The FX series American Horror Story: Freak Show follows a troupe of the strange and unusual in 1952, who are looking to survive as performers amidst the dying world of the American carny experience. From the twisted minds of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the show stars Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Michael Chiklis, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, Emma Roberts, Denis O’Hare and Finn Wittrock.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Finn Wittrock (who quite brilliantly plays Dandy Mott, a petulant rich kid with a dark side) talked about how he came to be a part of Season 4, what he thinks of his character, why Twisty the clown sparked his interest, working with John Carroll Lynch, whether the viewers might ever feel sympathy for Dandy, putting on the clown mask, and what he’d like to do in Season 5. He also talked about working on Unbroken (which he’s seen and says is epic), directed by Angelina Jolie, and writing his own feature film, called The Submarine Kid. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
FINN WITTROCK: It actually happened on the set of The Normal Heart. He just said, “Do you want to be a part of the show?,” and he didn’t give me much more information than that. He explained to me that he gets his casts together first, like a rep company in theater, and then writes for them, from there. I’m sure he had the idea percolating, but didn’t really let on about it. He’s very deliberate, that way. He’s kind of a genius. So, I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I’ve been a big fan of the show and, as an actor, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to work with Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson just because I didn’t know what I’d be doing. But he assured me that it would be a real challenge, and it has been. And it keeps surprising me, which is what’s fun. It’s never a boring day on set, that’s for sure.
Dandy Mott is probably one of the best character names, ever. Do you feel like just his name alone really helps inform who this character is?
WITTROCK: Yeah, definitely! Although, as the character goes on, every episode adds new dimensions to him and reveals more than you thought. So, you get a big initial image by his name and his demeanor and his hair, but hopefully that interests the audience enough to then be intrigued by the story so that we can take them to new, surprising places. It does not go in the direction you think it’s gonna go.
How do you view this guy? Do you see him as the villain of this season, or can you see him as the hero of his own story?
WITTROCK: Both, for sure. He’s definitely the hero of his own story, but I don’t think you can argue that he is the villain of this season. But, he sees himself as his own kind of hero. I have a writer friend who was talking about how it’s a good thing that babies are totally weak and helpless because, if they weren’t, they’d kill anything that got in the way of mother, food and warmth, and that’s how I see him. He’s emotionally stunted, in a way, but very intellectually mature and sophisticated, who also have a penchant for destruction. He’s a frustrated child and will do anything to get what he wants. He says that he wants to be an actor, and he’s a frustrated thespian, but I actually think he’s a good actor. He goes to emotional places, and then, like a child, as soon as it’s done, those emotions are done and he’s on to the next thing. He can go from anger to happiness to grief to excitement in the span of a paragraph. I get very heightened stuff, so I’m always trying to find the humanity in it and make him as down-to-earth as possible.
WITTROCK: He was a clown, which refers to childhood and youth and innocence, but he was also a cold-hearted killer, which is in Dandy’s heart, too. So, he saw this idealized version of himself and what he could become. I think of Dandy as having a reserve of energy and passion that he doesn’t know what to do with, so if he can’t be an actor, he’s gotta take it out some way. So, he takes it out by causing pain to other living things. It’s an amazing, mysterious connection that he felt for the clown. He wants to become him and, in some ways, he does.
After getting Twisty’s backstory, he somehow seemed less grotesque and actually sympathetic. Is there any chance of the audience feeling sympathetic for Dandy, or will he continue to compulsively do bad things?
WITTROCK: In Episode 6, a whole new color got brought out of him with the twins. As an actor, I have to, from day one, be empathetic. It’s my job to get this piece of action in the script and just find a way in and feel for him. So, I feel for him, without question. My goal, every day, is to tell his side of the story. But, there will be new colors brought out that I think people will connect to.
What do you see as the cause for why Dandy is who he is now?
WITTROCK: What you always try to do, as an actor, is find the thing that’s universal in the person. We all have monsters inside of us, and we all have an inner child in us. You always think about your inner child as being the sweet and innocent part of yourself, but it’s also the part that’s all ego with the mentality of, “If the world isn’t pleasing me, it isn’t doing its job.” You can imagine an already unstable mind that’s completely entitled and has been given anything they wanted, throughout their whole life, and lived in a bubble with a domineering, in a very quietly manipulating way, mother, that child mentality never gets a chance to mature and discover its own limitations. It just runs rampant. That’s what happened to Dandy.
Who do you personally find more terrifying, Dandy or Twisty?
WITTROCK: Well, if I was going to take a step back and look at it, I think that Dandy is the scarier version because Dandy actually is very intelligent and Twisty has been duped by the world. Dandy might have the same underlying motivation as the clown, but he has a certain sophistication that allows him to keep on winning.
What was it like to do the scenes that you had with John Carroll Lynch and work opposite someone who had no dialogue, but said so much?
WITTROCK: He really treated it like an actor treats anything. I think another actor could have just been demonic. He was really being specific, in thinking it all through. It’s also just a lot of fun. It’s been said before, but the best villains are the nicest guys in person, and he’s just the nicest dude. As an actor, you look at some people and know if they’re there with you or not, and he’s there with you, in every moment.
What was it like to put that clown mask on and see yourself wearing it?
WITTROCK: It was a real superhero moment, like when Superman discovers the baby pod that he was born in from Krypton. He discovers his true power there. It’s a little otherworldly. It’s like discovering your super-power and finding out that you’re Spider-Man, or something.
What was it like to shoot the scene where you had to essentially kill Patti LaBelle? Were you nervous about doing that, or did you just jump in and have fun with it?
WITTROCK: She had invited me to a concert of hers that I couldn’t go to, and I was so mad ‘cause I was like, “From now on, I’ll never be able to go to a Patti LaBelle concert because all of the fans will kick me out.” No. She’s a real pro. She was really great. It was sad. I was like, “Oh, man, I’m gonna be hated for this!” But, she had it coming. No. She’s so great and so lovely. She’s not an actress by trade, but really has this natural gift.
As your character heads down this more murderous path, how will that affect his relationship with his mother and how will that change the way that she sees him?
WITTROCK: Well, that’s a lot of story points there. As it keeps going down this path, it puts his mother more and more into a corner of trying to protect her son while trying to have some kind of moral line. You’ll also learn a little more backstory about them, and why they became this way. In a lot of ways, the violence that Dandy is expressing against the world is a misplaced frustration and anger. But there’s a deep anger against his mother, so that comes to a head.
After having this experience, becoming a part of the American Horror Story family, are you hoping to return, in some form, for next season?
WITTROCK: I’ve been thinking about it. If I do, I’d like to be something completely and utterly different. The fun this about this show is that you never know. Someone will have three heads next year. You never know what you’re gonna get. That’s what I love about it, and what separates it from so much television. If I came back, I wouldn’t feel like I was on the same show, in a way, ‘cause I wouldn’t be stuck in the same character. I would be doing a whole new thing. I definitely feel very welcomed into the family. That was one thing that I was a little trepidatious about. I knew so many of these people had been together for years, but they welcomed me with open arms.
You also played a role in Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. How was the experience of being directed by her?
WITTROCK: I just saw it, for the first time, all the way through. It’s pretty epic. Everyone was speechless, at the end. At first, before you meet her, you’re like, “I’m gonna meet Angelina Jolie! I’m talking to Angelina Jolie!” And then, within a matter of five minutes, you’re like, “Oh, I’m just talking to my director,” and it’s just back to work. She really is all about the work. She’s so surprisingly down-to-earth. You keep thinking, “Okay, this is day 28 on set. I’m sure she’s going to show her true colors.” But her true colors really are a down-to-earth, gracious, intelligent person, which is amazing. The movie is a war epic, but it’s really about people and really intricate relationships between people. It’s got a real sensitivity to it. I just think she’s so gifted. It was a blast. It was really a hard, intense shoot, not just for me, but for everybody. And so, it was good to have her as our leading lady.
Who do you play in the film?
WITTROCK: I play Mac. If you know the book, he’s the guy who eats chocolate. I’m part of the surviving crew of the aircraft that goes down in the ocean. It’s an intense little part.
WITTROCK: My great friend from high school, Eric Bilitch, and I have been writing it since we were in college. I think our first draft was seven years ago. We kept kicking it back and forth between each other, and when we felt like it was ready, we started pitching it. It took a few years to get anyone to notice it and get some money, but we did. We shot it in L.A., at my mom’s house, for 25 days. We just submitted to Sundance, so knock on wood. I’m really happy about it.
Is that something that you’d like to do more of?
WITTROCK: Yes, definitely. Writing is something I’ve always done, on the side. I thought that no one would be interested, so I kept it to myself. Now, I’m getting to the point where I’m like, “All right, time to show the world this stuff.” So, it’s definitely my private passion.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on Wednesday nights on FX.