Gabourey Sidibe's 'American Horror Story' Panic Attack

'Queenie is very grounded – not super flashy,' says the actress. 'But her real challenge is she doesn't know who to trust'

American Horror Story Gabourey Sidibe
Michele K. Short/FX
Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie on 'American Horror Story.'
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Of the current witches on American Horror Story, Gabourey Sidibe's turn as Queenie is the early standout of what's shaping up to be another twisted season. Prior to her turn on Coven, the actress, 30, was best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire and Andrea Jackson on Showtime's The Big C. On Horror Story, Sidibe plays a witch with voodoo powers who's starting to become integral in Fiona Goode's (Jessica Lange) plan to keep her title as supreme. Sidibe's showing is fantastic; at times she's delivering one liners in the face of evil, at others she's sorrowful and complex. Rolling Stone spoke with her about the origins of Queenie, that masturbating minotaur scene and why she ran when she first saw the show's torture chamber set.

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How does one audition to play a voodoo trained witch?
I didn't. I've been a fan of the show since the first season, and I don't know if they knew that or whatever, but a few days before my birthday, I got a call saying that I would be on this season and that [creator] Ryan [Murphy] would give me a call to tell me about about my character. I don't know how it happened, but it all happened without me.

What was the initial background you got on Queenie?
All I knew about her was that she's from Detroit and that she's very grounded in terms of character – not super flashy or like a cartoon. She's a very real person. And she had this great power of using her body as a human voodoo doll, which I felt like is one of the best powers to have.

Do you believe in magic?
It's like a catch 22. If you believe in it, it can affect you. But if you don't believe in it, then it comes back to you in a way.

You provided some comic relief in the first two episodes. Did you think so too?
I don't know. . . I know people are like, oh my god, Queenie's so funny, but I don't see her that way. I was just trying to be some hard-nosed girl from Detroit. I was told that the writers had seen the first episode and that they thought it was really funny, and my first reaction was to say, "Holy crap, isn't it supposed to be a drama?" And they're like, "No, it's actually a funny show this year." A lot of the interactions between Queenie and Madison are really funny because they're polar opposites of each other. And Queenie does have a hell of a lot of really cool one-liners. 

One of the weirder things about Coven so far is when Queenie's with the minotaur. Walk us through that scene.
Queenie sees the minotaur through the window, and she sees how LaLaurie is afraid of the it. LaLaurie says that the minotaur attacked her daughter, and I think immediately Queenie knows that's false. She sees a sort of kindred spirit and a fellow damaged person in the minotaur. She sees loneliness in him. And it's the same loneliness that she holds in herself. And so at first, with that whole diddling herself, I think she was just trying to provide some sort of comfort and relief for the minotaur. I don't think she finds out everything that happens – I don't think she's ready for all of it – but I think her intentions were good.

Queenie seems much more tied to Fiona recently. The character is getting more depth.
Thanks. Jessica's character Fiona is pretty much just out for herself. She only wants to keep herself alive, she wants to keep herself young and vibrant, and she wants to stay the reigning supreme forever. And she's screwing over whoever she can to stay stay in power. She's just screwing with everyone; she's playing with everyone's minds, and I think Queenie was another victim. You sort of learn that nobody is all good, and no one is all bad, and everyone is just trying to win. Everybody wants to be the next supreme, including Fiona. She wants to remain the supreme; the supreme is like the golden ring that everyone's reaching for, and you sort of really see how far everyone will reach for that golden ring. 

What are the biggest challenges for Queenie that lie ahead?
Fiona is a challenge for everyone. She puts little drops in everyone's brain, starting with Madison, who she immediately got rid of because Madison was a threat. And so that's the real challenge for Queenie – she doesn't know who to trust.

What do you think of Kathy Bates' torture chambers? They look like the most awful places on Earth.
My first day of work, everyone was talking about how the set was really cool and how I should see it, but it's really heavy. And so I just decided to walk in, and there were people chained up and in these tiny, tiny cells. Those cells look bigger on TV than they actually are, but they're small. And there were tiny people caught inside of them. So I go in there, look around and I immediately launch right into a panic attack. I was in there for 30 seconds and I couldn't take it because, you know, it's not that it's scary by itself, it's that that's a real part of history.

What does American Horror Story provide that previous gigs didn't?
I always like a character that's not all good and not all bad. I like a character you can't see all of their intentions. And this is the first character that I've ever played where I don't know that she's good. I know that she's done good things, but I know that she does bad things too, so there's a lot of mystery in her. And so every time I step on the set, every time I have a new scene, I'm still just figuring her out, and that's the challenge. The challenge is not knowing.