can he resist getting his hands dirty back in the real world?
Without giving too much away, next week we go back to the Murder House and we see his beginnings, and if you remember from the first season, the first death that we see [related to him] is the death of his nanny, but he’s too young to understand the impulses that he’s going through. One of the ways I wanted to mark the character is that he is obviously growing supernaturally fast, so what does that mean for his intelligence, his sexuality, whether or not he holds confidence or power at certain times and especially his emotional world — because if you’re growing supernaturally fast, the ability you have to deal with your emotions is far less than a person who’s gone through a whole life of ups and downs. So he’s dealing with extreme emotion, and he’s dealing with impulses that he doesn’t necessarily understand at first. He has to come to terms with the fact that he’s the antichrist — that he has a mission he’s been born into. And I don’t think that’s so far from people around the world who are put into certain circumstances because they’re born into something they don’t necessarily understand but are enacting out the necessary behaviors for that upbringing or those impulses. That’s something that will be explored this season — how much does he understand his purpose? What is free will to Langdon, and what is destiny?
How strong will his own faith in his vision prove to be as time goes on and he faces challenges, such as learning Cordelia set him up with the test of the Seven Wonders or that Brock infiltrated the bunker?
When we meet him in the Outpost he has a very clear vision of what his purpose is and of what he is trying to achieve. He’s going about building a world in which the strongest will survive, and those who have what it takes will build a new world together with Langdon as their leader. Ultimately, that’s not that different from — not to be controversial — something like the Catholic Crusade. They took their religion and they said, “This is the one, this is the only, we have the message of God, and we’re going to spread this. And those that don’t fall into this category are going to fall by the wayside.” There’s a little bit of a hint in there as well, which is, how is Langdon any different? He’s taking his purpose, which has come from his father, and he is enacting it, and he is gathering those who follow Satan, and he is bringing them forth to start this new world in Satan’s image. His faith is very strong in who he is and what his purpose is then. He doesn’t [have that] when he’s a teenager.
Is it fair to say Langdon really is the most powerful being, or will there be forces that emerge that could stop him?
There’s an undercurrent of prophecy, and when something is prophesized, and you go about trying to start that thing, there are many chains along the way that if you look at retrospectively, you may realize, “Oh that person trying to do that thing caused that chain of events, which led to this, which actually led to this action.” So we’re going to see a lot more of that as well, where what could have changed that might have put Michael onto a different path, or what actions are Cordelia taking now that could be triggering events that could lead to a cataclysm? To me, what’s really interesting is that if you look at Langdon — and you’ll see next week because Constance is back — Langdon is drawn to very strong, maternal women. He has Mead in his life, he certainly is influenced by her, and we will come to know the origins of that. Also, there is something very alluring and intoxicating about Cordelia — this incredibly powerful, strong women who is ultimately coming to stand in Langdon’s way. And we will come to know his interactions with Constance. It is important to note that his father is Satan, who is lingering somewhere in the perimeter but is not present. He’s a fatherless man in a lot of ways and is therefore taking his cues off very strong women. So by the time he arrives at the warlock school and we think he’s being manipulated by these men and then we come to find that actually Michael is doing the manipulating, he has a stronger sense of who he is that he gleans from the women in his life.