When he was 14, Ryan Murphy made a cigarette holder out of paper clips so he could pretend he was Norma Desmond and smoke “Sunset Boulevard” style.
The television auteur is glad Norma killed her young screenwriter lover and left him floating facedown in the pool.
“One of my idols,” Mr. Murphy said of the fictional, homicidal and histrionic silent screen star.
We are talking here about someone who knows that he is big, even when others think he’s small.
We are also talking about a man who is ready for his close-up.
The night I had a five-hour dinner of pasta with red sauce and white wine at the Mercer Hotel in New York with the king of Grand Guignol, Netflix had just called to tell him he was in a fierce competition with himself: his latest drop, the mini-series “The Watcher,” about a New Jersey couple (played by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale) tormented by a threatening, anonymous pen pal, was vying with his “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” for the top spot in TV shows. Both shows were created with his longtime collaborator, Ian Brennan.
Mr. Murphy has, in the last decade, conjured what Jon Robin Baitz, who is writing Mr. Murphy’s forthcoming FX series on Truman Capote, described as “a strange alternate history of America here. It’s the ‘American Berserk,’ as Philip Roth called it. Nobody has captured that intersection between beauty, death, horror and corruption the same way.”
Mr. Murphy, America’s most productive producer, who likes to say he has reinvented himself as often as Madonna, has reinvented the TV landscape with transgressive hits that disrupt norms and bring outsiders into American homes. Exploring taboos and temptations, Mr. Murphy, known for hits like “Glee” and the series “American Horror Story,” earns his eyeballs and gazillions by creating shows that no one knew they wanted, as he slyly mixes social justice messages with lusty and macabre spectacles.
He created “a mythos and a kind of line of production that’s branded and wildly successful, like Disney and Spielberg,” Mr. Baitz said.
But for the last four years, many in Hollywood whispered (loudly) that Mr. Murphy’s best days were behind him, casting him as the loser in the Shonda Rhimes vs. Ryan Murphy contest drummed up by the press.
Ms. Rhimes got a $100 million deal with Netflix in 2017. Then Mr. Murphy got a $300 million deal in 2018 and was declared “King of the Streaming Boom” in a Time cover story, “TV’s First $300M Man” in a Hollywood Reporter story and “The Most Powerful Man in TV” by The New Yorker.
The deals were closely watched, with many hoping they would fail — both to prove the invalidity of the new streaming economy, which had upended the old Hollywood economic and power structure, and as punishment for those reaping its spoils.
Mr. Murphy had a patchy initial run at Netflix — with the streamer judging shows like “The Politician,” “Hollywood,” and “The Prom” as underperforming — while Ms. Rhimes hit it big with “Bridgerton,” which debuted in 2020.
“Hollywood, since its origins, has attracted broken-toy people looking to lord it over someone even more broken,” said Janice Min, the chief executive of the Ankler. A lot of writers (and a lot of unemployed writers) who were jealous of Mr. Murphy’s jackpot with Netflix were “smacking their lips,” Ms. Min said, at the idea that “the so-called mad genius had lost his grip on the zeitgeist.” But then, she said, “the guy only striking out and hitting singles hit a home run in the ninth inning.”
The silvery-blond-haired Mr. Murphy roared back on a Targaryen dragon by Beyoncé-dropping, with no advance notice, “Dahmer” in September.
The mini-series — about the serial killer who preyed on predominantly young gay men from 1978 to 1991 — has become the biggest hit of his career and the second biggest smash in Netflix history, after the fourth season of “Stranger Things.”
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a Stephen King adaptation that Mr. Murphy produced with Jason Blum, is also floating in the top tier on Netflix. On top of all that, Mr. Murphy’s 11th installment of “American Horror Story” has started on FX, starring Joe Mantello and Patti LuPone in another harrowing tale set on the cusp of the AIDS crisis and about a serial killer of gay men, this one a fictional story about the “Mai Tai killer.”
And so the man who loves gasp-inducing twists in his TV narratives created his own. Soon, there were headlines like this one in the Decider: “Netflix Bet $300 Million on Ryan Murphy — They’d Be Fools Not to Give Him Even More.”
Before his latest fireworks display, it seemed like a good bet that Mr. Murphy and Netflix, which is now more careful with nine-figure paychecks, would have a conscious uncoupling when his contract is up in five months and the producer would make a full-time commitment to FX and its parent company, Disney.
Now it looks like Hollywood streamers will be competing over Mr. Murphy.
“Look, the reason why I wanted to do this deal with Ryan back when we did, there’s very few people capable of doing what he ultimately did at Netflix, producing something on this scope and scale and buzz level of ‘Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story,’” Ted Sarandos, the co-C.E.O. of Netflix said, adding that his streamer can get “a huge, global audience” for Mr. Murphy’s shows.
“Everyone knew about Versace,” Mr. Sarandos said. “Everybody knew about O.J. Everybody knows about Jeffrey Dahmer and yet he takes these stories that are so familiar and makes them completely fresh.”
He does not fault Mr. Murphy for an uneven start, noting: “I don’t think it’s possible, not just for Ryan but for anyone, to achieve the levels that they achieve without having a couple of misses under their belt while they figure out ‘How do I adapt my storytelling to this platform? How do I connect it with this audience?’”
A Triple Scorpio Who Doesn’t Want to Be Evil
Mr. Murphy’s s old friend Greg Berlanti, another very successful producer who once, long ago, was so broke that he had to borrow money from the equally struggling Mr. Murphy to get the boot off his car, said that when people ask him what Ryan is like, he answers: “If you mixed Hitchcock with Madonna.”
“I’ve watched him over 30 years and he has created himself over and over again, across platforms and genres,” Mr. Berlanti said. “He’s always loved classic Hollywood icons and now he’s made himself one.”
Jason Blum agreed: “God — or someone — sends him what’s going to be the big hot next thing. He’s consistently ahead of the curve.” (Billie Lourd thinks he’s a witch.)
Mr. Murphy can create with old friends, elevate new writing talent, anoint actors, producers and even directors, but no one makes any mistake about who’s running the show. To paraphrase a line about the Susan Hayward character, Helen Lawson, from “Valley of the Dolls,” a camp-classic film Mr. Murphy loves: “There’s only one star in a Ryan Murphy production and that’s Ryan Murphy.”
He has his own personal style, looking modish at the Mercer in Rick Owens black pants, 20-year-old Ann Demeulemeester boots and a long-sleeved James Perse shirt. “I do believe past 45, you should not show your elbows,” he said. “People always describe me looking like an orphan and I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’ He also sported a vest he found in a used clothing store and what he calls his “Dracula Comme des Garçons coat.”
Mr. Murphy said he never lost faith in himself, despite the Hollywood schadenfreude.
He did, however, do a couple years of intensive therapy to figure out what was noise he should tune out and what were his own behavior patterns that he could change to get a better result. When he feels cornered, he stings, and he said he’d like to curb that tendency.
He said his friends laugh about his story of a trip to an astrologer years ago who said “Ugh, you’re a lot,” when she learned that he was a triple Scorpio.
“She said, ‘You are so extreme.’ I said, ‘That’s true.’ She said, ‘You have the capacity for great good and great evil.’ I said, ‘OK, well, I don’t want the evil.’”
Despite what he calls his “Danish bitch face,” he said that “ultimately, I think I’m a real softy. I’m like an ice cream cone.”
Still, he is such a perfectionist that he uses a ruler when he makes his bed to make sure his sheets are even. “You want to make sure the line is straight, especially with a print,” he said, adding, “I like right angles.”
He has held up production to have a picture on set raised an inch and a half on a wall. If he gets obsessed with something — like the garden at the farm in Bedford, N.Y., that he just bought from Richard Gere — he goes deep.
“I decided that I wanted to do 5,000 daffodil bulbs around this memorial that the Dalai Lama built for Richard Gere,” he said. “I’ll research random daffodil bulbs for a year before I will buy them. I can tell you everything you would want to know about a daffodil bulb called the Dutch Master.”
Pruning, he said, is one of his favorite things to do with his 100 different kinds of boxwoods — to make order out of chaos.
“Everyone in my life thinks I’m insane,” he said. “I think it’s a form of O.C.D., clearly. It’s meditation — the same reason I still go into a church sometimes. I like being lost in a task.”
He said that one of his psychiatrists persuaded him that he was allowed to fail. “I just think there was a rigidity to me as an artist and a person that has gone away,” he said. “A lot of that has been fatherhood. A lot of that has been dealing with my child’s health issues.”
Mr. Murphy and his husband, the photographer David Miller, have three sons, Logan, 9, Ford, 8, and Griffin, 2.
Ford was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was 18 months old (and later, diabetes). The toddler had surgery to remove the tumor.
“To walk in and see your baby who’s not talking yet hooked up to 15 tubes was very, very upsetting and hard,” he said. (In 2018, Mr. Murphy donated a wing of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in his son’s name with a $10 million gift.)
He thought the experience of his son’s illness would make him slow down. But instead, the opposite happened. “I realized, like, wow, you’ve got one life, you’ve got one shot.”
His father, who worked in newspaper distribution, never got up the nerve to take the bar exam. His mother, who wrote books, would have liked to be in show business. “I was like, I don’t want to have any regrets,” Mr. Murphy said. “The saddest thing in the world is lost potential.”
He continued: “People always ask me, ‘How do you do so many things?’ I micromanage my day down to 15-minute increments. I stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., after putting my kids to bed at 9. I feel guilty sleeping, like there’s something I should be doing. I have a little black leather-bound book that no one in my life has seen that has ideas, like ‘Maybe this would be good.’”
Mr. Murphy has a reputation for being taciturn and demanding. He says that because his shyness can be mistaken for aloofness, he prefers to work with the same collaborators and stars over and over, like a repertory company, including Joe Mantello, Evan Peters, Darren Criss, Billie Lourd and Sarah Paulson.
His intensity can leave some who work with him feeling off-kilter if he withdraws his attention without explanation. It is like the sun shining and then he disappears, giving people whiplash. Mr. Murphy seems to enjoy the fact that he leaves people off-balance, fixated on why he’s gone cold.
“He’s certainly not easy,” Mr. Baitz said. “But that’s part of his odd magic. He’s very hard on himself. It’s as though he’s got Wernher von Braun, Grace Coddington and Edgar Allan Poe in his head.”
Cher Set Him on This Path
The producer-director-writer started out as a journalist.
At his first internship at the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee, he wore a vintage white three-piece suit to cover his first crime scene, a robbery at a liquor store, where the perp tripped and shot himself in the face.
“As I looked at this person whose jaw was dangling by a thread, I excused myself and threw up,” Mr. Murphy said. “Then the photographer said, ‘I don’t think you’d want to be wearing white on this job.’”
He went on to an internship at The Washington Post along with Kara Swisher, who recalled him as “brilliant and a handful. The same as he is now.” The editors tried to send him to cover the suburbs and he told them no, that he wanted to meet Bob Woodward.
He ended up with an entertainment column syndicated by Knight Ridder, specializing in female movie stars. The stars were impressed with his detailed knowledge.
“With Jessica Lange, it wasn’t somebody saying, ‘What was it like to kiss Jack Nicholson?’” he recalled. “It was like, ‘OK, you did that one scene as Frances Farmer and you had to do the lobotomy. How did you do that weird twitch with your left eye?’ They liked me for that.
“I thought that I was going to be like a Rex Reed sort of person. I kept interviewing Cher. Then when she said, ‘You’ve got to do something else. You can’t interview me again,’ I was like, ‘You’re probably right.’”
In the 1990s, when Mr. Murphy was still a journalist, he lived for six years with Bill Condon, a director a decade older who went on to make “Gods and Monsters,” “Dreamgirls” and two “Twilight” films. Writing about the relationship in a profile of Mr. Murphy in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum told the story of how the pair went to Laguna Niguel beach one weekend for Memorial Day: “Condon got caught in a riptide — and when he thought he saw a flash of hesitation on Murphy’s face, as if he might let him drown, he knew that the relationship was over.”
Mr. Murphy said he was hurt by the characterization because, from his point of view, he was scared and trying to help save Mr. Condon, who got pulled out of the riptide by a lifeguard.
Mr. Condon reiterated to me that he thought he saw a flicker of hesitation that he interpreted as a signal that they had “no future.” But he said he never intended it to be read as accusation of murderous intent akin to Bette Davis as Regina Hubbard Giddens in “The Little Foxes,” letting her husband die by refusing to get his medicine.
The pair continued their holiday weekend at the Ritz Carlton. “It was a moment that we both laughed about because it’s grimly funny,” Mr. Condon said. Even after they broke up, they remained friends for 14 years, with Mr. Condon inviting Mr. Murphy into his writers’ group.
Mr. Murphy said some people, and some in the press, liked to believe the caricature. “In my work, I elicit very strong feelings in people, good and bad,” Mr. Murphy said. “I have a lot of friends and I have a lot of joy, but I think people want to write about this ruthless, cold, gay person with no feelings, who’s ambitious at any cost. That’s a character that they’ve made up, but that’s not me.”
The 5-foot-10 Mr. Murphy felt like an alien when he was growing up in Indianapolis, a towhead in a family of very tall, dark-haired Danish-Irish who called themselves Vikings.
“I was alone a lot as a kid,” he said. “I wrote plays, my father wanted me to be on the baseball team. I wanted to read ‘Little House on the Prairie’ in the library. I just learned to retreat, and some people find that to be calculated, mysterious, but it’s not.”
His grandmother helped shape his obsessions. She took him to Vincent Price movies and the original “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi, and it colored his world. He decided he wanted to decorate his bedroom in red, as “the portal to hell,” a homage to Diana Vreeland and John Milton. (Later in childhood, he had a Studio 54 theme, complete with disco ball and a chocolate shag rug. When Grace Kelly died, he took a picture of her to the paint store so they could make an ice-blue paint to match her eyes, for his bedroom.)
His grandmother also gave him a love of gardening. When the nuns let their yard at his Catholic grade school go to seed, he spent five years restoring it.
“By the time I left that Catholic school, it looked like Martha Stewart had been there for years,” he said, grinning.
His career in Hollywood is strangely similar to his life in high school, “because I was attacked and persecuted, slammed into a locker, punched in the head, and in equal measure, popular,” he said. (Mr. Murphy has returned to high school several times in his work, including on his early show “Popular”; his first breakthrough hit, “Glee”; and “The Politician.”)
“Football players loved me,” he said. “How many football players was I sleeping with on the side? I had the lead in all the musicals. I was president of every club, dated the homecoming queens for three years in a row and gave them all makeovers and ran their campaigns.”
“It wasn’t like they were highly sexualized relationships,” he continued. “It was like, ‘OK, do you want to win homecoming queen? This is what we’re going to do.’”
His family would take a different nun each year on vacation with them to St. Petersburg, Fla., and young Ryan (who aspired to be pope at that point) and his brother had to take turns sharing a bed with the religious guest.
“They loved me,” he said of the nuns, “because I would talk to them about their skin care and sometimes I would help them out. I had an allowance, and I spent all my money on Noxzema and Sea Breeze for them and gave them tutorials.”
“I remember being obsessed with the idea of like, ‘Are you OK that you’re never going to be in love?’” he recalled. One nun confessed to him that she was a lesbian but was too afraid to come out.
Asked how his parents handled his sexuality, he replied that he felt “unloved” as a child; his father struck him at times. “It was not something they liked and they did not want that.”
His parents sent him to a therapist “to be changed and converted, not a conversion therapy but close.” By the time his parents “got there” in accepting him, he said, “it had created such huge problems in my life, trouble with intimacy, trouble with trusting, trouble with love.”
It left him guarded. “I thought I would be over my childhood wounds by now, to be honest with you, but I guess I’m not. I’m trying.”
He said he couldn’t abide anything puritanical but admits to being something of a prude.
“I am Victorian, almost,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll be squeamish or prudish and my friends will be like, ‘You do realize what you just aired last night on television, right?’” His work has sex and violence, but at home, “If I had pearls, I’d be clutching them at all times.”
Is There Still Bias Against Gay Men in Hollywood?
Some of his friends think that part of the schadenfreude aimed at Mr. Murphy stems from a lingering bias in Hollywood about gay men getting very powerful.
“I think my dad gets that, too,” said Billie Lourd, the daughter of Carrie Fisher and Bryan Lourd, Mr. Murphy’s agent, who is now married to Bruce Bozzi. “Even though it’s 2022 and everybody says it’s OK, he’s still a really powerful gay man and I think that’s hard for some straight men to stomach, which is so sad and weird. And Ryan is the proudest out, most powerful gay man in the bunch.” (Mr. Murphy has grown so close to Ms. Lourd that he is giving her baby shower.)
Mr. Murphy said that when he took a bow on some magazine covers when he got the Netflix deal, thinking he would be an inspiration to other gay people, instead, it ruffled feathers. “I used to be the underdog” — he moved to Los Angeles with $56 in his pocket, he said — “and then I became the establishment. Nobody roots for the Yankees.”
His production company has 302 Emmy nominations and 51 wins; Mr. Murphy personally has had 37 nominations and won six Emmys, and a Tony for his “Boys in the Band” revival and two Grammy nominations for “Glee.”
He recalled that when he started out in 1995, “Those early years were very, very, very hard because I would want to write gay characters or women, other marginalized groups, and straight men wearing Dockers in power would say, ‘No, people don’t want to see that.’”
He recalled that one male executive imitated his voice and hand mannerisms to be a Paul Lynde-like gay caricature — even though he has a basso profundo voice, unlike Lynde’s.
“I was just absolutely shocked,” Mr. Murphy said, adding that “the true joy of the arc of my life” is that it’s not even a conversation with the executives he works with now.
In 2016, Mr. Murphy began the Half Initiative, seeking to ensure that at least half the directing jobs on average for his shows were filled by women.
Mr. Murphy says his vision has always been “to take the people that in another person’s work would have been the sidekicks, the misfits, the marginalized people you laugh at, and to center the story around them.”
He also writes many parts for women over 40, debunking the old idea that women should vanish from the screen after a certain age. His first FX hit, “Nip/Tuck,” was about plastic surgery and he created a love letter to faded movie queens in their 50s in “Feud: Bette and Joan,” about the dueling Mesdames Davis and Crawford during the filming of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
Naomi Watts, the 54-year-old star of “The Watcher,” said she was grateful to be a part of the club. “It doesn’t matter to him that we’re not at the tippy top this second,” she said. “He knows and recognizes that we’ve had great moments and we’ve proved ourselves as artists.”
Ms. Watts will also be playing the socialite Babe Paley in Mr. Murphy’s next installment of “Feud,” set for next year, about the cafe society battle royale that resulted when Truman Capote wrote a book, “Answered Prayers,” dishing about his swans and they dropped him like a hot tiara. Tom Hollander will play Capote, with Diane Lane as Slim Keith, Demi Moore as Ann Woodward, Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill and Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest.
Mr. Murphy used to get upset when his style was called “camp.” “I thought that was a way to pigeonhole gay people: ‘You didn’t write a drama. You wrote a camp drama,’” he said. “Now, I’m like, if you want to call it camp, yes, maybe ‘American Horror Story’ is camp. I don’t think it is, but if you want to, OK, I get it.”
“The rule of my career has been: The more specific you are, the more universal you can become,” he said. “I also don’t think that all gay stories have to be happy stories. There was a moment on Netflix where they removed the L.G.B.T.Q. tag from ‘Dahmer,’ and I didn’t like it and I asked why they did that and they said because people were upset because it was an upsetting story. I was, like, ‘Well, yeah.’ But it was a story of a gay man and more importantly, his gay victims.”
He said he is most proud of an episode about one of Dahmer’s victims, a charming Black deaf man named Tony Hughes. “There’s a five-minute scene of three gay deaf men at a pizza parlor talking in sign language about dating, gay life and how hard is it for them,” he said. “I could not believe that I was getting the gift of putting it on television.”
Why did he think it became such a big cultural phenomenon, with Jeffrey Dahmer Halloween costumes trending to the point that eBay banned them?
“The world is a dark place and getting darker, and people are looking for a place to put their anxieties,” he said.
Some on social media were quick to accuse the show of exploiting the trauma the victims’ families had suffered. Mr. Murphy said he did the story to shed light on the racism and homophobia that pervaded the case, at the victims’ expense, and because “it was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen that really sort of examines how easy it is to get away with things with the white privilege aspects.”
He asked: “What are the rules now? Should we never do a movie about a tyrant?”
He said they spent three and a half years researching the story, and reached out to at least 20 friends or family members of the victims trying to get input. “I think when you make something like this, you have an obligation to history,” he said.
Mr. Murphy said that President Barack Obama called him after he watched his 2014 film adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” about Larry Kramer’s crusade to have doctors and politicians acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, and told him to keep being a historian. “That was a lightbulb moment,” Mr. Murphy said. “What I try to do regularly is unearth buried history.”
And what does he have planned after his autumnal triumph?
He had a commercial, if not a critical, success in directing Julia Roberts in “Eat, Pray, Love,” but he says he doesn’t want to do any more movies. “I like the energy of the long-form television series,” he said. And he’s working on a book about famous women and how they informed his life, called “Ladies and Gentleman.”
“I might not do anything,” he said dryly. “I might retire and launch a line of beeswax products. I would not be surprised if I moved to the East Coast and changed my life completely. I just bought a farm and I’ve always wanted to be a farmer. I grew up in Indiana. My backyard was a cornfield.”
I said that I thought he was dying to get away from all things Indiana.
“You always just end up being the person you ran away from,” he said, smiling.
Confirm or Deny
Maureen Dowd: The next season of “Feud” will be Harry and Meghan vs. Charles and William.
Ryan Murphy: No. I actually love Harry and Meghan. I was doing a season of “Feud” about Diana and Charles, and I abandoned it because I’m not British. Also, I wanted to see it on “The Crown.” I’m like, “They’re going to do it so much better than me.”
The Kardashians are dragging down culture.
I think they’re brilliant and also very misunderstood. These are women who are working their asses off and doing businesses and they’re also unapologetic about, “This is who I am.” One of my most fun nights ever was I had dinner at Kris Jenner’s house. Kim came unannounced and we just hung out and talked about furniture. They are cheerleaders for other people. I would love to work with Kim in an acting part. I might hire Kris to be my manager.
Your biggest regret is approving the “Glee” rendition of the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” song.
That’s actually my biggest triumph.
You interviewed Bette Davis.
She said, “I’ll give you 20 minutes.” She was wearing a Patrick Kelly suit and a pillbox hat. She was shrouded in this thick cloud of cigarette smoke and she looked like Yoda. The first thing she said is, “Do you want to hold my Oscars?” I said, “Yes, I do.” She ended up giving me two and a half hours and I still have the tapes. I chain-smoked with her. She died three months later.
Warren Beatty once gave you this directing advice: “It’s all about the wigs.”
He was making a joke, but I took it as Bible because he’s right. I build that into my contracts that I almost have wig budgets to make sure they look perfect.
You can spot any plastic surgery at 10 paces.
Absolutely. I never judge anybody for doing it. I don’t like the hypocrisy of someone saying, ‘Look at me, I’m aging so beautifully and naturally,’ and then it turns out they’ve had a brow lift, a forehead lift and an eyelift.
You have come around to the Tom Ford theory that houses are calmer without color.
I tend to create environments now that you feel like you’re in a bowl of oatmeal. But for the farm, I’ve been researching all these plaids and what countries and families they came from. Death by plaid.
On one of your first dates with your future husband, he took you to a U.S.C. football game and you wore a fake fur coat and read Vogue the whole time.
Actually, I got a lot of compliments by the people on the stands.
You love bidding on Karl Lagerfeld at auctions.
I bid on one specific thing: a couple of candlesticks in the shape of Karl Lagerfeld’s head.
When your friends go out to dance in Provincetown, you stay home with 1stdibs and Sotheby’s.
Usually, I’ll just stay home because I want to be with my children. I’m a nester now and I want to be with my babies and I want to be with my Karl Lagerfeld candlesticks.