The 2016 election is front and center in Ryan Murphy’s latest iteration of the American nightmare in American Horror Story: Cult. And although most people haven’t faced off with killer clowns and gun-toting beekeeping neighbors since the events of November 8, fear, paranoia, and groupthink have permeated the collective conscience of many on the right and the left.
It’s too early to know for sure if the demented clowns in Murphy’s world are real or merely a figment of lead character Ally’s (Sarah Paulson) guilt-ridden imagination that her wife, Ivy, attempts to navigate and quell. What is certain is that Murphy creepily excavates the underbelly of political discourse as squeezed through the lens of social media, and no person (or political party) really gets out alive.
While the series puts its audience through a wringer, Alison Pill, who plays Ivy, a character who knows how to wield a butcher knife and who surely has secrets yet to be revealed, relived the election on a loop through the process of making Cult and what resonates most for her through all of it is the concept of the "hive mind."
“I think this echo chamber is a real problem on both sides. I also think having already made up our minds is a real problem — the concept of the hive mind and how much more easily persuaded we can be if we’re not questioning if it’s from the right source," Pill told The Advocate. “About a week after the election I started reading Breitbart just to know what this other side had been talking about for years leading up to this that I had no idea about. And it was really hard. It’s a really interesting thing to try to break out of your own thought bubble.”
While reading the alt-right–leaning site Breitbart is a horror show enough for many on the left (or even in the middle), Pill, 31, was forced to dig deep into the events of the election several times, including on the actual night of November 8, reading the script for Cult’s election-themed pilot, shooting the episode, and finally, watching it.
“It felt like a process, the fact the election had happened, that President Trump was a reality. The first scene we shot was actually the election night scene. I don’t think any of us were prepared,” said Pill, who was eight months pregnant at the time of the pilot. “[The election] is only a jumping-off point [for the series] but I think that genuinely this culture of fear and paranoia and turning neighbor against neighbor has felt real in the last year. It’s a really uncomfortable world to be living in and then also to be acting it out.”
A native of Canada, Pill began acting when she was 12 and she's played a cross-section of excellent roles, including Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, Anne Kronenberg in Milk, and a terrifying teacher indoctrinating children on a train car in Snowpiercer. The role of Ivy Mayfair-Richards, a solid hyphenate name for a rich white lesbian from the Michigan suburbs if ever there were one, came to Pill through her friend Paulson, an American Horror Story alumna whom Pill met about a decade ago. Pill constantly praised Paulson’s work ethic and “dramaturgical brain.”
It turns out the pair make an excellent couple on American Horror Story, with Paulson’s Ally continually unspooling and Pill’s Ivy there to soothe her, save for those moments when Ivy snaps, like when she revealed a possible source of Ally’s guilt-induced paranoia. Ally, a Michigan voter who howled with horror at the realization that Donald Trump would be president and shouted “Fuck you, Nate Silver” at the television for wrongly predicting the outcome, voted for Jill Stein.
“In that first little fight you do get to see Ivy’s disappointment in her wife’s choice,” Pill said of the source of tension in their relationship, but she stopped short of revealing even an inkling of what’s in store for the couple, as American Horror Story plots are notoriously under lock and key.
Pill also reflected on the polarizing state of discussing politics, fostered through social media, in which dissenting opinions are shut out. “I wonder if James Carville and Mary Matalin would be able to happen anymore. I don’t know if that would ever happen, which is sad.”
While Cult takes aim at right-wing rage exacerbated by white male privilege in Trump’s America through the literal Cheetos-tinted cult leader Kai, played by American Horror Story favorite Evan Peters, the series does not go easy on liberals. It skewers the privilege attached to Ally and Ivy, their roomy pristine craftsman home, and their upscale restaurant, as well as at their nanny Winter’s (Billie Lourd) frequent invocation of terms like “trigger warning.”
Pill said she wonders if the show isn’t preaching to the choir on some level, considering that Murphy’s shows have always been rife with high camp, queer characters, and out actors, but applauds its willingness to hold the audience it likely appeals to accountable.
“As much as it may be left-leaning, I think it’s mostly antifascist. It tweaks white affluent liberal mind-set a lot too. And that’s really amazing to me,” Pill said. “It talks about liberals to liberals in an interesting way. It’s not as easy as it might have been.”
With just three episodes of Cult having aired, it’s not entirely obvious if Ivy’s role is as a doting wife or if she’s a part of the cult (internet theories on her involvement abound) working to help bring Ally’s phobias and paranoia to vivid life inside her mind.
Oddly, what scares Pill the most is ... moths. “They’re fucking terrifying,” she said.
She also doubled down on the refusal to get out of one’s ideological comfort zone as something truly insidious.
“This idea of filtering out what you don’t want to know or see or anything that you disagree with,” Pill said. “The hive-mind possibilities of that are really frightening — that you don’t have to go outside this bubble ever.”
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.