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John Carroll Lynch on the joys of turning people into face-eating zombies on American Horror Stories

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Warning: This article contains spoilers for episode 3 of American Horror Stories.

You wouldn't know it based on the number of times he's appeared in Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story universe, but actor John Carroll Lynch doesn't actually like, well, horror.

"I enjoy doing [AHS], and I'm surprised that I do, because I don't enjoy watching horror, but I apparently enjoy doing it," the fan-favorite actor tells EW. This time around, he's taking part in the AHS spin-off series American Horror Stories as deranged film director Larry Bitterman. When Bitterman's previously forbidden film Rabbit Rabbit gets screened once again, it turns people into crazed flesh-eating zombies.

Below, Lynch opens up about which famous director he modeled the character on, the joys of (fake) murderous rampages, his future in the AHS universe, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Ryan Murphy pitch this particular part to you?

JOHN CARROLL LYNCH: Ryan called and said, "I want you to play a crazy director who makes the most terrifying movie ever made." And I said, "Okay." That was it.

Did he tell you there would be zombies, or any backstory on the episode?

No, no. I can't remember what word he used, but he was like, "Imagine if Stanley Kubrick was talking to critics." That's kind of how he pitched the character.

In your character's monologue at the end, he does mention several directors, including Kubrick. Was he the main inspiration, or were there others?

The very first picture that I saw, that was in the kind of imaginary wall that you walk into when you go into a Ryan Murphy world, was a picture of Stanley Kubrick. There were others, too. I mean, it's interesting. I started growing my beard [for the character] because a lot of directors, including when I was directing, had a beard. I don't know why it's a prerequisite that if you're a cis male, you're supposed to grow a beard when you're directing. I don't know why that is, but apparently, that's part of it. [Laughs]

It seemed like you had a blast playing Larry Bitterman. Be honest, how much fun did you have with this horrible character?

I so enjoyed it. I found his motivation so pure and so understandable that he wants to create the most effective piece of art he can. And he's doing everything he can to do it. It just happens to kill people, and that part he doesn't care about. Isn't that like the perfect metaphor for such a narcissist? He just wants what he wants and doesn't care what happens.

Right, and I thought that what his motivations were trying to say about our need to constantly one-up ourselves, whether via so-called event films or shows or what have you, was interesting.

I agree with you. I think it's an interesting problem. And it's also not just in film, not just in television, but in infotainment, in the ways in which news is given to us. In each circumstance, there's this kind of adrenaline pump to everything we hear. And it's the creation of fear, constant creation of fear. There's a lot to be afraid of right now, but I think we need just a moment just to calm down. That's why I love to watch films where the stakes are so delicate. I love to do those. But I also love to work on American Horror Story, because you just press your foot on the gas and forget about the brake. There's no brake in the car.

You tend to play these iconic villain types in the AHS universe. How did this one compare to the likes of Twisty, John Wayne Gacy, or Benjamin Richter?

I've had the good fortune of playing four characters on the show. Without a doubt, John Wayne Gacy being an actual person who murdered people, there will never be someone more sinister and truly humanly evil than he is. But when it comes to the three fictional characters, I would say that Larry Bitterman is the first time I've actually played the villain. I think Twisty and Benjamin Richter were victims. They did bad things, but their motivations weren't wrong. Benjamin Richter was the story of redemption, in my opinion. And Twisty the Clown was in some ways the same, I mean, all he wanted to do was make children laugh. [Laughs] Now when it comes to Larry Bitterman, his motivation is, I want people so freaked out that they will murder and eat each other. And that is not a good motivation. Note to self: That's not right. I don't care how good of an artist you are. That's not right. So I would say this is the first time I've played somebody who actually has a level of malicious intent. But what I loved about the way in which it was written, and the opportunity to play it with my fellow actors, was that he didn't know he was the bad guy. He thought he was the hero.

He thought his cause was a righteous one.

I mean, the perfection of art is a righteous cause.

Right, but getting people to eat other people's faces is not.

Quantifying your artistic perfection by how many people kill and eat each other is likely a poor coupling of those two motivators, yes. [Laughs]

FX John Carroll Lynch as Larry Bitterman on 'American Horror Stories'

For sure. And speaking of Twisty, I noticed that there was a clown in Larry's trailer, which was a fun little homage to that character. Were there other things in this episode that sort of pointed to your past characters that you know of?

I guarantee you that there are, because the apparatus of the show is so conscious of horror references in general, and so much so that they can refer back to themselves. Like in Cult when Twisty appears, and then all of those clowns appear, and me playing John Wayne Gacy. These are all kind of flow-throughs of one [character] to another to another to another. I think that that's part of the joy of the show, is like the cast coming back and playing different people, it gives the audience the opportunity to be thrilled by familiarity and to be surprised by nuance, in a way that is really an exciting part of the way in which the show is built.

There's a part at the end of the episode when Larry is dying to know how the screening went. But why didn't he just stay and watch from a distance?

I think he didn't stay because he doesn't want to fall prey to the way the movie works, but I also think there's another part of it. When Lucky, a movie I directed, premiered at South by Southwest, on the first night of the screening, people were like, "What, you're not going to watch the movie?" I was like, "No." I will just be sitting there wondering, and with each moment, it'll be like a terrible roller coaster ride if things don't land the way I want them to. It's not like we had a bunch of test screenings. And for Larry Bitterman it's not like he had a bunch of test screenings. He had one, of the old version of the movie. So I think he wants to hear on the news how it goes.

He also sort of taunts the teens — and the audience — at the end when he says something like, "Ask me why I have a Rolls-Royce. You won't like the answer." Was that just that good old Netflix streaming money we find out he got at the end, or was there something more sinister there you think?

Oh yeah. It was that life-changing streaming money. When you live in an old trailer in the location that Larry lives in, life-changing is relative. But it's a success. He sold his picture. That's the thing that was most important to him, that he sold his picture. And he sold it to Netflix. So you know, that's an exciting day for Larry Bitterman.

And not an exciting day for the rest of the world.

No, no, it's not gonna go well for everybody else. Of course, in the end it didn't go well for Larry either.

That's true. But it felt to me like he wasn't bothered by the fact he was going to die in that moment.

I agree with you, and that was quite a surprise to me. I've used this analogy before, but I have learned the best way to approach this material is just remember there is no brake, there's only gas. Just step on the gas and see what happens. And I was quite surprised by Larry's joy of being there having his knees blown off and his world burning, and yet him being attached to the success and the legendary status, that he has fulfilled his glorious purpose, to put it in Loki's terms.

And maybe his glorious purpose is to be a martyr for his cause?

Yeah, and I think it would be hard to top Rabbit Rabbit. And I don't think there's a Rabbit Rabbit 2. By the way, if there was a Rabbit Rabbit 2, I would just call it Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit.

What can you tell us about future plans for you in the AHS universe?

These shows, they're fun to do. I enjoy working with everybody who works on them. If you're going to get to work with an acting company, and be a part of an acting company — first of all, there are no acting companies really, except this one and maybe a couple of theatrical ones. So the opportunity to work with the quality of actors that I've gotten the opportunity to work with, and then to be able to work with them again and again and again, that is quite enticing. Ryan's never let me down. The show's never let me down. I enjoy doing them, and I'm surprised that I do because I don't enjoy watching horror, but I apparently enjoy doing it. Like when I was playing Twisty and I'm stabbing the people in the park with the picnic, what I'm stabbing is a piece of wood. And it's pretty cathartic to be stabbing a piece of wood. I mean, it feels good, I gotta say. As long as there's not a real person under there. It feels pretty good. [Laughs] Like when I was in Carnivàle and I went after a door with a fire axe playing Varlyn Stroud, there's really nothing more satisfying than going after a door with a fire axe. That's really fun.

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