If you’ve had a watchful eye on television over the last several years, you know well who Adina Porter is. You’ve seen her on The 100, True Blood, The Newsroom, and countless other shows that have made their way onto your screen. More recently, though, she’s been stirring up a whole lot of trouble on the infamously gory and gruesome American Horror Story. And we here at Fan Fest have enjoyed every single minute of it!
This season Porter stepped into the role of Lee Harris, a down-on-her-luck mother who finds herself carrying the burden of her family’s misfortune. As Lee, Porter perfectly encapsulated the often harsh truths of being an imperfect person—from Lee’s bitterness and feelings of inadequacy to her emotional torment over making poor parenting decisions. And although Lee wasn’t always nice, Porter imbued her with a sense of humanity that made it easier to understand how and why she made some of the most difficult decisions of the season.
I spoke with Porter to get her insights into Lee and what it was like to play such an integral role in the latest installment of American Horror Story:
TARA MARTINEZ: What was it like to be the newbie on such a popular show?
ADINA PORTER: Well, I had a little bit of an advantage, or a foot up in that I wasn’t a new, new, newbie because I was in one episode of the first season on American Horror Story. And there are many crew members who have been there from the beginning, so people would comment about my performance and remembering me from the first season so I wasn’t a virgin. [laughs] So, there was that as well as the upper ups—you know, Ryan Murphy. When I auditioned, they liked my audition, but they told they also went back to the episode that I did the first season and reviewed that. And so, I guess that was my callback. That’s how I booked the job.
This used to be something I didn’t like, but now I’m very proud of it—I’ve had a long career of being the guest star. So, it’s only been two or three times that I’ve been a series regular. I’m always coming in as the guest star and the guest star usually has to do big emotional stuff, so it’s a muscle that I have worked a lot. I’m very comfortable coming in as the new person and being respectful of folks that are there all the time. And then I don’t play around like the folks that are there all the time and who are comfortable because I feel like I have to prove myself.
TM: Does that feeling of wanting to prove yourself ever change or dissipate?
AP: It has changed a little bit with this TV show I’m doing now called The 100 and it is my third season of being a guest star. And they wanted me to come back as a series regular, but I like being a guest star now because it means I get to hop around and do things like American Horror Story, so it’s a good thing. But I did catch myself getting a little lackadaisical. Each show has their own culture and American Horror Story-–because of the seasoned, Oscar, Emmy nominated cast—their relax is like an Olympic athlete relax, as opposed to folks who are just starting out in their career and so their relax is more like partying on the set, as opposed to theater background people who are like, you know, relax is in the makeup trailer and as soon as you get to the set, you’re on it. So, I found myself getting maybe a little too relaxed on The 100 and I’ve gotten notes from the directors about ‘Indra’s getting a little too big’ or ‘Ground her more.’ And so I’ve caught myself and I think I’m getting a little sloppy. So, yeah, it’s changed but not for the better, but I’ve caught myself and I’m back on track.
TM: On American Horror Story, your character Lee was really interesting and a lot of people were rooting for her to be the last one standing—I was, anyway. What did you like most about playing her?
AP: I liked that Lee was complicated. I liked that Lee was making decisions that she thought were right in the moment. I liked that she wasn’t necessarily—she wasn’t just a good person. I find playing people who are good and you can kind of trust that they’re always going to do the right thing so that people like them can be kind of boring.
I played a character called Lettie Mae on True Blood for seven years and Alan Ball, the creator there, used to say I was the worst mother in the world. And people come up to me in the street to talk about how they hated me. They loved watching me, but they hated my guts because of what I did to my daughter. I’ve gotten kind of used to that and as a real-time mom, I know how freakin’ hard it is! So, I like that Lee was complicated and that she was comfortable in taking shortcuts, and sometimes having to pay the price for it and sometimes enjoying getting away with it. She was a complicated expletive [laughs] and I like that a lot!
TM: Did you know that Lee would essentially be the star of the season? Or was that a surprise for you?
AP: An absolute surprise. I had absolutely no idea. I was contracted for six episodes with an option for four more. So, when I got the call that I was going to get four more, I was like, yeah! Woo hoo! But I thought that I would be a supporting character to whoever—I mean, the folks I’m working with are—I have a long resume, but they have longer resumes with even more nominations and more awards and stuff, so I kind of figured that maybe I would, I was hoping that maybe I’d be killed either the end of eight or the middle of nine or something like that. But to keep on going to the end was an absolute surprise. And then when I found out that I was and I had the powers that be saying to me things like, ‘So, how does it feel being the star of the show?’, I would ignore the pang in my stomach that would say, ‘Oh, you can’t handle this.’ And I would come up and say the same line I think anytime someone gets what I thought was considered a promotion: ‘Thank you very much for this opportunity and I’m very happy that you believe in me and I will do my best.’ And that was just my mantra and I think I did.
TM: Would you consider returning for another season of American Horror Story?
AP: Absolutely! If they want me! That was my goal because I know that American Horror Story uses many of the same actors time and time again. So, from the beginning, I just wanted to do a good enough job so that they liked my work and they would invite me back to do something on the seventh season. And so, that was my goal. If they want me to come back, I would be so incredibly happy.
TM: How did you feel about all the twists and turns of this season? Was there anything that really surprised or shocked you?
AP: I guess the first surprise that I had was while I was reading eight or maybe even after reading seven—you know, you get the script maybe a few days beforehand, so you read it—and other folks had gotten it and read eight and said to me things like, ‘Whoa! Have you read eight yet?’ So many people were saying ‘Have you read eight yet?’ that I thought, ‘Okay, let me hurry up and read eight even though we haven’t finished shooting seven.’ And I remember reading eight and thinking, ‘Oh wow okay, I’m going to get raped. That’s the worst possible thing that could happen. Oh, how horrible! I’m going to be raped.’ And then I turn the page and I find out what happens and I was like, ‘Whoa! Being raped is not the worst thing that could happen!’ So that was a huge surprise. When you’re thinking, ‘Oh man! I thought I was going to get away with only getting raped ’—that’s horrible! So, folks’ minds going there, I think, was a huge surprise to me.
And then I guess another surprise, I think—not surprise, but I was impressed with the choice of going there—I think it would have been an easy choice to continue down the road of the scariest thing being physical pain, but I think the twist of the psychological pain. I mean, a physical pain can heal. You can get an artificial leg; you can build up scar tissue on a muscle and walk with a limp, but then the going through the pain that is so much harder to heal, the psychological pain of acknowledging the kind of skills that I have or lack of skills that I have as a mother.
So, in ten, in talking to my daughter about what I thought what kind of mother I was going to be and the reality of what kind of mother I am, and being a mom and realizing how incredibly difficult a job it is to do, I thought that was a really interesting surprise and twist. I really wanted to try to be as honest and truthful with that because I get together with my mom friends and we start off drinking coffee and then we go to wine [laughs] and talk about what an incredibly hard job it is. One friend said to me that she has a career outside of the home so that she can feel like she is good and can accomplish something because she questions mothering all the time. And I totally can relate to that.
TM: Any other projects in the works that you can tell us about?
AP: I am doing the fourth season of The 100 on The CW where I play Indra who is a warrior. Indra is a commander in a group of people called Grounders and the subgroup is Trikru. When you’re, in my humble opinion, when you’re raised in a culture that has strict rules and a path to follow—I used to, when I was younger, kind of envy that because you didn’t have to question things. You were like, ‘Okay, you get born and this is the caste you’re in,’ and you do whatever your parents did, and then when you get to be a certain age, you automatically become an adult, and you’ve got to go through this ritual. And it’s just this path that you follow and you don’t question it. You just kind of follow it. And Indra, that’s the world that she’s in and she follows that until outsiders come in and mess with your culture or challenge your culture, and then you have to start making all these decisions.
So, there’s that world which is different than the world that you and I grew up in—being Americans and living in a culture where we get to, if we’re lucky, we get to decide what we want to be, and leave our hometowns if we want to, change our names if we want to, and rediscover ourselves and reinvent ourselves. And in some ways that’s incredibly freeing, and in other ways it’s incredibly challenging. Like, there isn’t a path to follow! I’ve got to make up my own! So, that’s who I get to play with Indra.
And then I also—there was a show called Underground that I did last year and there’s a season two of that. And maybe some parts of what I did in season one get to pop up again in that. So, those are two projects that folks can look out for more of Adina Porter.
Be sure to catch Adina on the latest season of American Horror Story and follow her on Twitter at @AdinaPorter.
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.