What loss are you referring to?
Just the loss of my mother as a child. I think that changed the landscape of my life forever, and I think the imprint was so enormous that it’s something that’s very present, even today. So I put that into my character because it makes sense. It was like: “OK, I want to personalize this, because I may be here for a while. And I want to be able to stay connected.” I think a lot of times, the trap with these shows are that you lose focus and it gets stale, and it feels like you’re working in a factory.
Why, then, make a multiyear commitment to a Dick Wolf procedural?
I’ve been doing this for five or six years now, ad-libbing and coming up with stuff. Changed the way I work radically. With Richard Wheatley, I was able to do that in “Hollywood” as well. I think that people have responded to me a little differently, because it is different. And now I’m doing the same thing with Remy, so that’s been really satisfying. No one’s saying, “Hey, you can’t say that — that’s not in the script.” They’re saying, “We want more of that.”
You’ve recurred throughout Murphy’s “American Horror Story” and bagged your second Emmy nomination with his “Hollywood.” Any chance you’ll partner with him again?
There’s always a possibility. Whenever he calls, it’s an automatic yes. I don’t have to even read it. He lets me do characters that maybe others wouldn’t, and he gives me that freedom that I love, to create. I knew after “The Practice” that I had to change. A lot of times, you do a big show like that, and that’s the end. So I knew that I had to reinvent myself. When I read his script for “American Horror Story,” I called my agent, and I said, “This is it.” It was exactly what I needed.
You’ve had a long and varied career. How do you define success at this point?
I sometimes ask myself that, because it’s a funny thing. What is success to you is not always success to other people. You know where I come from. It’s not a mystery, so the fact that I was able to do anything in this life makes me a success. To carve out a career for myself has really been pretty remarkable. So I try to remember that. I think if you’re ever flailing in life, you always remember where you come from and you’re just fine.