“The only difference between me and the ten guys and women who were in my writing group when I first started out here in Hollywood is that I’m the only one of those people who just didn’t take no for an answer and didn’t become devastated over the rejection,” says Ryan Murphy, the writer, director, producer and showrunner best known for creating or co-creating The WB’s Popular, FX’s Nip/Tuck, Fox’s Glee, NBC’s The New Normal and Fox’s Scream Queens, as well as the ongoing FX anthology series American Horror Story, American Crime Story and Feud. As we sit down at the offices of Ryan Murphy Productions on the Fox lot to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast, Murphy continues, “I think that’s because when I was growing up, I would get pushed down. And what are you gonna do? You gonna stay on the ground? No, you’re gonna get up and you’re gonna keep going. I’ve always had that philosophy: ‘Okay, well, that didn’t work out — and it hurt — so what’s the next thing that might?'”
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Murphy, 51, was born and raised in Indianapolis — partially by his grandmother, who helped to introduce him to film and TV — as part of “a very rigorous, conservative,” religious, middle-class family. He knew early on that he was gay, but remained in the closet until the age of 15, when his mother discovered love letters that he had exchanged with an older boy and sent him to a therapist. The therapist met with him several times and then told his parents that they could either love him or lose him, and they got on board — but even so, by the time he graduated from high school and college, he knew that he needed to get away. “I always wanted to come to Hollywood, even as a young kid, and I always knew I would end up here,” he says, “I just didn’t know how.”
After college, Murphy headed west “with nothing” but, nevertheless, “instantly loved it.” A journalism major in college, he started out as a freelance writer and eventually graduated to churning out celebrity profiles for Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, while doing his own writing on the side. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew the way in was to write,” he recalls, and indeed his first screenplay, Why Can’t I Be Audrey Hepburn?, was read by an agent and bought by Steven Spielberg. “From that, everyone wanted to meet me,” he recalls. Murphy spent the next two years selling movie pitches and writing scripts, but, he says, “I realized, at that point, that I didn’t really want to be a writer; what I really wanted to be was a director/producer.”
At the urging of Murphy’s agent at the time, he turned one of his film scripts into a TV pitch, and all four networks bid on it. It wound up at The WB in 1999 as Popular, and it helped to put him on the map. He loved much about working in television — “I loved the pace of it and the energy and I liked creating something and writing something and then you were shooting it a week later,” he explains — but his overall experience with that show was “really terrible”: “I had homophobic executives; I was constantly being told to change who I was and what I was writing; and I always felt like I was 15 years old, you know, back pre-shrink.” The show was canceled after two seasons.
At that point, Murphy says, “I just decided, ‘Okay, well, what do you want to do and what do you want to be? You’ve got a foot in the door and your next move has to be pretty good.” In 2003, inspired by Mike Nichols and his 1971 film Carnal Knowledge, as well as an article that he came across about plastic surgery, he created the series Nip/Tuck for FX, marking his first of many collaborations with that network; his first time doing a show that didn’t really fit into any pre-existing mold; and, with the exception of one episode of Popular, his first time directing. “That was sort of the birth of a different part of my life and career,” he says, and he was recognized for it with a best drama series Golden Globe Award in 2005.
With his stock soaring, Murphy poured his heart and soul into Pretty Handsome, a pilot about a small-town gynecologist who realizes he is a woman, but, to his devastation, FX passed on it. However, this proved to be the first of several times when a low moment paved the way for high ones soon after — in this case, Glee and American Horror Story. “Every great success that I’ve had in my life has come from a disappointment that I was devastated by,” he marvels. “From that Pretty Handsome melancholy came these two big hits in my career, and it only happened, I think, because I was forced to get quiet and say to myself, ‘Well what do you really want to talk about?'” (He notes that a similar thing happened years later when FX declined to pick up his pilot Open, soon after which he arrived at the idea for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.)
Glee was “an optimistic family musical” in which “the underdogs would always win,” Murphy says, noting, “There was a lot of my childhood in there.” Beyond being a musical series, the show — which ran on Fox from 2009 through 2015, arriving, like Modern Family, shortly after the election of America’s first black president — prominently featured LGBTQ and disabled characters, and became a full-fledged hit. “That was one of the biggest shocks of my life, that that show became what it became,” he confesses. Two years into its run, he launched a totally different sort of program — an anthology series in the mold of The Twilight Zone and others from TV’s Golden Age, only with a horror tint — and American Horror Story became an award-winning hit in its own right.
What’s with all the genre hopping, which most TV content creators never get to do because they either have more limited interests or get pigeon-holed into one sort of work? Murphy gets the chance, he says, because “Not everything [I do] does work, but I’ve had enough things that have that shouldn’t have” that he is given the benefit of the doubt. The desire, though, exists for deeper reasons. “I love all different genres and I just sort of bounce around between them because it keeps things fresh for me,” he explains. “And, I guess, maybe subconsciously, in the early days it was a way for me to not be stereotyped, when I have felt, as a minority, that I’m so stereotyped. He adds, “Now, I would say, it really is by design. I really love it.”
Another thing he loves: actors. He has built a veritable stock company over the years, led by his two queens from different generations, Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson, and also including Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Angela Bassett, Lily Rabe, Evan Peters, Emma Roberts, Matt Bomer and Denis O’Hare, plus many behind-the-scenes collaborators. “I think it comes from me having a sense of, ‘I wish that I had more of a close-knit family growing up and maybe felt a part of a community growing up,’ and I didn’t,” he reflects. As for the disproportionate number of women, and particularly older women, with whom he works, he says, “I like writing roles for women over 40 because it just resurfaces them, and they’re great.” This year, he started the Half Foundation, an initiative within his production company, to make 50 percent of his on-set hires women.
Murphy also has used his pedestal to highlight stories about gay people, not only on Glee, but in his short-lived semi-autobiographical NBC sitcom The New Normal (2012-2013) and his HBO TV movie The Normal Heart (2014), on which he partnered with Larry Kramer to bring Kramer’s landmark play to the screen after years of roadblocks. Productions like these would not have been possible less than two decades ago, when Murphy was starting out in the business. “I feel like I haven’t changed,” he says. “I feel what changed is the executives. The executives are now great — like, they want those characters. They know that launching a conversation about anything in visibility means a more diversified audience, which leads to success.”
Recently, Murphy has devoted a lot of his time to launching new FX anthology series in the mold of American Horror Story. He started last year with American Crime Story and its first installment, The People v. O.J. Simpson, which proved a towering success. And this year he did so again with Feud and its first installment, Bette and Joan, an eight-part study of the complicated relationship between the legendary movie stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two best actress Oscar winners, starring two other best actress Oscar winners, the aforementioned Lange, as Crawford, as well as Susan Sarandon, as Davis. For it, Murphy personally received three Emmy nominations in July — best limited series, best directing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special and best writing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special — bringing his career tally to 23, four of which have turned into wins: best directing for a comedy series for Glee in 2010; best TV movie for The Normal Heart in 2014; best limited series for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in 2016; and best short form nonfiction or reality series for Inside Look: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in 2016.
Murphy, who grew up obsessed with Hollywood’s Golden Age and the Oscars, interviewed Davis when he first moved out to L.A., and created Feud using information from that conversation, tons of other research and a film script that he and Plan B bought years ago. He insists that the bickering of the two actresses featured on the show was not at all replicated by the two actresses who brought them back to life on his set. “It was a love-fest,” he says of Lange and Sarandon’s interactions. “They actually worked well together and supported each other and had great ideas for scenes for each other, so none of that happened. And hilariously, and thankfully, they were both nominated for best actress, as opposed to poor Joan Crawford, who wasn’t invited to the party [in 1963 for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, when the Academy nominated Davis but not Crawford for best actress]. Jessica and Susan are staunch feminists and believe in equality, and they’re not gonna do that bullshit. They’re just not those people. They’re not interested in petty gossiping. I’ve never met two women less interested in that.”
The one bit of drama that has been associated with Feud has come from the most unexpected of places: Olivia de Havilland, the sole legendary actress portrayed in the film who still is alive today. In June, on the eve of her 101st birthday, de Havilland sued Murphy for, allegedly, defaming her on the show (which she had not yet seen when I asked her about it in April). “I was saddened by it because I felt that I really had written and produced and directed a love letter to these women, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, really? I love her so much,'” Murphy says. “I’m sorry that she feels badly about it, but I don’t know why she feels badly.” In reference to Feud‘s depiction of de Havilland, he insists, “There is absolutely nothing but love — there is no malice, there is nothing said that’s not treating her like a lady.”
Murphy emphasizes, “The other thing that I think people should know about the docudramas that I do — be it Feud or American Crime Story with O.J. or [the subjects of an upcoming installment] Charles and Diana and on and on — you know, we don’t just write those and film them; we write them and lawyers read them and they say, ‘Where did you get this piece of information from? Where is this quote of Olivia de Havilland coming from?’ Obviously, the construct of doing a documentary wrap-around is a device of docudrama that’s been done since God was a boy. But everything that we have Olivia or Joan or Bette saying is, I would say, based completely on existing information, either research or interviews. And in the case of Olivia de Havilland, we have a very long document, as we did with Joan and Bette, where we say, ‘This is where we got this line from. She said this in an interview.’ Is it directly the exact line? No, some of it’s tweaked, but it’s all based on fact, it’s all based on research. And this had been vetted for months before we even shot any episode.”
He notes, “I feel like Olivia de Havilland is a historical figure, and I’m just sad she didn’t love it as much as everybody else seemed to. But I also have the support of Fox, and we have 15 lawyers who have reviewed every claim and think there absolutely is no claim.” But, he emphasizes, “I have nothing but love and admiration for her, and I do think it will all end up okay. Maybe I’ll get to meet her in court, but I hope it doesn’t go that far. The first thing I would do is say, ‘Can I have an autograph? I really love you! I really do!'”
Throughout our conversation, while discussing past traumas, personal and professional, and even lawsuits, Murphy exudes calm, but he says that doesn’t mean he isn’t upset about some of what’s going on around him. “I feel very angry about the state of the country,” he vents, “and I feel like the best thing that I can do is sit up straight and shut up and just write characters that are going through difficulties, so that people can see that and, as human beings, hopefully recognize that pain is pain is pain. That’s what I’m interested in doing as my sort of political activism.”