The actor opens up about playing the president in the FX horror anthology and reprising his role as Dum Dum Dugan.
As President Dwight D. Eisenhower on American Horror Story: Double Feature, actor Neal McDonough is living out a longtime dream of portraying Ike onscreen. It just so happens he’s doing it alongside lots of aliens in the latter half of season 10 dubbed “Death Valley.” But that detail doesn’t seem to faze the 55-year-old performer, who talked with ET about getting into character, sharing scenes with Sarah Paulson, and his future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially after reprising his role as Dum Dum Dugan in an episode of What If...?
After a career of playing war heroes, McDonough says the chance to appear as the president is icing on the cake. “I’ve always been such a huge fan of Eisenhower and what he stood for, who he was, the kind of man that he was,” the actor explains. “The honor of playing Eisenhower is hard for me to even put into words.”
Because of his adoration for Ike, there’s an added pressure that comes with bringing the character to life onscreen. “Playing Eisenhower at first was one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever had to do... It’s a heavy burden because you don’t want to mess it up. You want to make sure you do it right,” McDonough says.
But the more the actor peeled away at the character, getting beyond the cadence in Ike's speech and how he walks, “the more and more I realized I was kind of playing myself and my dad and that ‘all-American anything is possible if you set your mind to it’ attitude,” he explains.
Despite the nature of "Death Valley,” which tells the story of a deadly conspiracy, when the president makes a deal with an alien race for access to their technology, McDonough just plays the character straight. “When I look at American Horror Story and all the amazing, incredibly scary and horrifying things that go on with the show, I still play it exactly like Eisenhower,” he explains. “So I wasn’t part of a horror show as actor Neal McDonough playing Dwight Eisenhower, I was Neal McDonough playing Dwight Eisenhower in a certain circumstance or situation. And I think that’s what made the performance really click.”
The actor’s instinct to play the character “as this president who was thrown this horrible situation into his lap” also vibed nicely with Paulson, who plays Ike’s wife, Mamie Eisenhower. “The way she delves into a character, we're very similar that way,” McDonough says, adding that the longtime AHS star knocked it out of the park every single time.
McDonough also extends his praise to co-star Craig Sheffer, who appears as Vice President Richard Nixon. “What Craig brought to the set was truly remarkable,” he says, noting that the one Oval Office scene involving Ike, Nixon and then President John F. Kennedy was a standout moment for him.
“I’ve said so many times that I want to be the President of the United States for one reason: So I get to know all the secrets. So, to sit in the Oval Office with Nixon and Kennedy talking about all these things, it was one of my favorite things I've ever done as an actor,” he says.
While McDonough most notably played real-life war heroes in Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers, there’s no ignoring Dum Dum Dugan’s contribution to the war efforts in 011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. In the decade since first appearing opposite Chris Evans, the actor has reprised the role in Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and most recently, in the first episode of the Disney+ animated series, What If...?
“Dum Dum Dugan is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever played,” the actor says. “So, for them to keep asking, ‘Dum Dum, do you want to be in this? Hey, you want to be in this?’ Of course, I’m going to say yes. Hopefully one day we’ll figure out a way to get Dum Dum back onscreen, doing something because it was such a fantastic character. And to be in that universe, it was just such an honor for me.”
With so many upcoming series and the MCU timeline being ripped apart by multiverse in the next few projects, it’s not too far-fetched to see Dum Dum again, especially given how closely associated he was to Nick Fury in various iterations of the comics and even tied to Secret Invasion. “He and Nick Fury became such big partners,” the actor says. “I certainly do hope they bring Dum Dum back.”
Until then, audiences can catch him as Ike in the remaining episodes of AHS season 10.
American Horror Story: Double Feature airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and is available to stream the next day on FX on Hulu.