Leslie Grossman Reflects on the Endurance of Mary Cherry and Rejoining Ryan Murphy’s World (Exclusive)

No one is more excited about Leslie Grossman’s return to Ryan Murphy’s world than Leslie Grossman herself. The self-professed TV fangirl, who admits to binging on shows like Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale (and who has proudly watched every single episode of Housewives and Saturday Night Live), first worked with Murphy for the short-lived WB high school drama series Popular back in 1999.

Her highly quotable character, Mary Cherry, whom Murphy created specifically for her, seemed to temporarily typecast Grossman as a slightly oblivious, decidedly spoiled cheerleader type, and over the years, Grossman played into the caricature on shows like Nip/Tuck (another Murphy creation), What I Like About You and Modern Family.

But more recently, Grossman has resurfaced in an unlikely but inevitable place: as impressionable, politically apathetic, Nicole Kidman-loving Meadow Wilton, who takes a dark turn, on Murphy’s American Horror Story: Cult-- and, she tells ET the experience of stepping outside her comfort zone (and what audiences expect of her) has been nothing short of an adrenaline rush.

“Coming onto a show like American Horror Story, which is such a known entity, particularly in its seventh season, is a lot like jumping on a moving train,” she said of working on the ensemble series, often opposite AHS regulars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters. “You better hold on tight and try to stay on. And that’s what I did. I mean, it starts and you’re already on 10 the first day of work and you go from there. So I ended up not having a lot of time to freak out -- I just kinda had to do it. And it ended up being an unbelievably, extraordinarily fun and rewarding experience for me as an actor.”

Even to work with Paulson, who has earned four Emmy nominations for her work on the series, Grossman found it intimidating. “When you have scenes with Sarah, you’re not going to go in there and half-a** it. You’re going to be like, ‘OK, put the big girl pants on. This is it.’ And go for it. There’s not a lot of choice, you just have to be a good -- and that’s scary, by the way,” Grossman said of pushing herself to do her best work possible. “She’s so good and the level of work is so high. It brought everyone’s level of work up.”

According to Grossman, the opportunity to reenter Murphy’s world nearly 20 years after the pair first collaborated came about in the most casual way possible: via text.

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“One day, he just texted me, and it was, ‘I want you to be on this upcoming season of American Horror Story,’” she recounted. “And I was totally blown away and super surprised. It’s not the show that I anticipated him wanting me to be a part of. It’s very dramatic, it’s horror, it’s not a world that I’m typically a part of, so I was really surprised and super thrilled -- [I was] equal parts thrilled and terrified.”

What ultimately gave her the push she needed to say yes and give it a go with Cult, she said, was Murphy’s unwavering trust in both her ability as an actor and her perfect fit for the part. And, conversely, her trust in Murphy as an arbiter of good TV didn’t hurt.

“When I first read the script, I was reading it just as a fan, and so my first reaction was, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe this, this is crazy!’ And then my second reaction was, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe this, how am I gonna pull this off?’ I had a lot of trepidation about whether I was good enough,” she said. But after being reassured by Murphy she recalled thinking he wouldn't put anything at risk. “I also felt like, ‘Well, you've been doing this a long time. You’re really successful. I don’t think you wanna screw anything up, so I have to trust that you do know what you’re doing.’”

Popular The WB
Photo: Touchstone Television / Getty Images

Murphy’s support and vision has been consistent from the start, Grossman added -- even back in the days of Popular, Murphy’s very first series -- and hers as well. “It was a real learning process for all of us,” she said, noting that she while she recognized Murphy’s “genius” right away, audiences didn't pick up on it until after the fact.

“You have to realize that when [Popular] was on, nobody really watched it. It wasn’t like some ratings hit,” she said. The show lasted two short seasons before it was canceled in 2001, but served as a platform for future stars Leslie Bibb, Sara Rue and Tammy Lynn Michaels. “So it really developed a life after it was over, and people really appreciated it after it was done. When it was on, we were really doing it just to make each other laugh.”

Mary Cherry, she recalled, was a ridiculous joke between her and Murphy. “All the things I did I promise you were just to make Ryan laugh,” Grossman said. “It was like, ‘Oh, if I say this word in this particular way, Ryan’s just going to fall out of his chair, he’ll love it.’ Or he’d just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be so funny if this happened to Mary Cherry?’ and we would be like, ‘Oh, my god, that would be genius!’ American Horror Story is a cultural phenomenon that has a massive fan base that takes huge ownership over the show. But I think Popular was just for us, in a weird way. We were all just starting out.”

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