A Black woman is the brains behind American Horror Story’s latest horrific tale, Double Feature: Red Tide, and Angelica Ross gives her life. The horror anthology’s milestone 10th season takes place in a fictionalized Provincetown, Mass., whose residents have fallen under the sway of mysterious Black Pills. The pills, made by the unnamed Chemist, can unlock a talented artist’s full creative capacity, but it also gives them a hunger for human blood.
For the woman behind the pills, Ross says she is “paying homage to Black women.” In episode 4 of season 10, we learn about The Chemist’s previous life as a biochemist for the U.S. government, working to shut down the brain’s creative center to make more highly-effective soldiers. Ross took that detail and ran with it, infusing her performance with a story of a Black woman who has been underestimated.
“I’m probably one of the few Black voices in that room, and they don’t want to listen to my expertise,” she explains to ELLE.com. “How about I just go ahead and leave this and do this on my own, because y’all get to pick and choose who y’all want to experiment on. I’m just going to have my own clinical trials.”
All of the historical echoes in Ross’s reasoning (race in the workplace, the invisibility and hyper-visibility of Black women, the Tuskegee experiment) lend to a season where AHS creator Ryan Murphy uses horror to explore societal issues, similar to season 7’s Cult. Ross, who has previously worked with Murphy on AHS: 1984 and Pose, is grateful that Murphy wrote another formidable woman for her to play. “The Chemist is another one of those strong women that’s not going to take no for an answer,” she says.
It’s no surprise that Ross relates to a tenacious woman. Before she started acting, she built her nonprofit TransTech Social Services, an incubator for LGBTQ+ talent in tech. Throughout her rise to fame, Ross has continued to work with TransTech, which provides skills training and links trans and gender-nonconforming people with resources and mentoring. Now that the organization has gained international notice after moving their annual summit online, Ross is passing along the opportunities she’s found to as many people as possible.
Ross talks to ELLE.com about developing The Chemist’s look, the nature of creativity, and growing TransTech in a fully online world.
Tell me about developing the role when you first heard that this was the direction Ryan Murphy wanted to go with the season.
There were so many small things that went into developing this character. [I worked with] Paula Bradley, the wardrobe stylist, to come up with the style for The Chemist. It is very glamorous, but also, I am not being too much of a fuss. Me wearing my natural hair as The Chemist lent to [playing] a girl who has to focus on a lot of other things other than doing her hair. We knew the look was going to be a little bit glamorous, but we wanted to really create this effortless glamour, with very natural textures, but a little rich.
I really do believe [that] when I’m acting it’s a collaborative process, so I truly don’t become The Chemist until I am in the full look and then I’m able to show up. Most of the preparation was just learning and relearning some of the things I learned in organic chemistry class with a beaker and a Bunsen burner. I had a little crash course by someone that came on set and kind of showed me how to work all the chemistry equipment. It’s truly a collaborative process.
One thing that surprised me about The Chemist was in episode 3, when Ursula [the literary agent played by Leslie Grossman] offers the distribution deal, and she says no, and that she’s okay with working in Provincetown on a smaller scale. Why do you think The Chemist is less greedy than all of the other characters who want to be the biggest and the best?
It’s never been about the money for her. When you’re someone who really is dedicated to your craft and what you’re doing, the money becomes a result of your passion, persistence, and dedication. I truly believe that money was not the focus for her. What was the focus was validating her brilliance. What I was carrying into the character is that neither my husband nor my job was validating what I was bringing to the table, so I created my own space that lets me focus on my work.
Also, The Chemist didn’t need the pill. She created it, but like the other folks who have positive results, once they kind of connect, they’re just focused on the craft. A lot of them, even on that drug, they’re not focused on the money. It’s the high they get from connecting to that kind of brilliance. Anybody who’s an artist and who has had those moments knows that when the creative energy comes and you really hit on something, it’s euphoric. It’s amazing. I don’t know if it’s natural or if it can be created, because I think that kind of leads to some of the arguments out there about other things that people might try to enhance their abilities. There’s a lot of social commentary, and we’re not even done with the first part. There’s just so much more social commentary on what this all means. So I’m really excited to have everyone see how this unfolds.
I do have to ask: Would you take the pill if you were offered it in real life?
Well the thing is, I would have to know about the side effects up front. If I knew that it would turn me into a bloodsucking person, then I would make that informed decision to say no. I would hope that I would have the moral compass in that moment to make the right decision.
Listen, I love playing The Chemist. Do I agree with what she’s doing? No. The side effects, the consequences are too high, so I would not personally get involved.