American Horror Story: Cult has just one episode left, next week’s finale “Great Again.” Any initiated AHS fan would know that by now the latest iteration of the beloved Ryan Murphy anthology should have flown off the tracks to go speeding straight into an abyss of directionless violence, unexplainable supernatural phenomena, and, possibly, dance sequences. That has usually been the tradition since American Horror Story began in 2011. Yet, Cult has remarkably stayed on course — and that’s because the FX series has leaned into its drama roots over its eponymous Horror moniker. After a season of seriously tense, realistic drama, “Charles (Manson) In Charge” took a detour into true horror movie flair by reenacting the Sharon Tate murder, reminding viewers a peppering of honest-to-goodness scares only makes AHS better.
We enter the 1969 murder by way of cult leader Kai Anderson (Even Peters) and his weekly serial killer-filled tales of death to his loyal, onesie-sporting followers. Today’s lesson is about his latest idol, Charles Manson, who had his own acolytes kill pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Rachel Roberts) and her friends after breaking into her Los Angeles home. Susan Atkins (Sarah Paulson), Patricia Krenwinkel (a returned Leslie Grossman), and Tex Watson (a returned Billy Eichner) stalk through the famed Cielo Drive house savagely murdering and creepily waving at its inhabitants with equally haunting vibes. While most of Cult has felt like a political allegory with dashes of black comedy, the Manson family mini movie could fit in with any of your favorite serial killer horror movies like Friday The 13th and Halloween, complete with the switch-up to a previously unseen cinematic lens.
Although the pseudo AHS mini-movie is filled with shrieking, wild stabbing, and near foaming at the mouth on the part of the Manson Family members, it sounds like this was actually the series at its most purposefully thoughtful. “American Horror Story is fiction, [but] that is a real thing that happened to a real person,” Leslie Grossman told Refinery29 on a recent phone call, returning to the show after her original Cult character Meadow’s grisly suicide. “So there was definitely a part of us that felt like, 'We want to be respectful, this is somebody’s family member, we get that.'” Rather than campify an actual real-life tragedy, “they did a pretty good job staying really close to the truth, the actual events of what happened,” native Los Angeleno Grossman, who grew up close to the infamous Tate murders house, says of Cult’s “Charles (Manson)” creative team.
Avoiding the habit of going baroque or going home is apparently why Cult is working in general. “I think the key to that show is just to try to stay as grounded as possible and not play to the humor of it,” Grossman explained, remembering one particularly “kind-of-ridiculous” situation from previous season 7 episode “11/9” where she offers sleep with some random men in front of a motel in exchange for a hit of whatever they’re smoking. “I’m like, ‘Okay, how am I going to say this? This is insane,’” Grossman said. “And the director, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, she and I really had to have a discussion about that.” The result was Grossman walking a “tightrope” between knowing black humor and unaffected realism.
Still, that doesn’t mean everything was doom and gloom while filming. When we first meet the “Manson Girls” in “Charles (Manson) In Charge” — with fellow AHS newbie Billie Lourd rounding out the long-haired trio as the relatively murder-shy Linda Kasabian — they’re basically hiding in a tree, waiting for their splashy introduction from Kai, who’s doing a dark fairytale-type voiceover. “I cannot tell you how much we were laughing. It was so late that it was early,” Grossman recalled of shooting the rehearsal-heavy sequence. “The whole thing was so intense and over-the-top, I think we had to laugh … Yes, we were filming something dark, and upsetting, but we had a good time together.”
It’s clear Grossman followed the lead of “incredible” costar Billy Eichner, as she describes him. The actress says Eichner's mantra during filming was, “Yeah, this is crazy, but let’s just have fun with it.’”
After watching Grossman act out a mass shooting that ended in suicide, along with that polarizing, claustrophobic “Mid-Western Assassin” sex scene, it’s reassuring to know she enjoyed herself upon her Cult return, which aired a month after her supposed exit. “When I first got the script for that [episode] I had a little bit of a meltdown,” she admitted of the controversial installment, whose violent opening was edited down for its live premiere following the Las Vegas shooting. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this. Oh my God. It’s a mass shooting! What are you talking about?’ I went crazy I was so freaked out by it.’”
Despite the freakout, Grossman completed the tough scene, along with her “uncomfortable” hookup with Kai. But, the actress wasn’t out of her element due to the complex sexual power structures at hand — “For [Meadow], that was the culmination of a dream of hers … I think Meadow was 100-percent there for it and wanted to be there,” Grossman said of the sex scene — it was simply a really cramped set. “I was still hog-tied, so my arms were behind me when I had to roll over,” she reminded us. “It was a really small space, really in a set they built that was a closet. The camera guy was, no joke, less than an inch from my head. Most of it was me staring at the camera guy’s leg.”
No wonder the encounter “wasn’t sexy at all,” as Grossman described it, for viewers at home.
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