On Wednesday night, TV viewers tuned in to watch the premiere of American Horror Story: 1984, the ninth season of Ryan Murphy’s still-buzzy horror anthology series. Among those seeing the episode for the first time was actor Zach Villa—despite the fact that Villa just so happens to have a major role this season. “Oh, I was watching with the rest of America,” he said over the phone the morning after. “It was pretty wild. You never know what the editors are going to do.”
For viewers, part of the joy of watching AHS—or any Murphy show, for that matter—is that you are met with surprises at just about every turn. For Villa—an actor and musician who is perhaps best known for Rebel and a Basketcase, his musical duet with Evan Rachel Wood—his AHS audition was no exception. “I was going on a bunch of auditions, like you do, and got an e-mail,” he said of the process of landing the role. “Honestly, I didn’t think too much about it one way or another. I was like, ‘Okay, here is another audition.’ And it turned out to be something radically important.”
At the time, Villa didn’t know which part he was auditioning for. “Based on the material, I just knew there was something wrong with this guy,” he said. As viewers learned on Wednesday’s premiere, that evaluation is an understatement. When we meet Villa, he is attacking Emma Roberts in the dark of the night. Turns out, he’s the infamous, real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker.
Once Villa figured out his character’s identity, the research began. “I’m voracious as far as background information,” Villa said. “But there is kind of this magical mashup that happens where— regardless of how much research you’ve done—the role becomes something else completely. It’s always a version of this person. You don’t play Freddie Mercury in a Queen biopic, you play a version of him.”
In addition to the challenge of embodying a well-known maniac, Villa also had to contend with being a newcomer on a set of Murphy regulars, including Roberts, Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman, and Cody Fern. Happy, he hit it off immediately with another AHS newbie: Glee alum Matthew Morrison. “On my first day, I pulled up to set on my motorcycle and parked next to this scooter. I was like, ‘Who is the other guys on two wheels?’ And they said, ‘That’s Mr. Morrison’s.’ I’m like, ‘Glee Mr. Morrison? Dude!” So we had this crazy bonding experience.”
But still, Villa faced another challenge: keeping the very top secret role and plot of the season under wraps. “Part of it is fun because I am on this super secret mission and I know where it’s going and it’s exciting to watch viewers be like, ‘Well, will I stick with it or not?’” he said. “There’s an interesting observers thing. And then there’s a part of me that wants to scream and tell people, ‘Just hang on. There’s a reason for that.’ I respect Ryan’s vision. I trust that man. His taste over the years has been impeccable.”