From Murder House to Asylum to Coven, American Horror Story has redefined itself each season with no connective tissue between them. The premiere of the series newest incarnation Freak Show brought with it a curious new wrinkle. Naomi Grossman returned to the series, not playing a different character as all returning actors have prior; but instead reprising her role from Asylum as Pepper, the ‘pinhead’ inmate abducted by aliens and turned into a savant. From Pepper’s standpoint, Freak Show then becomes a prequel to Asylum, an origin tale of sorts and the first suggestion that perhaps all the seasons occur in a singular universe.
In the following interview with Naomi Grossman, she discusses being the first actor to play the same character through multiple seasons, what’s to come for Pepper on Freak Show and shooting the carny orgy from last week’s premiere episode. For the full interview, hit the jump.
NAOMI GROSSMAN: It was an audition like any other. I say any other — but for developmental actors (which is what I pretty much was at the time) – we’re usually reduced to ‘Nurse Number Two To the Left’ or ‘Snide Waitress’. So having an actual name without having a number attached to it was really great. At the same time, I assumed it would be that level of role. I really had no idea it would turn into this — that I would be wearing a Pepper pendant around my neck and there would be ‘Pepper for President’ posters and that I would be here reprising the same role two years later. So it was actually an audition unlike any other but I didn’t know that at the time.
I walked in and I’ll never forget — it was all little people. I’m petite, only 5 feet tall, so occasionally I’d get an audition for a small person. But small people and little people are technically different. So I thought ‘Well jeez — I need to have a talk with my agent. Like come on. What are you doing? You’re wasting my time.’ I remember going in for the audition and nailing it. I thought, of course, that would be the audition I nail — the one I can’t possibly get, the one I’m competing with this room of little people for.
What are the sides for a character with hardly any lines?
GROSSMAN: They’re very secretive. It makes sense. They don’t want to divulge these secrets to all these actors who are going to audition and go home and tweet. So they actually had me do some scenes of Jessica Lange’s from season one. I thought ‘Hmm — this isn’t it.’ I’ve already seen this. I think she won an Emmy for this. That was just to see if I had some range. And that was, of course, for the later Pepper when she’s brought back by the aliens. But for the early Pepper, I just improvised. They gave me a ball — and they said get us to play with you. Hence the line ‘Play with me’.
What is the research process like for you going into these seasons — be it Freak Show or Asylum?
As you mentioned — Pepper is the only recurring character in the entire series to date. What has that been like?
GROSSMAN: It’s cool. It’s very flattering. But it makes me wonder what else is ahead. Are there other characters that will recur that we don’t know about? Are all these stories intertwined? I really love that idea.
Have you yourself created a backstory that ties Freak Show and Asylum together for Pepper?
GROSSMAN: Well – I feel like the writers are going to come up with that and it’s going to be surprising anyway. I don’t want to confuse the situation too much. Whatever I come up with will pale in comparison to what those whack job — and I say that in the best way — writers will come up with.
Has your approach to Pepper changed from Asylum to Freak Show?
GROSSMAN: No – I figured they must have liked [my performance] enough to bring me back. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. I re-watched the film Freaks just as a little refresher. And, of course, Pepper is twelve years younger [on Freak Show] — so I suppose she’s a little more youthful. My fat suit’s a little less fat. There are different actors for me to interact with — so that’s new. But my process is still the same.
American Horror Story is such a wacky free-for-all show. Are there any scenes in particular that have surprised you?
GROSSMAN: Yeah — every single time I read a script I’m breathless as I turn the pages. I just read the newest episode last night and I swear I was like ‘Are you kidding me? You can’t do that. You can’t kill the biggest names in the series half way through.’ So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m afraid Pepper might be the only one left at the end.
Are you contracted for the whole season of Freak Show?
GROSSMAN: Well — no not necessarily. But I’m alive twelve years later [in Asylum] so I know I can’t die. I do have a certain sense of job security.
Do you ever tease the other cast members that you’re the only one that’s guaranteed not to die this season?
GROSSMAN: I try not to rub it in but I’ve heard that basically from this point on [they’re halfway through shooting Freak Show] we go two by two. There’s pretty much two deaths an episode or so. That’s the rumor. I’m just glad I’m safe. But we’re always wondering who’s next?
So much of your performance seems to be verbal tics. You don’t have much dialogue. How is it not relying on dialogue for a performance?
GROSSMAN: It’s tricky. Less is more. Every little quirk or tic of Peppers has meaning. Because that’s all I get so I’ve got to communicate this character through very little. I don’t get to speak and if I do it’s one syllable at the time.
Do you try to vary how you use your minimal vocabulary when you’re repeating the same word?
GROSSMAN: Yes – I come from an improvisational background so I’m used to playing. I’m used to not knowing what exactly is going to come out. So I like to give a director variations. Who’s to say the first take is the best take any way? Let’s give him a range — and then let him pick.
What’s the transformation process like to get into character?
GROSSMAN: It’s lengthy. They shave my head obviously. So I typically arrive on set, put on a robe and lay back and close my eyes and let them go to work. Two and a half or three hours later: I’m Pepper. It’s pretty much a prosthetic nose, eyebrows and ears. They have some crazy teeth and contact lens for me [as well]. Then they have a little piece for my hair in the back.
Are there scenes you’re surprised the show got away with?
GROSSMAN: I thought the scene in episode one with Evan Peters and the housewives was pretty hot. There’s the scene with Gabourey [Sidibe] and the Minotaur. That was pretty crazy. There were some scenes in Asylum that I know actually got cut with Lily Rabe’s character (the demonic nun) out in the woods with the ‘Raspers’ or whatever they were.
Are there any cut scenes with Pepper?
GROSSMAN: Oh yeah – lots unfortunately. Actually my very favorite line was as I was delivering the baby [in Asylum], I pop out between [Lizzie Brochere’s] legs and say ‘she’s crowning’. The line originally was ‘When I crowned, I shot out like a bullet.’ — which is just hilarious because how else would a pinhead be born. So there’s been some Pepper cut unfortunately but that’s how it is. You have to kill your babies to preserve your gems…
I can’t wait for the Blu-ray of Freak Show. Just the ‘Freak Orgy’ — they have to release that. I will never forget choreographing that. I remember Amazon Eve’s leg up in the air and her leg is like 7ft long and one of the little people was swinging around on it like it was a stripper pole. I’ll never forget hearing Ryan [Murphy] yell ‘Hump the leg! Hump the leg!’ It was like ‘Really? What are we doing?’ Fortunately I know this a legit production. I’ve been here and done that before. But had I not known, I would’ve thought ‘what porno have I drifted into?’
*Of note: the interview with Naomi Grossman is amalgamation of a one-on-one interview and a later group interview with multiple members of press
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on FX Wednesdays at 10PM.
American Horror Story: Coven is now available on Blu-ray and DVD everywhere.