CODY FERN IS 2018'S BREAKOUT TELEVISION STAR
Ryan Murphy is one of television’s most kaleidoscopic geniuses. This year alone, he has explored the lives of first responders in Los Angeles, recounted the tragedy of Gianni Versace’s murder, dived into the voguing scene of Eighties New York, and presented a terrifying vision of the apocalypse—and produced the Broadway revival of the seminal play about gay life The Boys in the Band starring all openly gay actors. The actor Cody Fern, who gained attention this year in two of Murphy’s series, could be said to have a similarly chameleonic appeal. After appearing as David Madson, perhaps the most tragic of Versace-killer Andrew Cunanan’s victims, in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Fern pulled double duty this fall in the final, Robin Wright-led season House of Cards and the latest edition of the popular anthology series American Horror Story, Apocalypse. In the former, he played Duncan Shepherd, the youngest in a family of powerful political donors reflecting the corrosive effect of dark money in American politics. In the latter, he played the Antichrist himself.
Looking back on 2018, Fern still marvels at the year he’s had. Twelve months ago, he was best known for playing the lead in a touring production of the Tony-winning play War Horse in his native Australia. Now, thanks largely to his turn as Michael Langdon, the son of Satan, in AHS, he is the subject of Tumblr memes and Instagram fan accounts. “Being recognized or feeling that you’re being watched has definitely changed a lot about my life, but ultimately it’s trivial,” he says. “I’m so happy that people are receiving it so well, but my itch is always to get back in the ring to act, so if I can just keep doing that then I’ll be happy.”
His work ethic aside, Fern could be excused for wanting to take some time off, having spent the majority of the past eighteen months working. He was asked by Murphy to join Apocalypse immediately after he finished filming Versace, although he admits that he knew very little about the role he quickly agreed to take on. “He told me that he wanted me to have long blond hair and that my character would be wearing capes and that he would be the good guy,” he recalls, “so as far as I knew, I thought I was going into the project playing somebody different.” Two days before filming, his character’s name changed in the scripts from a codename to Michael Langdon, and Fern, a fan—but not, he notes with a laugh, an obsessive—of the series, realized exactly who he would be portraying.
Apocalypse is set in an underground bunker after much of the world has been destroyed by nuclear weapons, but through extensive flashbacks and a bit of time travel, the crux of the story revolves around Michael’s battle for power against a coven of witches led by Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Goode, returning from the show’s celebrated third season. Fern prepared for his role by reading the Old Testament and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which he calls “a bleak vision of mankind,” and watching powerful performances by Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. The rest came from the brilliant intricacy of the show’s writing. “What’s so enigmatic with Horror Story is that the concept is off and running and then, as it’s running, you find things that then inform the story and Ryan writes to those strengths,” Fern explains. “He makes these bold choices and then you will collaborate and knuckle down and try and help his vision come to life.”
The apocalypse depicted in Horror Story is particularly grim, but there are moments of levity and satire throughout that help sharpen the show’s wit as social commentary in comparison to other series that traffic in our contemporary cultural vogue for catastrophe. “I think it’s not hard at the moment with everything that’s happening to imagine the apocalypse, is it?” Fern muses. “Ryan has this really special talent for being ahead of the curve. He always has his finger on the pulse and he reads something that other people don’t. Some shows deal with the apocalypse in basics like, ‘How do we survive this?’ but throughout this season he was able to weave in the hubris of man and what happens when a young boy is led astray and the gender dynamic and what’s happening in Silicon Valley.”
For Fern, the terror of the apocalypse is, ultimately, internal. “I’m a very existential person, but I also think there is always this anxiety that at any point in time, all of the things that you have could go away,” he explains. “You see what happened with the fires here in California, so you have these mini-apocalypses throughout your life when your personality slips away and you don’t know who you are and you’re stuck in the wilderness trying to figure it all out. I think it’s a really existential pull but it’s also the thought that at the end of the day we’re very primal beings and there are still these really dark recesses of the human psyche that bubble up and strike out. I think everyone is a little fearful of themselves and what they would do in a situation like the apocalypse.”