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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.
One similarity between The Chemist, Donna Chambers [from AHS season 9], and even Candy [from Pose] is that all the characters have a lot of strength and tenacity, and drive. Do you see other similarities in the roles? Do you think they would get along if they were ever in a room with each other?
I do feel like Candy, Donna Chambers, and The Chemist would have quite the kiki. They would definitely enjoy each other’s company and have a laugh. The strength and the things that you see in those roles, it’s partially that Ryan Murphy loves strong women. A lot of the women in his narratives are strong versus what I see in other narratives. He creates these strong characters, and then you combine it with me just being a strong woman, a strong person. So that thread between all of those roles is really my own personal strength that I’m bringing to the role.
What you also saw in Candy, in those moments when she’s speaking to her family, or even when she’s out on the ballroom floor, you didn’t just see her strength, you saw her vulnerability. I believe that being vulnerable is a strength, so I bring that to every role that I do.
Your organization, TransTech, has an annual summit that moved online last year. Has TransTech been able to reach more people by going virtual?
We’ve definitely been able to reach more people. We had people logging into the summit from Africa, Jamaica, Australia, and even Thailand. We’ve been able to expand, but it’s always a situation for me that the need outgrows the supply at this current point, just in the sense that as TransTech, the demand for what we do has always been greater than our capacity. Now we have a global connection, so we’re able to connect people with resources and mentorship, but we’re still not yet able to service the entire world that we’ve now been opened up to state by state, and country by country.
TransTech will have a presence, and I’m really patient about that. Someone told me a long time ago, “Angelica, this is a great idea, but you don’t have pockets or trust funds or anything else. So your vision is going to have to be in very small pieces and take a while.” I took that to heart, and I’ve never felt less than because I couldn’t do more. I’m super, super proud of all of the people in our community and all of the achievements that we’ve done together, because I know it has saved a lot of people’s lives. They tell me and it’s really heartwarming to see and to hear.
You’ve said that the goal of TransTech is to take the opportunities that some people have been able to gain, including yourself, and help those who haven’t had access. Do you try to funnel your growing fame and opportunities in Hollywood into getting more visibility as an advocate?
I honestly don’t really want to be seen as an advocate. I don’t want to be seen as an activist, just because I believe that’s something that we all should be doing as human beings as part of the social contract. So, what I try to do is just expand my opportunities in a way that can help other folks, but that does not disrespect the space that is meant for me to take up. For instance, I’m doing a lot of partnerships now with brands, and when I’m creating this content, I know that it’s just better when I’m doing it with other people. When I have other hands and other minds in the room, it’s better. So I find different ways to share that pot with people who are ready to work. There’s just levels that I do from TransTech to my own business at Miss Ross Inc. and my own productions. I just do what I can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographed by Steven Simione; edited by Daniele Iachella; makeup by Yolonda Frederick with crowdMGMT; hair by Nathan Juergensen with crowdMGMT.
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