From executive producer Ryan Murphy, the FX limited series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story illustrates what happened when the cross-country path of destruction of spree-killer Andrew Cunanan (chillingly played by Darren Criss) landed on the steps of the 1997 South Beach residence of Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez), where the international fashion icon was murdered. Based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth, the series examines how fame, wealth and failed ambition collided with homophobia and prejudice, and ultimately delayed law enforcement’s search for one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Australian actor Cody Fern talked about the crazy career path he’s currently on, playing David Madson (spree killer Andrew Cunanan’s former lover and second victim) on Gianni Versace, the incredible experience of having Darren Criss and Finn Wittrock as scene partners, how working with Ryan Murphy changed him, as an actor, going from American Crime Story to House of Cards, the pressure of joining an acclaimed series in its final season, working on projects with a high level of secrecy, and why he’s already started writing and directing.
Collider: You were great in The Tribes of Palos Verdes and you’ve been a real stand-out in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. And next, you’re going to be in the final season of House of Cards, which is a very intense series. It seems like it must be a good time to be you, right now.
CODY FERN: Yeah, I’m enjoying my life, at the moment. But, it’s all just work. The thing that I’m grateful for is that I get to work.
When you think about what you thought your acting career might be, what’s it like to line up roles like this, working with the level of talent that you’ve been working with?
FERN: It’s crazy! All I can say is that I’m just so, so, so grateful. I think it all begins with great writing. You’re only as good as the writing, and I’ve had the great fortune of working on great writing, so that really, really helps. But, yeah, it’s wild. It’s really wild! I’m just taking it one day at a time, and putting my head down and doing the work. I’m trying to think of it less like a big role and look at it more like a microcosm of, “I’m just going to do this amount of work and this is what I’m going to do to prepare for it.” It’s so crazy to work with Ryan Murphy, and then work in the David Fincher world with Robin Wright. She’s so phenomenal. She’s just an incredible actress and an even better human being. I’m flippin’ out!
What’s it like to go from the set of Gianni Versace to the set of House of Cards? Is it nerve-wracking to be a part of the final season of a show?
FERN: I don’t think that it’s nerve-wracking, knowing that it’s the final season of the show. I think that it’s exhilarating, especially because I’ve watched House of Cards since Season 1 and I’ve been a genuine fan of the show. The most nerve-wracking part is the fact that I have so loved the show. It’s the same with Ryan Murphy. So, the nerves, for me, don’t come so much from being on set, but from being a fan, and that’s difficult to reconcile. I was on set for House of Cards, and we weren’t shooting, but I walked into the Oval Office and it was so overwhelming because it was something that I’d watched for the last five years. As an actor, it’s beyond a dream. You say, “I wanna be on House of Cards one day,” and you really hope and pray that you might get an audition, and then you might get in the room and, if you’re very fortunate, you might get a small role. I don’t think you ever think, “Oh, my god, I’m gonna be a new season regular on this show that I’ve loved for so long.” I guess I’m more nervous, as a fan of the show, than I am for any other reason. The reason I say that is that both sets are incredibly down to earth, supportive, creative, and all about the work. With House of Cards, Frank Pugliese has written an episode and Melissa Gibson has written an episode. Those are phenomenal writers, in their own right. With Versace, Tom Rob Smith wrote an episode, and I got to work with (director) Daniel Minahan. You’re so supported that any nerves go out the window because you know everyone is there to do their best work, and everybody is supporting you and rooting for you.
Does it feel different when you walk onto a set where everyone is there for the first time, like with Gianni Versace, as opposed to walking onto a set with an established rhythm, like with House of Cards?
FERN: Yes, absolutely! There’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of pressure, but I feel supported and excited by it. I think nerves are part and parcel of working as an actor. You can either work against them, or you can embrace them, and I very much embrace them. The nerves are excitement, in a strange way. If you weren’t nervous than you’d be in trouble.
House of Cards seems like it’s the most secretive of the projects that you’ve worked on. What’s it like to be a part of something that’s so secretive?
FERN: It was the same with Versace. It was so highly under wraps. People only figured out that I was in the show when the show started airing. Ryan is very specific about what information he wants revealed and when. That was crazy because Versace had started airing and nobody even knew that I was in the show. I had signed an NDA contract. With House of Cards, it’s another ball game. I don’t mean another ball game, in terms of status because I think they’re both top shelf shows, but there’s so much attention surrounding this season of House of Cards and so much speculation. I’ve been sent articles about the show that have falsely reported what’s happening. Collectively, as a cast, we’re not denying any rumors and we’re not addressing any of them. We’re just saying, “Okay, people really have a thirst for what’s going to happen,” but we don’t even know yet, so there’s that.
You weren’t on a path to becoming an actor. You were on the path toward a very different career. Had you always wanted to be an actor and just didn’t pursue it, or was there something that sparked that desire and got you to take that chance?
FERN: It was impossible for me to pursue, to be honest. I grew up in a town with just under three hundred people in Western Australia. When you think about being six hours outside the second most isolated city in the world, which is Perth, and then you think about the town that I’m from, which is called Southern Cross, acting is not a possibility. University feels like a world away. I went to uni and I studied commerce on a scholarship, and that was crazy and wild, in and of itself. I was never exposed to acting. I think the first real play I saw was when I was 22, and the first time I ever acted, and it wasn’t professionally, was when I was in 24, and that was in acting class. The concept of acting wasn’t something that was possible, but I’ve always known that I wanted to do it because I’d watched so many films and I was so engaged with them. It was an internal driving force, but it wasn’t a possibility. The short version of the story, in terms of whether there was a moment, really came from seeing Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. That was the moment, as a teenager, that I really understand that this was what I wanted to do. Whatever she was doing was what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a concept of how she was doing it, of the structure around it or what it meant, but I knew that that was what I wanted to do. And then, seeing her ten years later in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the lightbulb went off. The switch was flipped and there was no going back. It stimulated something where I realized, looking ten years back and looking at where I was in my life, at that point in time, what I was doing, what my trajectory was and what I was going to become, I knew that I had to change something rapidly. If I was going to do the thing that I loved so much, than I needed to do it. It wasn’t about wishing and dreaming and hoping. I actually needed to do it. That’s what changed everything.
One of the things that’s always true about everything Ryan Murphy is a part of is that he pushes all of his actors in ways that even they might not realize they’re capable of and they all get a chance to shine. How did your experience on American Crime Story change you and make you grow, as an actor?
FERN: That’s a great question. So much is said about Ryan being a creative genius, which he absolutely is. The word “genius” is thrown around too much and too often, and it should be reserved for people like Ryan. But then you meet Ryan, and you realize that not enough is said about how kind, how generous and how down to earth he is. He’s this mythological figure. When you meet him and you get to work on one of his shows, you’re already bringing everything inside of you – all of your skill, all of your talent and all of your willpower – because you’re working with Ryan Murphy and you know he’s the very best. You know that he’s the real deal. And then, he gets the best writers and the best directors. Daniel Minahan, who directed Episode 4, “House by the Lake,” and Episode 5, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” is such a brilliant director, and that support structure was there. The thing that I’ve learned, working on this production, in terms of growth as an actor, is that it really is about risk. Ryan encourages you to risk everything. I don’t mean that just as one choice that you might make in a scene. It’s about everything.