When “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy first contacted actor John Carroll Lynch about a possible role on the fourth season of his gleefully deranged hit, he was upfront about his aims for a new character, a silent, grinning killer straight out of a child’s nightmare.
“He described it in a way that I understood it to be somebody calling me up and going, ‘We’d like you to play my version of the Phantom of the Opera,’ “ Lynch recalled recently. “He said he wanted to create the most terrifying clown in the history of television.”
By all accounts, he succeeded. Lynch’s Twisty the Clown has become the chief talking point of “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” quite an achievement considering Murphy stocked the latest season of his Emmy-winning anthology series with conjoined twins, a bearded Kathy Bates and a three-breasted hermaphrodite played by Angela Bassett.
The artistic grandchild of Tod Browning’s “Freaks” and Katherine Dunn’s cult novel “Geek Love,” “Freak Show” centers on stardom-obsessed Marlene Dietrich wannabe Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), who brings her carnival to Jupiter, Fla., in 1952 and soon recruits conjoined sisters Dot and Bette Tattler (Sarah Paulson) into her revue, certain that they’ll revive flagging interest in the show.
But the locals greet the performers with hostility and suspicion, which only intensifies after a series of inexplicable murders and abductions shocks the sleepy Southern town.
Unlike Elsa’s circus, “Freak Show” had no trouble attracting viewers when it debuted earlier this month. A total of 10 million people watched the season premiere, making it the most watched program in the history of FX.
Not surprisingly, the show already has been renewed for a fifth season, and Murphy is also creating a companion series, “American Crime Story,” for the cable channel.
Not everyone was pleased with what they saw, however — some children’s entertainers complained that Twisty was likely to exacerbate coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. And they might have a point.
In his first moments on screen, Twisty, wearing stained satin ruffles and a mask of giant teeth, interrupts a lovers’ lakeside picnic, presenting a young woman with plastic flowers before stabbing her boyfriend to death on their red, checkered blanket.
He imprisons his living victims in an abandoned school bus hidden in a remote locale.
Lynch insists, though, that while Twisty is a terrifying villain, he’s more than just a mute slasher, and upcoming installments of the show, including a two-part Halloween episode, will reveal telling details about his personal story.
“It’s great to play a character that is so starkly drawn, and it’s really fun to be a bad guy,” Lynch said. “In this case I really like that Ryan and the writers have provided not only a really terrific, scary character, but also they provided a lot of humanity that you’ll learn about as the season progresses.”
“I think a lesser actor would have thought of it as a ghoul or something two-dimensional and just walked around and wore the makeup and would have done nothing else,” said Finn Wittrock, who plays Twisty’s “acolyte” Dandy Mott on the series.
“John, even when he’s just walking around, he’s really doing the work of an actor and finding some emotional depth. As the episodes go on, you learn a lot more about Twisty’s humanity, so he gets to show his chops a little bit more.”
Originally from Colorado, Lynch, 51, has been a working actor for decades, with dozens of credits to his name. He played the cross-dressing, down-on-his luck older brother on “The Drew Carey Show,” contract killer Varlyn Stroud on HBO’s earlier sideshow-themed series “Carnivàle” and, more recently, a KGB informant on FX’s acclaimed spy drama “The Americans.”
He’s appeared in films directed by David Fincher (“Zodiac”), Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”) and Martin Scorsese (“Shutter Island”) and had an especially memorable turn as the doting husband to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the Coen brothers’ murder mystery “Fargo” (“I’ll fix ya some eggs”).
When weighing whether to play Twisty, Lynch said he found himself intrigued by the hurdles he’d need to leap for the role.
“I knew that the character was going to be primarily silent and that was a challenge,” he said. “I knew the character, most of his face was going to be covered and that was a challenge. It’s like if you were boxing and somebody said, ‘We’d like you to fight that guy, but we’d like you to fight that guy just with your feet and we’ll tie your hands behind your back.’ I would say no to that challenge, but I said yes to this one.”
For the record, Lynch said he’s not frightened of clowns.
“I don’t have any issues with clowns — I feel like I owe them an apology, in some ways,” he said. “My crazy fear is I’m always afraid my keys are going to fall down a subway grate when I walk over it. I’m afraid they’re going to jump out of my pocket and fall down. Isn’t that stupid?”
The actor described the experience of seeing himself for the first time in full costume as “macabre, to say the least.” He made balloon animals during the roughly 90 minutes it took for makeup artists to apply the character’s skullcap and sadistic smile, a prosthetic appliance that covers the bottom portion of Lynch’s face.
“When I’m running, it cuts off my air supply pretty well, so that can be uncomfortable,” Lynch said. “And the whole thing is very hot, especially (when we were shooting) in New Orleans in the middle of the summer. But I guess: What price beauty?”
“I will never forget this image of him in the lunch truck,” Wittrock said. “He had this tray of food and makeup dripping down his face and his bloody scalp on, and he was eating a piece of chicken next to a bunch of crew people who were just dressed regularly. He had this great line he kept saying — he would be in his full regalia and turn to you and say, ‘What? And leave show business?’”
Given Twisty’s extreme look, the character is one sure to inspire legions of Halloween costumes. But Lynch has a suggestion for fans considering dressing as the murderous clown for the holiday — maybe don’t.
“I heard from other people on Twitter that they’re very excited about Twisty Halloween costumes, and all I can think is, ‘You people are nuts!’” Lynch said with a laugh. “You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. How’re you going to have a nice apple cider? Go as a princess. Come on.”