A number of cast members have come back to the long-running American Horror Story series over the years, yet sometimes even the show’s most ardent hardcore fans are unaware of those returns—mainly because the actors tend to be unrecognizable from season to season, morphing from one bizarre onscreen persona to the next in service of the show’s darkly addictive story.
Making these major changes between characters definitely requires a significant display of dramatic chops on the part of the actors. But that’s only half of the incredible behind-the-scenes journey that helps bring these varied roles to life. The show’s award-winning makeup and costume designers certainly play an important part in these amazing transformations—and with that in mind, we’re taking a look at the very different appearances some American Horror Story cast members sport when they aren’t in front of the cameras for the show. These are the American Horror Story characters whose actors look completely different in real life.
Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling
Kathy Bates started working onscreen in the late ’70s with a role on the daytime drama The Doctors, and stayed busy on TV and in film throughout the ’80s—but she really skyrocketed to household name status after breaking through as the terrifyingly unhinged Annie Wilkes in the 1990 big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery.
Bates went on to build an admirably diverse collection of credits after winning an Oscar for her standout work in Misery, but she understandably avoided picking up another high-profile horror role until she joined American Horror Story as Madame Delphine LaLaurie in 2013—the first of many memorable parts she’s played on AHS over the years. Her character from AHS: Freak Show is perhaps her most memorable of all: She plays world-weary bearded lady Ethel Darling, infusing the character with a no-nonsense attitude that’s almost enough to make viewers forget that beard is even on her face.
Lance Reddick as Papa Legba
When you’re playing the gatekeeper to the spirit world, you’d better be scary enough to really look the part. In AHS: Coven, Lance Reddick does just that. The busy character actor, a veteran of memorable roles logged on shows like The Wire and Lost, made an unforgettable mark on American Horror Story audiences in 2014 when he made his entirely convincing debut as Papa Legba.
As anyone who’s seen him in any of his other projects is already well aware, Reddick is a handsome guy with a chiseled build, but his slender body type and unique appearance make it possible for the American Horror Story team to give him the type of otherworldly, voodoo-inspired look a character like Legba really needs. Since finishing up on AHS, Reddick’s stayed just as busy, logging a run of roles that includes parts in both of the Keanu Reeves-led blockbuster John Wick action thrillers.
Lily Rabe as Aileen Wuornos
Lily Rabe had big shoes to fill when it came to playing real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. After all, Wuornos’ sordid story was already familiar to audiences courtesy of the Oscar-winning performance Charlize Theron turned in when she brought the tragic tale to life in 2003’s Monster.
Rabe held her own as Wuornos, putting her own spin on the convicted killer with a sauntering performance for AHS: Hotel, but her methodical mannerisms are only one part of the creepiness reflected by the talented star during this season of the series. Makeup artists did more than their part too, using an array of creepy tricks to turn this drop dead gorgeous young lady into a shiver-inducing dead ringer for the notorious murderer.
American Horror Story offered a forum for some of Rabe’s most chilling work, but she’s capable of a lot more than scary, and casting directors know it—she’s stayed super busy on TV and the big screen since leaving the show.
Grace Gummer as Penny
If you didn’t already know Grace Gummer is Meryl Streep’s daughter, you would have had a tough time seeing the resemblance through her character in AHS: Freak Show. To achieve her look as "Lizard Girl," Gummer endured the daily application of an elaborate puzzle of prosthetic tattoos that covered her entire head and neck. Although her forked tongue was added in post-production, she did sometimes have to wear a silicon applique.
After wrapping up her work on AHS, Gummer underwent a different type of transformation, dyeing her hair red for her role on the critically acclaimed Mr. Robot. That change, ironically, might have been just as attention-getting as her metamorphosis for Freak Show. "There’s something about being a redhead that is very definitive," she told V. "I’ve noticed that, walking down the street, people notice me more."
Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor
Denis O’Hare’s transformation into a transgender woman is thorough–and not just on the outside. Aside from the makeup and outfits, O’Hare gave a nuanced performance that showed the emotional impact transitioning can have. Liz Taylor is the heart and soul of the Hotel Cortez, and she is simply fabulous.
O’Hare’s committed approach to the character extended all the way to how he allowed himself to be seen by his fellow AHS castmates. "I always make sure that when I’m shooting I show up in costume. I don’t want to walk on set in my street clothes, especially with a character like this. Everyone was overwhelmed when I first walked out. I remember I did a scene with Sarah Paulson and she was like, ‘Oh. My. God,’" he told the Daily Beast. "I had to be in costume. I had to be in full makeup. I had to be in heels."
Ben Woolf as Infantata
Frankenstein has nothing on Infantata. The late Ben Woolf played the miniature monstrosity in season 1, bringing to life the character that represented the reanimated remnants of the murdered Montgomery child–a tyke who happened to come back with a ravenous hankering for blood. To capture the unsettling look, Woolf had to submit to one heckuva makeup routine.
Sadly, the public never got to see more of what Woolf could have done with his obvious acting talent. He was struck by a car in Los Angeles in late February of 2015, and died after suffering a stroke related to injuries he sustained in the accident. The actor, only 34 at the time of his shocking passing, was memorialized by his friends, family, and colleagues—including AHS creator Ryan Murphy, who paid tribute to his former star by telling social media followers that Woolf was "one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met."
John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown
It took a hefty amount of special effects talent to bring Twisty the Clown to life for AHS: Freak Show. If you’ve managed to erase the image from your nightmares, Twisty shot off his jaw with a shotgun, leaving him horribly disfigured beneath his mask. But no amount of makeup could make that happen, so crew members completed the effect by painting actor John Carroll Lynch’s face green and covering it with motion capture sensors for the CGI effects.
As Lynch later told the A.V. Club, he looked plenty scary as the nefarious Twisty even without the CGI—to the point that after filming one scene in which a group of people were "stabbing a fake body, pulling out entrails," one cast member turned to him to comment on how "freaky" he looked, just standing off to the side. "It’s funny," laughed Lynch. "I’m like, ‘You guys are hacking up a body!’"
Sarah Paulson as Hypodermic Sally
Sarah Paulson was certainly no newcomer to the AHS franchise when she suited up as a drug-addled ghost in AHS: Hotel. Although she also played conjoined twins in AHS: Freak Show, she’s almost more unrecognizable as Hypodermic Sally with her frazzled hair and ghoulish makeup.
Fans got to see Paulson play a wide range of material—and survive a number of terrifying scenarios—during American Horror Story‘s run, but as she told Variety in 2015, the undead and unhinged Sally was a special treat for her to play.
"I’m just having more fun than I’ve ever had on American Horror Story," Paulson enthused during the Hotel season. "That’s really saying something, because it’s really been a true home for me from an acting standpoint for the last four years. I’ve always had a wonderful time on American Horror Story, but anything goes with Sally, and there’s such freedom in that. She’s boundary-free."
Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow
Frances Conroy’s character in AHS: Coven is a brutally stoic (but honest) witch named Myrtle Snow — a woman who lived up to her chilly last name when she didn’t even flinch while being burned at the stake. Perhaps best known as Ruth Fisher on Six Feet Under, Conroy proved almost unrecognizable as Myrtle beneath all the hair and flair.
According to Entertainment Weekly, American Horror Story costume designer Lou Eyrich worked off series co-creator Ryan Murphy’s double inspirations for Myrtle Snow to create her striking look. Murphy has described Myrtle as being a mix of two fashion icons: "a little bit Grace Coddington," the former creative director of American Vogue, and "a little bit Diana Vreeland," the late fashion editor and columnist best known for her work with Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He also shared with EW that he instructed Conroy to watch documentaries about Vreeland to prepare to play Myrtle.
As Conroy told the Huffington Post, she prepped for the part by watching Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, but she still didn’t know much about who Myrtle was going to be — a state of affairs that persisted well into the shooting of the season itself, much to Conroy’s delight.
"That starting off point—that invention to start her off with—was an interesting place to start from," said Conroy. "Then to just take the life of each episode and see how this character responds to situations and where she goes."
Lady Gaga as Scáthach
Lady Gaga, a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta, took home a Golden Globe (and a lot of respect) for her work as the Countess in AHS: Hotel. But her visual aesthetic in that season wasn’t too drastic a departure from the many zany-slash-fabulous getups she’s sported onstage. Her appearance in subsequent season Roanoke, however, was alarmingly different than what Little Monsters are used to.
Appearing as Scáthach, the original supreme witch with an undeniable power over men, she had matted hair, an old crone exterior, and a desperate need for a trip to the dentist. Despite the grimy getup, she still had to be alluring in the role, which was both weird and surprising. It might not have been her most acclaimed performance, but it certainly showcased her chameleonic capacity.
It also impressed AHS creator Ryan Murphy, who later revealed that Gaga’s character was pivotal to the past and future of the show—and that she’d be returning at some point, schedule permitting.
Naomi Grossman as Pepper
AHS: Freak Show served up a whole laundry list of truly unique individuals, and none arguably stood out more than the diminutive Pepper. A lot of makeup went into overhauling Naomi Grossman’s appearance for the role: It took two people nearly three hours to apply the prosthetic details, fake teeth, contact lens, and makeup each day. Grossman even shaved most of her head for the role.
Fortunately for Grossman, going the extra mile for American Horror Story didn’t prevent her from getting work after she left the series. Quite the contrary, in fact—she’s been seen in a growing list of projects since making her mark in AHS, and has an impressively large number of films in various degrees of production lined up for release over the coming months.
It’s all just part of a surprisingly long career. Fans who’ve enjoyed Grossman’s more recent work can seek out her appearances as a child actor—she logged her first credited role on a 1990 episode of Father Dowling Mysteries.
Wes Bentley as Edward Mordrake
Weird facial hair is nothing new for Wes Bentley. As fans of the blockbuster Hunger Games film franchise are well aware, he’d already done it in the first installment of the series, released in 2012. But even so, Bentley’s character in AHS: Freak Show takes hair to another level. Brought to life as a fictional version of Edward Mordake–an 1800s British man who had an extra face on the back of his head–his character concealed a chilling secret beneath his hat.
Bentley must have had a fun time working on the set, because he returned for American Horror Story‘s Hotel season the following year—and as he told Vulture during that run of episodes, he still managed to sleep pretty well at night. "At home, we have a really low bed, so there’s nothing to check for," he joked. "But when I was living alone, I would have those moments, walking around with a fire poker at night, to see whatever—or whoever?—was around the house."
Evan Peters as Tate Langdom
Evan Peters’ character in the first season, an emotionally troubled young man named Tate who ended up being revealed as the Rubber Man, a.k.a the father of the Antichrist, didn’t look all that different from Evan Peters in real life. But when Tate applied skull makeup before a horrific killing spree, it was thoroughly terrifying—and just the start of a long, strange journey for the talented actor that saw him playing a slew of American Horror Story characters, including a mind-blowing six roles in AHS: Cult.
As Peters later told the Hollywood Reporter, that last hurdle represented a lot to take on even for him—although he was certainly gratified to be trusted with the challenge. "I didn’t realize I was going to be playing so many different characters going into the season. … I’m excited to wrap and go on vacation," laughed the actor. "Each character has been a new challenge."
Chloë Sevigny as Shelley
Making her AHS debut during the Asylum season, Chloe Sevigny starred as Shelley, a nymphomaniacal patient who draws the violent ire of Dr. Arden after she belittles his undersized member during his attempted assault on her. After that, an outraged Arden makes it his personal mission to punish her—first by surgically amputating her legs, then going an even more depraved step further by mutilating her face.
Her appearance becomes so unsightly that, even when she has the chance to escape, others who come across her perceive her as a monster and return her to her tormentor’s den. For the role, Sevigny obviously had to wear prosthetics—and even get wheeled around on set after submitting to four hours of makeup before each and every day of shooting. The money shot showcasing the full extent of her character’s physical ruin came when she frightened a whole schoolyard of kids by just being there.
Denis O’Hare as Larry Harvey
Denis O’Hare’s AHS portfolio is filled with visually dynamic roles, but one that left the most lingering mental image was that of Larry Harvey in Murder House. The character’s face was severely burned on one side in an attack that followed his wife’s suicide by fire. Although Harvey was a murderous cretin whose sole motivation was his mistress, his circumstances still weren’t enviable, and neither were O’Hare’s on the set.
As he told The Morton Report, "The makeup is so good, and it looks so real that people assumed I wasn’t an actor, they assumed that is was, ‘Oh, look at that poor guy.’ So people would sort of avert their eyes, or they would nod politely, and it’s a great exercise in exploring what the character’s daily reality must be like. I found myself, and I find myself, not wanting to be in public." Perhaps even accidental Method acting can be effective, because O’Hare nailed the ambivalence and secrecy of his character, just as the makeup crew managed to turn him into a very literally two-faced person.
Angela Bassett as Ramona Royale
Although Angela Bassett’s had a fair amount of experience dealing with vampires onscreen, her process of becoming one in AHS: Hotel was pretty exceptional, even compared to her other compelling roles throughout the anthology—and her appearance was suitably slick and sassy.
Perhaps the best part about it, though, was how uniquely incisive it was for her audience, both on the show itself and for viewers at home. Ramona might not have required Bassett to wear a third boob prosthesis like she did with Desiree in Freak Show. But she dug deep to deliver a ferociously fun package in this season, inside and out.
"Initially, I was going to say she’s more glamorous, that sort of thing. But I think the other ladies, Marie and Desiree, they had glamour for their time, for their era," Bassett mused when asked to compare Ramona against her other American Horror Story characters. "Whether it’s the late 1800s or the ’50s, they were sensual, glamorous women of their time and of their culture and of their place in history. Even with three boobs!"
Adina Porter as Lee Harris
The character list got a little complicated in Roanoke, which navigated a show-within-a-show concept by dramatizing the events of a haunted country manor before bringing the actors together with their real-life counterparts for its sequel. Adina Porter portrayed Lee Harris, a true survivor of Roanoke who also suffered from some very menacing issues when the cameras weren’t rolling.
While she was at times seen as a calm, very put-together woman, in others, she was barely clinging onto sanity, wearing the stresses and guilt of her life on her sleeves. Even splitting the image of her at her most desperate hour with another of the same season would be jarring. Compared to what Porter looks like outside of AHS, she became nearly unrecognizable.
As she told E!, Porter had no idea how her character’s journey would evolve, which turned out to be extraordinary for her as an actor. "It was kind of like being in an improv, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, so you just have to keep yourself relaxed and then go with what is presented to you," she recalled. "And in that way, it was empowering, exciting, thrilling to, after all the years of work that I’ve done, then be in this particular moment, and just be prepared for whatever comes down the pike."
Michael Chiklis as Dell Toledo
Considering most fans are probably used to seeing Michael Chiklis wearing a police uniform from shows like The Shield, it might’ve been hard to even recognize him beneath his cheetah skinsuit and imperial mustache in AHS: Freak Show. During this season, Chiklis starred as the vaudeville strongman who paraded his "monster baby" around the carnival crowd for cash.
For Chiklis, it wasn’t just the physical aspects of the character that felt unique. "I’ve played some dark and troubled characters in my career," he told Nola.com, "but this is the most deeply emotionally damaged person that I’ve ever played."
Understandably, carrying that baggage took a toll. Although he insisted he "had a phenomenal time" filming the series, Chiklis told Entertainment Weekly he needed to put some extra work into separating himself from his character after it was all over.
"To stay in that space for five or six months, it does start to prey on you," he admitted. "It didn’t get to me at first but then after a while, especially after I started to do the darker stuff, I had to sort of leave it behind me. I watched a lot of comedy."
Susan Berger as the Real Butcher
Although the image of Kathy Bates portraying the Butcher in the sub-show version of Roanoke‘s events was the one that got the most screen time, Susan Berger’s stint as the Butcher was similarly shocking. Because not only did she boast the same bedraggled appearance and wield her eponymous death weapon just as wickedly, but she also did it all while wearing hooves for hands.
Berger later credited her makeup artist with creating such an eerie appearance for the actress, but she—and the props/prosthetics team—certainly did their fair share of heavy lifting as well.
While she might not have been at her most recognizable, Berger’s turn as the true Butcher was certainly among her highest-profile appearances, putting her unexpectedly in front of audiences after a lengthy run of supporting roles that stretched all the way back to the early ’70s. And they certainly haven’t all been scary: as MTV noted, she even appeared in an episode of Hannah Montana.
Sarah Paulson as Bette and Dot
No discussion of AHS transformations would be complete without Sarah Paulson’s turn as conjoined twins Bette and Dot in Freak Show. She’s been known to pull double duty on other seasons, but never quite like this. The sisters were connected in nearly every way except for the way they thought, which meant Paulson had to be able to hop between sisterly personalities on a dime—which was not always easy, even for a decorated actress like her.
She later said of the challenge, "It’s one thing to play a twin where you tape yourself to another actor, and you’re playing one-half of the twin, or if you’re playing both twins but you don’t have to be attached to each other … here we did things with the camera, but with my body playing two people at the same time. I just thought they were going to come to realize this was not a feasible, realizable idea." Not only did the idea come to fruition successfully, but Paulson earned one of her several Emmy nominations for her work on the season.