From creator Evan Romansky and executive producers Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, the Netflix series Ratched crafts a haunting origin story for the iconic character of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The story begins in 1947 as Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives in Monterey County in Northern California seeking employment at a psychiatric hospital conducting experimental procedures on the human mind. While she presents herself as the perfect nurse for the job, Mildred has a deeper and darker mission she’s pursuing which comes with potentially dangerous consequences.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Finn Wittrock (who plays Edmund Tolleson, a serial killer with a connection to Mildred Ratched) talked about how Ryan Murphy pitched this project, how he approached finding this character, exploring the Edmund-Mildred relationship with Sarah Paulson, and the biggest challenge in playing Edmund. He also talked about being a part of Season 10 of American Horror Story alongside new cast member Macaulay Culkin, and how the first time he worked with Murphy evolved into the working relationship they have now.
Collider: When you got the initial call from Ryan Murphy about this, what did he tell you? What did he say this would be and who this character would be?
FINN WITTROCK: I wish other people could hear the pitch that he makes to the actors. It’s the reason that he gets all of these amazing actors to do his stuff. He’s so good at selling you on a part, it’s incredible. He told me that I was gonna be working a lot with Sarah [Paulson]. He told me we would have a brother-sister type of relationship. We don’t know if they’re actually brother and sister. And he gave me the basic plot points. That was enough. He hooked me. From the outset, he wanted him to be obviously a dangerous and violent person but there’s this sense of justice that Edmund has, that is a warped sense, but that is a very, very strong, strongly held belief about innocence and guilt. As the season goes on, he has this really strong affinity for animals and for the innocent and who he deems as that. He told me that in a very Cliffs Notes version, and then we were off to the races.
Is there any chance that he would pitch something to you and you’d be like, “No, I don’t think that works for me”?
WITTROCK: Yeah. I think now I’m in a place with him where I will tell him if it’s something that I would not be into but that day hasn’t come yet. There is a sense of, I wanna work with him again and I wanna say yes to the things he asks but I honestly can say that everything he’s asked me to do is something that I legitimately would do and that I wanna do because it’s a color that I haven’t portrayed yet. It’s a part of my repertoire that I haven’t been able to explore or that stretches me in a way that feels challenging and scary. When it’s feeling a little scary, that’s when you know you’re in good artistic territory. Not to sound pretentious but that’s what you go for.
How did you approach forming this character and figuring out how you want it to embody him? Does the aspect of the time period change how you walk and talk and carry yourself, as well?
WITTROCK: Yeah, definitely. Ryan talked a lot about the look of being the darkest James Dean, early Brando possible. For me, I thought of him more as his own animal, literally like a caged feral jaguar or something. He’s been so tortured and also inhibited so much in his life that there’s this sense of wanting to break out of your skin. I also loved my costume. It was the most comfortable costume I’ve ever worn in Ryan Murphy world. Everyone was really jealous of my prison jeans. They were really cool. I didn’t get to keep them but I wish I had.
You’ve previously talked about how you found looking at real life serial killers to be less helpful than digging into the mental illness side of this character. Why do you think that made more sense to focus on?
WITTROCK: Because he’s not a career serial killer. The initial thing you see is because he’s getting back at someone who destroyed his life, and if a couple other people happen to die along the way, that’s just collateral damage. He’s not Ted Bundy. He’s not someone who wanted to kill people and it gave him a bloodlust. He does it because it’s the right thing to do, in his warped sense. It’s not something where, like Michael Myers, he’s thinking, “How will I kill again?” That’s the thing that really got me going.
There’s talk in this about whether people deserve mercy or not. Do you think this is someone who does deserve mercy? Is that something that even really comes into play when you’re embodying someone like this?
WITTROCK: That’s the question of, what is guilt? The insanity defense is, does he know what’s right and wrong? And if he doesn’t, then he shouldn’t be held as accountable. I do think he knows right from wrong, though. I think that he does have a moral compass. So, the question of, is he sane or insane, gets a little murkier. It’s not so easy to put it into a box.
As an actor, what’s it like for you to get to explore that relationship between Edmund and Mildred with Sarah Paulson?
WITTROCK: It’s a dream. She is such a worthwhile foe. You really wanna be prepared when you’re going to work with Sarah because you know that she’s going to be the most prepared person in the room. There’s also such a sense that she’s really ready to take anything that you give her and spit it right back at you. But I found this part like a dance that we did. There were a lot of scenes in the prison that we have together and a lot of nuance back and forth but there was this physical distance because of the bars that made it a really interesting dynamic, acting wise. And she was so controlled and contained that I compare it to a razor blade. That’s how she attacks you. And I was more of a bull in a China shop. I thought that was a fun dynamic to play with and to dance with her, as these two maniacs.
There are a lot of intense moments in this, especially involving your character. Was there one that was most challenging to shoot?
WITTROCK: There were a lot of challenges. It’s not easy for me, Finn Wittrock, to be a very violent person. I’m a pacifist, so to instill pain on other people is actually the one time of the day that I actually do walk away feeling like I need to shake that off. So, the big opening segment, where there’s a certain body count actually is a thing that wears on me a little bit. It’s hard for me to go there and I need to watch a comedy when that day is done.
It’s been announced that you’re going to be in Season 10 of American Horror Story and that Macaulay Culkin is being added to the season. What are you most looking forward to with that next season and adding someone like him to the mix?
WITTROCK: I’m just ready to work again, to be honest with you. It’s been a lot of months. It’s fun when there’s someone like that. When Gaga was on Horror Story, it’s like this whole other universe that’s entered into this universe that’s already there and it shakes it all up, in a really fun way, and opens everyone’s minds to a whole new possibility. I’m really curious to work with him. I think it’s such an interesting choice and a cool person to welcome into the fold of this crazy family, in general. I’m really looking forward to that. We were supposed to start shooting it back in March, and so all this time it’s been, “When are we gonna start?” Now, it looks like we’re gonna be starting at some point relatively soon.
So, you’re sitting with all of this information about your character in the season that you can’t do anything with because you can’t shoot it?
WITTROCK: Yeah. I’m honestly trying to forget it because I’ll get too obsessed, sitting in my garage doing nothing. I try to forget it exists until I know for sure when we’re starting and what’s going on.
Do you ever wonder if there’s a really light comedy in Ryan Murphy?
WITTROCK: Will I get to do it? That’s the question. The Politician is pretty funny. There is a comic element to his stuff. One of the cool things about Ratched that might surprise people is that there are some really funny and absurd things that happen. That’s why I like the genre bending nature of it. People will come to it expecting a horror thing or a mystery, and it is a mystery and also like a classic movie. It’s almost Hitchcockian. But then, there are some really funny, wild things that happen. It’s a really cool culmination of a lot of the stuff that he’s been exploring, over the last many years.
One of Ryan Murphy’s talents is that he sees things in his actors that they might not even realize is there. How do you feel he’s most pushed you, in the time that you’ve worked with him?
WITTROCK: He has pushed me. I honestly feel so thankful that I got to be in the show Versace because it was a different thing than I had done before. It was a much more normal guy, compared to other stuff, and a very nakedly sad soul. It was a much quieter role that he threw my way. I just love that I’m able to do this, and also go to those places and be a gentle, decent person. That’s nice, also.
When you think back to the first time that you worked with Ryan Murphy, what was that first experience like, meeting him and working with him, and does it feel the same now?
WITTROCK: The first thing I did with him was The Normal Heart. I had a not huge part but an intense little role. I remember that I auditioned not for him but for an assistant casting director in New York. I didn’t hear about it for three months, and then suddenly, I was on this set. I remember being pretty daunted by meeting him, the first time. And then, because of the nature of that part and a different role I was doing, I had to lose a lot of weight. I lost 30 pounds and I had to stay skinny, after I did the other part in Unbroken, for the end of The Normal Heart. I was in the cold in New York City in the winter, shivering outside my trailer, and he came up to me and was like, “I have this part on my show, American Horror Story,” as if I hadn’t heard about it. He said, “I have this great part for you, if you wanna do it.”
At that point in my career, I had never really been offered anything. I had only auditioned before. It took me aback and I was just like, “Okay.” He was like, “Great, I’ll send the offer and send you a script.” It was that easy. I don’t know how he got this part Dandy Mott out of what I had done in The Normal Heart. It could not have been more different but he saw it in me. He saw something in me that I didn’t quite know was there. From that point on, it was just this domino effect of one thing and then another. I can’t believe all of this time has passed by and we’ve created this whole working relationship. I’m just very, very blessed.
Ratched is available to stream at Netflix.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.