A WHOLE LOT OF PEPPER

If you are a fan of the unconventional, Naomi Grossman is your girl. The talented artist has been making waves as Pepper on the FX mega-hit American Horror Story: Freak Show, the curious Ryan Murphy extravaganza. We settled in to talk a bit of shop.

HYDROGEN MAGAZINE: Where did you grow up? Tell us about the early years…

NAOMI GROSSMAN: A little suburb of Denver, Colorado. My dad was an architect and my mom was a pianist, so together, the three of us lived in a beautiful, modern home always filled with music. They were (and continue to be) ultra-intellectuals–they dressed me as Salvador Dali for Halloween, read to me out of the dictionary in lieu of bedtime stories, and won us weekly tickets to the symphony by playing “Name that Composer” over the airwaves with the classical music d.j.’s.

We watched exclusively Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and Cosmos with Carl Sagan–so while other kids were out rebelling by drinking and smoking, I was sneaking sitcoms (and of course, grew up wanting to be in them). Since they were artists themselves, they were always very supportive of my acting; ultimately, their exposure to the arts is what informed my career decision.

HM: You are diving head-first into an industry that takes no prisoners. Any trepidation in the beginning about wading into such uncertain waters?

NG: None at all. I got the bug early on… long before I knew the word “trepidation.” There was never any question as to what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then once I was grown up, and realized how uncertain those waters were, I was too in too deep to back out.

HM: What was your first real break?

NG: American Horror Story. I’d had small successes before that. I was nominated for an LA Weekly theatre award for “best solo performance.” My one-woman shows have enjoyed extended, sold-out runs and rave reviews in LA, NY, the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s West End. I was a former member of the illustrious Groundlings Sunday Company. I have videos on YouTube with well over a million hits. So, it’s not like this was my first rodeo. But I certainly wasn’t #1 on IMDb’s “starmeter” before AHS. I definitely didn’t have fans tattooing my likeness on their limbs, or posting it as urban street-art on telephone poles. Only AHS fans are that obsessed!

HM: American Horror Story…how did the role of Pepper first come your way?

NG: It was an audition, like any other. Casting put out a breakdown, and my agent at the time submitted me for it. How they could look at my headshot, and know that I could pull off a pinhead is beyond me, but that’s why they win all the awards! The call was for someone petite (4-5’ tall), which I am (barely, 5’). And clearly they needed an extreme character actress, which I am as well. Granted, the extreme characters I’d played prior were primarily comedic, and on-stage, so this was a bit of a departure. But obviously, I was up for it.

HM: Pepper is nothing if not different and off-the-beaten-path. Tell us about this character…

NG: Pepper was based on “Schlitzie,” a real-life, microcephalic, side-show performer and star of Tod Browning’s 1933 cult-classic film, Freaks. Microcephalia is a neurological disorder, which results in an abnormally small brain; it’s sufferers typically have the brain function of about 4-year old. While most women pregnant with microcephalic babies nowadays terminate their pregnancies, back in the day, such children were often abandoned at orphanages and sold off to freak shows and framed for crimes and shipped off to asylums, like Pepper.

Pepper’s story is among the most heartbreaking: she loves, she loses, she endures one injustice after another; and yet, she just wants you to play with her. And not because her brain is small, but because her heart is huge. Fans fell in love, and I did too–we’re not used to seeing such tender and pure and inherently good characters on American Horror Story.

HM: What has been your approach to playing Pepper?

NG: The only real direction I got was, “do Schlitzie.” I kind of worked from the outside in. I started by studying and emulating his movements and gestures and posture and voice. Then later I assigned a backstory to her, though it wasn’t until two years later during Freak Show that the writers revealed their backstory, which was way better than the one I’d dreamt! Her tenderness and purity was just a happy accident–I never intended to play it that way, per se. The makeup department put on the prosthetics, I did “Schlitzie,” and Pepper was the result!

HM: You returned for American Horror Story season 4, Freak Show, which takes place in Jupiter, Florida in 1952 and centers around a troupe of strange performers whose lives are being threatened by a dark creature. Tell us about that…

NG: A dark creature? Which one? They’re all dark creatures on AHS! Pepper’s perhaps the only “light creature”… and even then, we only discover that in the latter part of Asylum! As always with American Horror Story, audiences expect the unexpected. And because of Freak Show’s subject matter, perhaps there is more heart than previous seasons. We ask ourselves, “what is a freak?” We may feel uncomfortable by what we see, hopefully find compassion for those who are different, and if the series succeeds, evolve as people.

HM: American Horror Story is quite dark. What’s the mood like behind the scenes?

NG: It’s light! Like a real freak show, we’re a family. Though we work harder than any family-business. Sometimes 6 days a week, 16 hours a day. The cast and crew alike are tremendously impassioned by and dedicated to the work they do, and it shows on the screen.

HM: What was it like working with someone like Ryan Murphy?

NG: Incredibly inspiring. He is so meticulous–down to the way the wind blows in the circus tent, or how a nun’s bangs lie in her habnot. Every detail matters. His vision is immaculate, and he surrounds himself with brilliant artists who can fulfill it. He’s a genius.

HM: Tell me about your solo show, Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust and other Human Oddities. It has traveled to Scotland and to London’s West End. That must be gratifying…

NG: Incredibly. That’s a perfect word for it, actually. Because they’re all me! The success I’ve enjoyed on AHS can be credited to literally hundreds of people, not to mention a massive, studio budget. Whereas my solo shows were something I wrote, produced, starred in–practically even tore the tickets for–paid for by my meager, Spanish-teaching-side-job at the time. My director, Richard Embardo, may be the baby-daddy, but otherwise they’re MY babies. And to this day, they are still the work of which I’m most proud.

HM: Tell me one thing we’d be surprised to know about you…

NG: Since my own personal experiences are my muse, I’m kind of an open-book! All you have to do is watch one of my solo shows and you know all about me: from my crazy-cultured childhood and my over-achieving adolescence, my transformative time in Argentina and intellectual growth-spurt in college, my happy home torn asunder, and series of star-crossed love affairs… It’s all there!

HM: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?

NG: I’d love to bring back my maternal grandmother, and share my success with her. She witnessed my labor, but never it’s fruits, which I wish weren’t the case. I’d like to take Gilda Radner to dinner, because she was always such an inspiration to me, yet we know she never ate dinner. I’d like to force-feed her and let her know how important she was to girls like me, and why, for that reason alone, it’s important to eat! And lastly, Schlitzie. I owe him for everything. Besides, I’ve watched him endlessly on video; it would be nice to mix up my research with some new, live material.

HM: When you’re not working, where would we be most likely to find you?

NG: Probably yoga class. I go everyday, an hour and a half a day. It’s my therapy and gym. I find it tones me physically, and mentally. So long as I get my sacred, sweaty mat-time in, very little can shake me. Conversely, if I don’t go, I’m not the same Naomi. I’m sluggish, and stressed, and in no position to kick ass. And in such a competitive industry, I can’t afford that.

HM: What’s the long game?

NG: It’s changing before my eyes! For the longest time, I thought it would be Saturday Night Live, followed by a couple spin-off movies like It’s Pat! or Pee-Wee Herman. Those were always the kind of over-the-top characters I saw myself doing. Which is funny, since Pepper isn’t that far off. The genre and tone is obviously very different; but technically, if I were to play her a little broader, and treaded that line between comedy and drama differently, Pepper could’ve been a “Conehead” or “Toonces the Cat”-type character!

The way I see it, it’s not our place to micromanage the Universe. I thought SNL would pave my way. Instead, it was AHS. Sketch comedy vs. horror/drama– who’d have thunk it? Not that I wouldn’t free up my Saturdays, in case Lorne Michaels is reading. But sometimes, we don’t necessarily know what’s best for us. We put out what we want, and often we get it, though we don’t always get to choose the path we take to get there. Which is why speculating “the long game” seems ludicrous.

PHOTOGRAPHY: RICKY MIDDLETON

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