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American Horror Story – Why Dylan McDermott followed his instinct

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American Horror Story - Dylan McDermott
Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) © 2011 FX

One of the biggest hits this TV season is F/X’s series American Horror Story created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. In the show Dylan McDermott portrays Ben Harmon, a psychiatrist who has moved from Boston to Los Angeles to begin a new life with his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), after Vivien has suffered a miscarriage and Ben has had an affair with one of his students.

It’s not long before they discover the house that they’ve purchased is haunted by an overabundance of ghosts, turning their lives into a nightmare.

What intrigued you about doing this series?

American Horror Story - Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga
Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Taissa Farmiga answer questions from television critics during the Summer's TCA © 2011 FX

I hadn’t read the script, but as soon as I heard the story, I had a huge instinct to [do] this project that I don’t think I’ve had since The Practice. For whatever reason, I was instantly drawn to it.

And hearing about the house, hearing about being a psychiatrist, hearing about this fractured relationship and family and the horror aspect, this Roman Polanski-esque vision of the show and Ryan and Brad and Connie, all the pieces were just immediately intriguing to me. A lot of time it’s instinct.

And then, when I did read the script and met with everybody, it was just a big yes for me. I know that a lot of actors were afraid of the nudity and the sex and violence of the show. But I was that guy running into the burning building as everybody was running out, because I just thought it was a great concept for a TV show.

Were you a fan of the horror genre?

Yes. I like psychological horror. Roman Polanski’s one of my favorite directors, and I love the pictures that he paints in all of his movies, which is a little unsettling to say the least. I think that this show is unsettling in a great way.

The way it was described to me certainly was this Rosemary’s Baby world that we’re inhabiting. And so, for me, I was always attracted to it. I was never afraid of it.

Is this ultimately a story about relinquishing this evil or simple surviving it?

American Horror Story - Dylan McDermott
Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) © 2011 FX

Maybe a little of both. I think when I met with Ryan and Brad and Connie, originally we had talked about [how] this really is a show about a fractured family and what infidelity can do to people, and I think that it’s a metaphor for all the horror being in a relationship and being a family and being in a marriage.

All that stuff, the horror of it, is really the metaphor of this marriage and the house.

How do you play some of the scenes that are over-the-top at times? Do you look for the humor in them?

I think that Connie and I try to keep it as real as possible because we’re probably the most grounding part of the show.  I think that’s really important so it doesn’t become just a freak fest. So, I think that mostly we try to keep it grounded in reality so people can be rooted in the family. You have to just go with it, there’s no parachute in this show. There’s no net.

We are all in this together, and I think what makes it so much fun is that everybody’s making the same show here. And we’re all going for it. I think that’s why it’s working,

The mythology that’s being created on the show is already incredibly dense. As an actor, how are you handling all of these plots lines and keeping everything straight?

I think the great thing about the show is the complexity of it. Most of the time people are aiming so low on television. They’re trying to reach that common denominator, especially on network television.

And when you see a show that is so ripe and rich with all these story lines and all these questions, it’s almost like a puzzle each week, if you were trying to figure it out. I have friends texting me all the time saying, ‘Is this true? Is this happening?’

They’re trying to figure out this story, and I think why people are intrigued by the show is that it’s not so easy to figure out. People are smart, and people really want to have something to watch that’s interesting and intelligent. And this show offers that.

A lot of television just doesn’t offer that. It’s just too easy. And it’s really the complexity of the show that makes it stand out.

So what’s coming up in the next few episodes?

We’re definitely in crisis. I am still treating patients in that house. So, I’m trying to save this marriage. The family is the most important thing to me, but it is, obviously, slipping through my fingers, and I can’t seem to hold it together. So, we’re going to see more of that, me trying to keep it together as it’s all falling apart.

Have you ever had a supernatural experience in real life?

I did have one in 1989. I don’t believe in this kind of stuff at all. I’m kind of cynical in that way. I was in Louisiana, I was doing a movie. I was in the car with two other people at night. And the headlights washed over this ghost-like figure around midnight. I don’t know if that’s specific to Louisiana or not, but I did see this.

They did see this sort of ethereal being suddenly, and we all just didn’t say anything for two minutes. And then, we all brought it up. That was the only time in my life that I actually saw something and felt things. So, I have to say I did have a real experience.

Episode 6 “Piggy Piggy” airs tomorrow November 9, 2011