‘AHS’ Director Barbara Brown on Billie Lourd’s Toughest Episode of ‘Cult’ (Exclusive)

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Billie Lourd AHS
Photo: FX

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the eighth episode of American Horror Story: Cult.

Cult, the seventh installment of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series, American Horror Story, continues to be one of the most creepy and chilling seasons yet as the story of an Ohio town falling under the guise and delusions of a psychopath after the fallout of the 2016 presidential election continues to unfold in unexpected ways. And episode eight (“Winter of Our Discontent”), directed by Barbara Brown, is no exception, when Kai’s (Evan Peters) female followers -- most notably, Beverly (Adina Porter) and Ivy (Alison Pill) -- become disillusioned by his leadership after they're forced to cook and serve his growing group of male supporters in a very Handmaid’s Tale-like setup. Later, Kai proposes that Samuels (Colton Haynes) impregnate Winter (Billie Lourd) with the messiah, resulting in a bizarre threesome and an attempted rape by Samuels as he tries to prove his heterosexuality.  

“It’s such a turning-point episode for almost all of the characters, in terms of sharing this common theme of betrayal,” Brown tells ET of the episode that results in the deaths of Samuels and Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), the exile of Beverly and the introduction of Ally (Sarah Paulson) to Kai’s cult. 

But really, the eighth hour of the show belongs to Winter, who goes through the largest transformation. Following the election, she’s a heartbroken Hillary Clinton campaign worker who becomes a trusting follower in her brother’s cult before finding herself in a situation where she’s stripped of all her powers by someone she loves and is devoted to. The beginning of that evolution, Brown says, is seen in the threesome that follows Kai’s command that Samuels impregnate his sister. “It’s a sad and comedic reminder of where Winter started,” she says.

Unable to perform, Samuels is humiliated and Winter is subsequently punished by her brother. Later, Samuels tries to violently rape Winter in a car before she manages to push him off and shoot him in the head. “She’s gone from defending Kai with the ladies to realizing he’s really pretty far gone in terms of insanity and expectations of everybody in the cult,” Brown says of what goes through Winter’s mind, leading up to her killing Samuels, as she comes to terms with Kai’s betrayal of her. 

While what was seen onscreen was pretty violent -- Samuels leaps on Winter and tries to strangle her -- Brown suggests the “director’s cut” is even more brutal. “There are some things that are not in the final cut that we shot,” she says. “The start of the process is actually a slap that we cut out. Samuels slaps her and that’s the beginning of this rape.”

However, despite what happens between Samuels and Winter, Brown and Lourd did not want the character to appear to be just a victim in the situation. “She’s shooting Samuels in defense of women and in defense, literally, of herself. That was an important part,” the director explains, adding that both Lourd and Haynes had a lot of input in the scene. “They wanted to make sure [that audiences knew] she understood that she was literally backed up against the door in a no-win situation and that pushes her over the edge to kill him.”

When it comes to directing Lourd in this particular episode, Brown couldn’t be happier it was her to help the actress through it. The two previously worked together on Scream Queens, where Brown helmed five episodes during its two seasons. The two have since grown closer off-screen as Lourd has dealt with the back-to-back deaths of her mother, Carrie Fisher, and grandmother, Debbie Reynolds. “It was such a challenging episode for her as an actress and also as a human being with what she’s gone through in the past six months,” Brown says, referring to filming over the summer, adding that it was nice that the two had that previous experience and trust in each other. “We are close and gotten closer with all those things happening in her personal life. But we just talked every step of the way. She knew I would never ask her to do anything [she was uncomfortable with].”

As for Brown, the episode marks her first time helming an installment of American Horror Story, after transitioning from script supervising (on multiple Murphy series) to directing. With the help of Murphy, she got her break directing Glee and will soon be directing an episode of 9-1-1, his new FOX series starring Angela Bassett, Peter Krause and Connie Britton. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor,” she says, while also celebrating the TV producer’s Half Initiative, which aims to increase diversity behind the camera and has helped place Brown with mentees onset. “Here, I very quickly kind of give back. You have a chance to help somebody -- give somebody an opportunity. Shadowing has gotten much bigger now and it’s just great to have these mentees. As the program continues, we’ll get to keep participating in Ryan’s mission of creating a more diverse DGA.” 

American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.