We met the pinhead that is Pepper in the second season of F/X’s “American Horror Story” (“Asylum”), and of course she’s back with us now (albeit 12 years earlier) in season four, “Freak Show.” Pepper is played by five-foot all Naomi Grossman, and she’ll be on a panel I’m hosting on TV horror, at Northeast Comic Con in Wilmington, Dec. 6 & 7. http://pcx-necc.com/ We thought it’d be fun to chat with Naomi via email before we take the stage and, indeed, as you’ll see, it was. Very much so.
JSInk: You are the only actor who has played the same character in two different seasons and there have been suggestions floated online that the two stories (or maybe all four) – all with different time-frames – are actually linked. What can you tell me about that?
I don’t know much more than the average AHS fan/follower. I’m not sure which came first– Pepper’s return, and the subsequent speculation, and later confirmation, that all seasons are connected, or if the producers planned for the seasons to be connected all along. It seems to me that Pepper was obvious choice of characters to bring back, not just based on her popularity, but because of her connection to the freak show theme – she was based on the real-life character, Schlitzie, from Tod Browning’s 1930 film, “Freaks.” Regardless, it’s tremendously flattering. It means they’ve changed up the rules for me. Little old me– who barely spoke in the first eight episodes of season two, now back for entire other season, as the first and only returning character, on one of the dopest shows on TV. It doesn’t get much more complimentary than that.
Ryan Murphy did just tell Entertainment Weekly that “This is the first year where we begin to tell you that season two is connected to season four which is connected to season one.” Anything more you can add?
Pepper was obviously the first clue that they’re all connected. Again, I don’t know if they’ve been connected all along, or if they’re just now starting to tie them all together. It doesn’t matter– either way, it’s an interesting concept. I don’t know about four’s connection to one… Though there are tons of theories– parallel universes, recurring archetypal characters, certain names related, etc. I have to read the trades and blogs to keep up too!
I’ve seen pictures of you on IMDB and elsewhere and I know you’re a pretty lady and, of course, you’re playing one of the, uh, how-to-say, least-pretty characters on TV right now. Was there any trepidation you had about auditioning for the role and/or once you had it, what it might do or feel like to inhabit this character? Or how it might affect future casting – positively or negatively?
Nope, no trepidation at all. I’ve always embraced big characters, regardless of their outward appearance. Before AHS, I mostly did comedy, and well, in general the uglier the character, the more likely it is to get a laugh. Which is why I think women are often mistaken as less funny than men. As if you can’t be pretty and funny– which is, of course, absolutely false– but it’s almost as if it’s confusing for audiences somehow. In any case, I’m used to getting ugly, particularly if it means getting a bigger laugh. Besides, there are so many, infinitely more beautiful faces in Hollywood, why would I even attempt to compete with them? You gotta get a gimmick, and big characters are mine. This one just happens to be ugly. As for how it might affect future casting, I can only imagine it will be favorable. Basically anything I do after this will be a departure from Pepper. Clearly I can do crazy creatures (which is more than we can say for a lot of pretty faces in Hollywood). I can also just be normal Naomi. Or a million different shades in between. Whatever they cast me in will be something fresh and new, which audiences have never seen.
I saw the video of them shaving your head and you seemed mostly quite gleeful. How long does it take for them to get you into makeup and costume?
I’m an actress. That’s part of it. It’s not like prior to that I had some great Pantene commercial career, or anything. By the time they actually shaved it, I’d had enough time to adjust to the idea, and just wanted to get it over with. The full transformation (hair, makeup, wardrobe) takes about two and half to three hours. They’ve whittled it down. At first the makeup took two guys six hours. Now it takes one guy two.
I know it’s all about illusion – of danger, of horror – but what is the vibe like on set? Has it changed from series to series? I know from talking to various actors that sometimes the creepiest movies have the jolliest of sets.
I wouldn’t call the vibe “jolly.” Not that it’s glum– everyone’s just concentrating too hard for it to be “jolly.” The vibe is all-business. We’re working against the clock, trying to get a tremendous amount done, immaculately well. Everything takes time and is given great importance, from the camera to the lighting to the hair/makeup. Nothing is left to sacrifice. That was the case with “Asylum,” as it is with “Freak Show.” The only real difference being that I’m more comfortable. Two years later, it no longer feels like a fluke that I’m here. It’s like I have a permanent seat at the big kids‘table now!
Your pinhead mate, Salty, is he related to Pepper – her brother – or was he just scooped up from the same orphanage? You two seem in sync on the show, but something tells me the tables might turn for Salty.
He’s my husband! And yes, he’s obviously not in the asylum, which presents a potentially interesting, if not wonderfully dramatic, storyline for Pepper. Which I’m all for! I think that’s about all I can say until it airs!
How did it feel to be given a spot on the Wheel of Death with Jessica Lange throwing knives your way (well, you know, the appearance thereof)?
Nauseating. At least once I got up there. I’m all about camera-time, so I was excited when they first told me. I just wish they hadn’t served crawfish for dinner that night! I can still taste the melted butter coming back up.
Were you given a backstory Pepper and if so, what? If not, did you make up one yourself?
Yes, though the backstory the writers have given her is even more lovely than the one I’d created for her myself. Making it come to life was a real thrill, and taught me so much about myself– not just as an actor, but as a human being. I imagine Pepper and AHS fans will be equally touched and pleased. I can’t tell what that story is, of course– you’ll just have to watch!
I know that in “Asylum” (second season, which takes place after “Freak Show”), we find out that Pepper is there because she drowned her sister’s baby and cut off his ears. So, Pepper maybe becomes bad or crazy – but where is her mind in Freak Show?
Somewhere between the orphanage and asylum, huh? Which by comparison, seems like a good place to be! Even if it does mean being on the wheel of death every now and then.
While Pepper doesn’t have much to say, she is very reactive and expressive. What’s mostly going through her head? Is she amazed and delighted by the world around her? Or horrified? Or both? Is she … simple? Pepper does seem to want people to “play with me.”
Pepper, to me, is love. Unconditional, unrestrained, unqualified, unlimited, unquestioning, unequivocal love. Which is pretty simple. And yet, it’s so rare in this complex, wicked world (and show), it’s refreshing. I think she’s mostly delighted by the world around her, and yet what she experiences is pretty horrific. She’s human– she experiences it all.
AHS is still shooting, right? When do you wrap it up? Do you know the fate of your character (and the others now) or are the scripts kept from you until it’s time for you to know?
Yes, we’re still shooting, and will be ‘til Christmas. I do know my fate (in fact, we all do: the asylum, Briarcliff!), and a handful of the others. In general, they’re very protective of the scripts. We only receive scripts for the episodes we’re in, and yes, sometimes they’re kept from us until the night before we shoot! In fact, during second season, I never even saw a full script! So I’m infinitely more in the loop than before.
I know you can’t talk about plot development or specifics right now, but is there a chance Pepper will be in the fifth season?
Pepper? I doubt it. She’s already gotten one more season than anyone else! Besides, I think fans will be satisfied with her story, and feel it’s complete. Now Naomi in fifth season is a whole other thing! I can only hope! I’d like to think I did a decent enough job to merit another go-around. And I’ve got the fantastically fanatical AHS fandom rooting for me. But then, this show can get any star they want, so I mustn’t anything for granted.
Just wondering if you’re familiar with three famous pinheads, Zippy and his wife Zerbina in the Bill Griffith’s comic, and then the costumed pinhead the Ramones used to bring out on stage to dance during, what else, “Pinhead”? (I knew the Ramones well over my years as a rock critic, dating back to 1977.) Any thoughts?
Of course I’m familiar! I primarily used Schlitzie as a model for my character, but I’d be remiss if I hadn’t researched them all.
Let’s talk about the horror genre in particular. Is this an area of TV or movies you liked as a kid? Did you ever see yourself as playing a part this way?
Not necessarily. I mean, I enjoyed watching the Crypt Keeper and Freddy Krueger at slumber parties as much as anyone. But in general, I grew up in an über-cultured household. We watched foreign and art-house films almost exclusively. I remember being scrutinized for watching the movie, “Clueless” once. Only after I explained it was based on Emma by Jane Austen, was deemed suitable to watch.
I always wanted to be an actor, and never really discriminated between genres, other than, say, reality or porn, which don’t employ real actors anyway. So while I mostly concentrated on comedy, that’s only because that’s what I thought I was good at. The fact is, I’m good at big characters, which lend themselves comedy and horror alike. This season has actually allowed me to do some real drama. I’m no longer just a big character, or the comic relief! Ultimately, I think I had real limiting beliefs about my own abilities. Fortunately, Ryan Murphy knows more about myself than even me!
You had a one-woman show, “Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust, and Other Human Oddities” up in LA, and then at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, then London’s West End, and Off-Off Broadway in New York. Tell me about it.
Sure. It’s what I like to call a “comic, carnal romp, replete with hilarious, kinky capers peppered with surprising poignancy.” The tag-line is: “five million men in Los Angeles… She only needs one to work.” Set on a carnival midway, it basically chronicles my own dizzying dating history, in which I depict a freak show full of suitors: a touchy-feely yoga teacher; a furry in a chicken-suit; a touring Argentine football team; a dangerous, hot-headed hunk; and the list goes on. (Coincidentally, this was all before AHS: Freak Show, by the way!) And like any good rom-com, my perils and pitfalls of playing the dating game ultimately lead me to rethink my strategy in the quest to find “the one.”
Writing/producing/starring in your very own show is really fulfilling to do, and is probably the work I’m most proud of. In fact, I always said I’d never get a better role than one I’d written for myself. And then I got Pepper … so maybe that theory’s shot!
According to IMdB pro, you have two movies in development: “The Chair” and “The Ones.” What can you tell me about these?
“The Ones” was actually shot a long time ago– I think they’re just delayed in post-production. I highly doubt that it will be widely released. It’s a chick-flick; I had a small, silly role, like most of the roles I did at the time!
“The Chair” is slated to start shooting in February. It’s a psychological thriller, based on the graphic novel by the same name. I play the death row inmate’s mother, as seen in flashbacks – also a small, though hardly silly role. I don’t know much more, except that I’m friends with some the cast, and we’re looking forward to it!
American Horror Story: Freak Show: Wednesday at 10 pm on F/X.
Northeast Comic Con: At the Shriner’s Auditorium, 99 Fordham Rd., Wilmington, Saturday Dec. 6 (10 AM – 6 PM) and Sunday Dec. 7 (10 AM – 5 PM). Admission: $20. 508-788-5474 http://pcx-necc.com/