Cody Fern speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about embodying Michael Langdon on the FX horror anthology and teases a “satisfying” ending to ‘Apocalypse.’
Cody Fern didn’t know he was playing the Antichrist when he first landed his American Horror Story role.
The actor had broken out with a performance on Ryan Murphy’s other FX series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and had just wrapped filming on the final season of Netflix’s House of Cards. Two days before heading into production on the eighth season of horror anthology AHS, titled Apocalypse, Fern realized he was playing more than just a guy with “long, blonde hair and an affinity for capes” when he saw the name of his character in the new script: Michael Langdon.
AHS viewers first met Michael Langdon in season one’s Murder House. Michael was a 3-year-old who had been prophesied to be the Antichrist, the son of the devil who would bring about the end of the world. Seven seasons later, Murphy returned to that mythology with the crossover season of Apocalypse, which has tied together Murder House and season three’s Coven with the end-of-the-world plot. By design, mystery still swirls around the man at the center of the season as it barrels towards its conclusion.
The irony is that for Fern, who immersed himself in the Old Testament for the role, the scenes that explore Satanism — like Michael eating a heart after a human sacrifice — are not the ones that keep him up at night. He actually finds “the whole idea of religion overwhelming and frightening,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter, and he also doesn’t view his character as evil. “I can’t play a vessel for evil,” he says. “It’s not something that’s tangible or achievable in the scene or arc of the story. So I just put that straight out of my mind.”
Below, in a chat with THR, Fern digs into the genesis of Michael Langdon, teases the end of the season as “satisfying and overwhelming and fun and tragic,” and responds to the real Church of Satan having an opinion about his devil-spawned character.
You weren’t told who you would be playing on AHS until days before filming. What did you know about the character going into the first episode?
Ryan [Murphy] had asked me to come in and play a character on Horror Story. Not that he needed to sell it! But the pitch was that I was going to be acting with Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates and that was something I very much wanted to do. He told me that I’d be playing this character who would have very long, blonde hair and an affinity for capes. The way that he described the character was as if he was the protagonist, and that Sarah’s character — who I now understand is really Venable and Cordelia — is the antagonist. I had this concept that he was going to not necessarily be on the side of good, but that he ultimately was a good guy. Then two days before during the fitting I knew something was up. Everything was so dark and chic with the red scarves. I read the first script but the character’s name was different. Then I got the second script and two days later I was shooting that scene with Sarah Paulson, the Venable interrogation scene in her office — a nine page workout. (Laughs.) That’s what I knew going in.
At what point did you realize he was Michael Langdon, the Antichrist of AHS? And what pressures come with joining an anthology as a key player in the show’s universe?
Originally, it was a different name in the script: Elijah Cross. Then when I got the script and the name was Michael Langdon, I knew straight away. Fans are very vocal and I’ve heard much about the second coming of Michael Langdon. (Laughs.) So that’s when I knew what I signed up for and what I was about to walk into. But the pressure, or the weight and the fandom around Michael Langdon’s return? I put that completely out of my mind because it’s not something that can help me to play him. The last time that we saw him [at the end of season one, Murder House], Michael is about 3 years old and we see him do this one act [of killing the nanny]. People are talking about Michael Langdon as the vessel of evil and I just don’t see that. I can’t play evil.
So how do you view him, if not in that black-and-white way?
I think it’s important, first of all, to say that I understand there’s a separation between who I am and who the character is. But when I’m investigating who Michael is or when I’m in his skin, I’m looking at the world through his eyes. I’m not looking at it through the eyes of someone who is evil or malevolent, or who wants the world to end. I’m looking at it through the eyes of someone who is lost.
As the season went back in time to explore more about Michael, what did you learn by seeing Murder House and where he came from?
When we go back in time, we see that he’s a lost, abandoned, very broken young man who has had everybody in his life leave him. He has no father figure and has urges that he can’t control, ones that nobody is helping him to control. He has people all around him who use and abuse him. He has the warlocks wanting to use his powers to overthrow the witches, the Satanists wanting him to bring about the end of the world, and the witches are using Michael as the conduit of all of this. As a teenager, I see him as a very broken and abandoned young man who needs guidance. And what we see with the prophetic statement in episode eight is this idea that you try to stop the chain of one thing and that might bring about the event that brings about the thing you are trying to stop. Cordelia burns Mead and the warlocks and in that moment, sets about a chain of events in which Michael vows — he doesn’t know how he’ll achieve it — but he’s going to kill every single witch, which leads him to the Satanists. So what began as something of a compulsion or a destiny becomes something incredibly personal. Something he’s going to achieve because he wants to hurt Cordelia.
How has he changed by the time he becomes Langdon, the version of the character that is introduced at the beginning of the season and after the apocalypse hits?
When we see him in Outpost 3 and he’s older, I see him as somebody who is very different. Who has gone through a lot. He understands that humanity is lost and broken, just as he was, and they’re hiding all of these impulses, just as he was. They’re maiming and hurting and killing each other. It’s unsustainable. And in that moment, he doesn’t necessarily do anything wrong. In his mind, he draws out the evil within other people. He tempts them and pushes their buttons and finds out how willing they are to go. If they’re going to kill their grandmothers and break the rules and give poison apples to everyone and fight and betray each other to get into the Sanctuary, then who’s to say that he’s the wrong nature of a human being? He’s drawing it out; he’s not putting it there. It’s not something that he’s done, it’s something that he’s revealed. So in that sense, he’s a very righteous character. He’s just carrying out the work of his father, which is to bring about what I would say is the proper mode of humanity, in his eyes. (Laughs.)
You have gotten to play some dark material as the son of the devil. Have you researched Satanism and and/or turned to fictional works of horror?
I did a lot of research and in different areas. I started off by reading the Bible. I’m not a religious person, but I read the Bible many years ago. So I read particularly the Old Testament. Not to offend anyone, but it’s quite a read. It’s true that it’s filled with rape and incest and murder and hatred. It’s a very black book. But in reading it, what became apparent to me is that people interpret this however they want. Then the second most fascinating thing about researching the Old Testament is that Satan is only mentioned like three times. Everyone says, “He’s mentioned here and they’re talking about him there.” But that’s only if you want to interpret it like that. Who’s to say that’s not the sweeping hand of God in your book that you attributed to the devil because you see this section as bad and this section as good? So I found that really interesting and that really helped. I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Atlas Shrugged shows when you have a singular vision of something and how quickly you can become attune to that vision and devalue others quickly based on their principles and ideologies. I read so much; John Milton, William Blake, Dante’s Inferno. It’s been a wild few months!
The Church of Satan actually responded to this season both on Twitter and on their website, denouncing how the show depicts the Antichrist and church founder Anton LaVey (played by Carlo Rota). Have you seen?
I heard about it. I really don’t want to offend anybody, but I find all forms of religious fundamentalism frightening. The response from the Church of Satan is of course … warranted in some respects and in others, not. I find the whole idea of religion overwhelming and frightening and not for me. So, let them make statements. Listen, I have people calling at me “Hail, Satan” in the streets. That’s my life at the moment! I went out to the other night for the first time since being on this show and I wasn’t thinking about the impact that the show had. I just can’t think about those things. But there were so many people calling out “Hail, Satan!” and that was fun for me, because I had gotten so focused on the religious side of things. But with the Church of Satan, the black Bible is an interesting read.
Has anything that you filmed been difficult for you to shake, given the Satanic material?
The Satanic material is really not difficult for me because a lot of those scenes are very technical or imaginative. I don’t know how to act if I’m not coming from a real place of authenticity and certain emotional scenes can be like little tearings of the soul. One of those for me was the scene in which Constance [Langdon (Jessica Lange)] has just committed suicide and Michael finds her in Murder House. That was a particularly difficult day. It was the first scene I had with Jessica Lange — she’s dead and I have to go to some really dark, deep place. I was having trouble because I was so fearful of getting it wrong. It’s this really tender, beautiful moment for Michael and this huge, impactful event in his life. We did a couple takes and Sarah [Paulson] is directing the episode and she took me aside. Sarah and I have become such dear friends and she’s the most extraordinary person. She took my hand and said, “Don’t be afraid of this. I really need you to go there and give it to me. I need you to tear it up.” Then she said, “If nothing else. Just imagine that at the end of this scene, if you didn’t get it that Jessica Lange might think you’re a bad actor.” (Laughs.) We both started hysterically laughing, because it’s exactly what I was afraid of in the moment! By voicing it and having a laugh about it, I was able to go into the scene and do it authentically. The second really difficult day, to be honest, was the day that we had to say goodbye when we were coming to a wrap. Obviously, I can’t say what happens, but it was tough personally and for a lot of people on set. We’d formed this little family and we’re all together in this crazy, beautiful world. Then you have to say goodbye.
The penultimate episode builds to the battle between Langdon and the witches, ultimately the dark vs. the light. Is there hope for Langdon that he won’t end up being the evil he was born to be?
We’ve seen Langdon in Outpost 3 [at the beginning of the season]. So we can let go of that hope! (Laughs.) But again, I don’t think that Langdon is evil. One thing to think about is that after the eighth episode, we know that he gets to Outpost 3 and we know that Cordelia has arrived at that time and Michael has appeared to stop them. We’re hanging on that moment and seeing how we get there. The last episode illustrated how this isn’t about the apocalypse for Michael Langdon. He wasn’t born with this idea that he has to end the world. He was born with a compulsion and now that compulsion has become personal. That is what we will explore next. And I can tease that there’s going to be a battle royale. You can’t build this many episodes to have it all end happily ever after! There’s going to be a battle and it’s going to be surprising. It’s not going to go the way we all think it’s going to go — it’s a Ryan Murphy battle royale.
Is it safe to assume there are some twists in store?
Yes. It certainly is.
After wrapping the season and embodying Michael Langdon, how did you feel about the way Apocalypse ends?
I’m careful to not spoil anything. But I’m very much still processing the end of Horror Story. It truly was a period of wonder and magic. I was acting with Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Leslie Grossman and Billie Lourd. The list goes on. All of these people are great friends now. I came into work for 16 hours a day and was in this creative space of an underground bunker or chatting with the cast and crew at some ungodly hour of the night and going for extreme things. It’s like stepping through this portal and ending up in the land of magic and then being sucked out of it. Where you’re sitting back like, “Was that real? Did it happen?” I’m still carrying around everything that I’m feeling for Michal. For so long I was with this character who is purposeful and who is going after something that he wants, at the extremity of motivation and who’s broken-hearted. The only way I can describe it is that it’s like shooting out of the earth’s atmosphere and then you’re slowly drifting back down. It’s like decompression. It takes a while and it feels like I’ve got the bends.
Do you hope to stay in the AHS family — could we see you in future seasons?
I hope so. I certainly hope so. I can’t say that I know what’s in store, but I would walk through fire for Ryan Murphy. I have loved this so much. I think the ending is going to be really satisfying and overwhelming and fun and tragic and all kinds of different things, and I can’t wait for people to see it. I would love to come back.
In the teaser for next week there is one scene that looks like Murder House. Will you be taking another trip back?
I can’t confirm anything and I won’t deny anything. But, gear up. There’s a lot of surprises in store. Considering there are only two episodes left, there are a lot of surprises coming.
You’re also in the final season of House of Cards (which debuts Nov. 2), playing another villain, a political strategist named Duncan Shepherd. What was it like playing these characters back-to-back?
They kind of overlapped. I got back and then two days later I was in fittings for Horror Story. They’re such different extreme experiences. There was the particular climate when we were shooting House of Cards and how the role that I was playing changed and evolved over the course of a nuclear bomb going off [after the firing of Kevin Spacey]. So that was a different experience entirely. But the way that you work on House of Cards is also different because it’s so stylized and in a particular rhythm, where you have to hit it in a certain stride. With Horror Story, it’s an anthology so everyone is finding the world together. Whereas with House of Cards, you’re walking into a world that people have been building for five or six years at that point.
You went from one female-dominated world on House of Cards — where Robin Wright takes over as president — to having this supernatural gender war on AHS. What has it been like to play in the Apocalypse world where women have always reigned, and men are inferior?
It felt great. That actually matters more to the warlocks than it does to Michael. I will tell you one little secret about Michael, which is that if you watch Horror Story very closely, you’ll notice that Michael is drawn to very strong women. He has Mead, who is his rock; he had Constance, who killed herself; so then his natural pull is going to be to Cordelia. Michael loves Cordelia as much as he loathes her. He needs her. When Cordelia walks up to the warlock school, he’s finally found somebody he can respect. So for me as Michael in this female-dominated world, it didn’t feel like I was playing in the gender dynamic because Michael moves so seamlessly between them. To me, Michael doesn’t have a gender. He’s very fluid in how he presents himself, his emotions, his sexuality and how he’s able to entice men and women. It was an interesting battleground.
What you’re talking about has of course been on my mind. With House of Cards it was one type of gender war, and then Horror Story was another form. But Ryan is very intelligent in that was disguised, until it rears its head and you understand that this goes a little bit deeper than we initially understand. And with the true gender war of what’s happening in society today, it’s been a thrilling time because it lends you more space to listen, rather than just to express your opinions. It’s the time for men to shut the fuck up and listen. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of very powerful, very successful, very respected women, working with Robin Wright and Diane Lane [on House of Cards] and then Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Adina Porter this early on in my career. It’s something that has shaped me in an extraordinarily exciting way.