Ryan Murphy has an eye for gay icons. In his ever-expanding career, he’s worked with the likes of Lady Gaga, Jessica Lange, Kristin Chenoweth, and most recently, Joan Collins. On this season’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse, it’s safe to say Leslie Grossman is poised to claim that title.
It’s not the first time Grossman has worked with Murphy. In last season’s Cult, she portrayed Meadow, a woman who married her gay best friend. But it was the short-lived 1999 series, Popular in which Grossman first worked with Murphy, portraying the cult favorite, Mary Cherry. Some might argue she was a gay icon before her time.
“I would say almost on a daily basis, people say something to me about Mary Cherry,” she says. “Whether they see me out or it’s on social media. She was a real piece of work.”
Although the character herself was straight, Murphy has been open about the WB’s issue with her demeanor. He recalled them asking him if she could be “less gay.” Luckily, he didn’t go to Grossman with that suggestion.
“I was really insulated from what the network was saying,” she says. “I only dealt with Ryan, and I don’t think he would ever want to say that to me. I think he sort of handled all the network stuff. Thankfully, we really didn’t know much of what the network was saying. You have to understand, most of that part was just me trying to make Ryan laugh. That was really my main goal, and to make myself laugh. So, I’m glad that other people thought it was funny too.”
Luckily, fans of the cult classic get to see Grossman once more through Murphy’s vision. And she recognizes the privilege it is to be part of the world he’s created. As an actress, she finds it a rarity to see such thoughtful roles for women.
“Ryan really loves to write for older women,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m ancient or anything. But there’s a lot of people who are solely focused on writing for 20-somethings, and I think Ryan loves older, interesting, complicated women. And there is so much space for that in his work.”
Although she couldn’t tease much of what’s to come for her character, it’s safe to assume that Murphy has something worth watching in store for one of his earliest muses. In Apocalypse, she plays Coco St Pierre Vanderbilt, a privileged rich girl with an appetite for social media stardom who finds herself one of the last remaining souls on earth. As the other members of her bunker grow hungry for survival, it’s intriguing to watch how her story will unfold.
In last season’s Cult, she played Meadow Wilton, a woman under the thumb of a Trump-obsessed clown cult. Her character met an unfortunate demise after committing a mass shooting, which she admits felt all too real in the current climate of our society. But her character’s life was also less than fortunate, as she married her gay best friend (Billy Eichner), a man she loved but who could never love her back.
Although she holds her gay friends as some of the fondest relationships in her life, Grossman finds the concept of a “gay husband” to be a bit outdated.
“Something that straight women do that I really dislike is when they say, ‘these are my gays’ or ‘this is my gay,’” she says. “This thing of straight women who sort of claim gay men as theirs – to me, it sounds like they’re talking about their pets. And I cannot stand it. It’s not an accessory. This person is not just a player in your life, they have their own unique and special lives. They’re not just going to be your person that follows you around.”
Having said that, she recognizes and appreciates the role LGBTQ people have played in her career. It’s not just her gay fans, but creators like Murphy who helped her embrace who she is.
“When I was younger and thought about acting, I thought, you need to be a perfect beauty to be an actress,” she says. “You have to be super skinny and look like a cover girl. And that wasn’t me. I’ve always felt extraordinarily accepted by the gay community, and I think that my uniqueness and otherness was celebrated and appreciated. That’s meant so much to me and has just provided me endless joy.”
And if given the opportunity to revisit the role of Mary Cherry, she would jump on it. Although she’s never discussed reviving Popularwith Murphy, she’s considered where her character might be now. In fact, she says she’d probably be frenemies with Coco St Pierre Vanderbilt if those universes collided.
“I’ve always felt like if you were going to visit Mary Cherry today, she’s deeply involved in the Trump Russia investigation,” she says. “I’m convinced she’s probably Kellyanne’s home girl. She did some really shady shit in Russia, and maybe during the campaign, was like a communique, brought images back and forth. Because maybe she had a furrier in Russia where she got all her minks and stuff like that, like her off-market furs. Like, she would wear coats that are like the most extinct animals. She’s probably deeply involved in some sort of scandal. But I think Mary Cherry would be able to buy her way into a bunker if, god forbid, there was a nuclear war.”
Perhaps a new season or at least a crossover of Popular is just what Murphy needs to return to his roots. And reintroducing Mary Cherry to the generation that grew up on Glee and American Horror Story is sure to solidify Grossman’s status as a gay icon.
Watch Leslie Grossman in American Horror Story: Apocalypse, Wednesdays at 10pm on FX.