I had the chance to talk with Naomi Grossman, American Horror Story‘s Pepper, and it was quite the conversation. If you’re a fan of AHS, or more specifically of her character, who took over the internet for a while with a multitude of fan created mash-ups, etc., you’re probably pretty curious about the person behind one of the most interesting, and odd, personas to hit the small screen in recent memory.
It was a lot of fun, and tone can be a problem with transcribed conversations, but we were laughing nearly the entire time. In fact, the interview below will just drop off suddenly, perhaps on an interesting note, because at some point it seemed that the interview ended, and we were just chatting about television itself in something like a theoretical way.
But, I had to get Mary Murphy in, and if you happen to be dating her, you might want to examine your situation. You’ll see.
Unfortunately, a technical glitch kept this from posting much earlier.
Be sure to also check her out at naomigrossman.net
Grossman is thrilled at the opportunity to horrify and delight audiences during this second season. Best known for her hilarious yet poignant one-woman stage shows, Grossman never expected she’d land the job, explaining “I mean…its American Horror Story. After my audition, I remember thinking ‘they’re going to go with the freakiest!’ And, then they chose me…what’s that saying?!”
Her dauntless, independent spirit is what led Grossman to shave her head for the role. Grossman jests, “Of course I was nervous, I thought I’d never get laid again. But, then I got asked out through a car window the very next day.” Named the ‘bravest actress in the world’ by the American Horror Story hair & makeup departments, Grossman talked her way through the initial head-shave, convincing herself that she was an actress first, and a person with hair second.
Grossman is admittedly freaky and fearless, whether she’s groping the TSA in her devilishly irreverent comedy short, “Touch My Junk,” or shaking her rump in her hilarious rap video parody, “Wigga Pleaze.”
Beyond her cheeky YouTube channel (whose original content has screened at films festivals nationwide) is an equally intrepid, surprisingly impressive solo theatre career. Her first self-penned solo show, “Girl in Argentine Landscape,” received critical acclaim (LA Weekly ‘Pick of the Week’) and earned her an LA Weekly Theatre Award nomination for Best Solo Performance. Her more recent, “Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust, and other Human Oddities,” enjoyed a twice-extended, sold-out run in Los Angeles; it was then reprised at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, followed by a transfer to London’s West End (Leicester Square Theatre). Both shows have also taken stage Off-Off Broadway in New York. Needless to say, Grossman has not exactly had the typical, nor most direct, Hollywood path.
Since her arrival in Hollywood from the funky town of Taos, New Mexico, she has worked feverishly at her craft. When the character actress wasn’t studying theatre at Northwestern University, she was moonlighting in Chicago’s long-running, cult comedies like “Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack.”
Today, Grossman admits to enjoying the attention she’s been getting since Pepper burst on-screen in the first episode this season, however she’s not that recognizable all the time, “I actually have to introduce myself to some of the newer people on-set when I’m out of costume.” Of course, this makes sense given Pepper’s fake belly, arms, hands, brow, ears, nose, teeth, and eyeball. Grossman jokes, “I’m going to be the lady no one knows at the wrap-party!”
So, this is a very strange role… although, not that strange for you.
Naomi G: That’s true.
Is that by design, or is that just sort of how it works out? Are you attracted more to these different characters?
Naomi G: Well, yeah, you know it’s interesting. It’s sort of the chicken and the egg. I am attracted to crazy, oddball characters. This is one of the few that I never even conceived of. I’ve always done this kind of thing, but nothing quite like this. I’m sure I… put out to the universe that this is the kind of thing I wanted to be doing, and then sure enough, it found me.
Did this just sort of fall in your lap?
Naomi G: I wouldn’t say anything has completely fallen in my lap. Only because I’ve been at this…, Anyone who thinks that I’m just this overnight, dropped from nowhere…, I mean, I wish it worked like that. But, no, I wasn’t actively seeking this. In fact, I didn’t even know the show when I auditioned for it. I had a friend who has cable fill me in. This is even the first drama I’ve ever auditioned for, so I can’t say I was seeking this, but at the same time, characters like these are. You know, I thought they only existed on SNL. Boy was I wrong, and happily so.
Is that a strange thing in itself, when you aren’t familiar with the show, and then you’re trying for a part?
Naomi G: It can be, because you do need to know the tone of the show. A Nickelodeon show is a lot different than a CSI.
Well, and there’s really nothing like this show.
Naomi G: Exactly. I mean, there are certain buzzwords… “hour drama,” and, “horror,” and I can sort of imagine what that might be like, and make certain acting decisions based on that, but they didn’t even tell us what the role was. That’s how secretive it is. You know, that’s how spoilers get out. All of a sudden all of these agents, and actors, and managers know anything… then, if all of those people Tweet something, you know… so, there was really no way to prepare, other than… I’ve been doing big characters all along, so, I’m sure if they Googled me, they saw, you know, she can probably handle this.
Well, so how did that happen? This isn’t a normal show, first of all, but this isn’t a normal character… and you don’t know the character when you show up? How do you do that then?
Naomi G: Well, they had me do a little improv, as though I were a child. They gave me a ball, and said, “Try to get us to play with you.” So, if you saw the first episode, you know that’s my first line, “Play with me.” So, I basically did that, without all the affectations, because obviously I had no idea that’s what we’re really going for.
I’ve done a lot of improv, so that’s easy and fun. After that they had me do a monologue of Jessica Lange from the first season. Which, now in retrospect, they wanted to see the contrast. You know, see that I had range, and go from quirky Pepper, to the new, evolved Pepper that we’ve only seen in the last episode. So, you know, they just wanted to see that I could act… and then of course, from what I understand the shape of my head was to my advantage, which, I don’t know how I feel about that.
That’s almost wilder than the character itself… that you have to go in there and have no idea what you’re trying out for.
Naomi G: Yeah, no clue. And then, “will you cut your hair,” is a very different question than, “will you shave your head, and leave this little, squirrely thing on the top?”
And, not only that, but you have all kinds of make-up. At what point in the process do they say, so… you’re going to look bizarre. You go in to get the part, and at some point they just spring that on you?
Naomi G: I mean, I’m game. So, yes, I suppose there are actors out there who just want to be pretty, and won’t shave their heads, and won’t do a lot of things. Won’t even sit in a chair and have make-up put on them. I’m definitely not one of them. The way I see it, I’m just a small part of the huge vision, and whatever I can do to help make the make-up people’s job easier. Besides, who wants to play the pretty… I mean, those are the boring parts.
Well… I’m guessing lots of people actually. I would think that there are a lot of actresses who would not want to necessarily jump into the role of… we are really going to make you freaky-looking.
Naomi G: Right. I suppose, it would be novel to just be pretty. That would be nice for a day. But, I think this is much more interesting.
Well, it’s one thing to have make-up on, but if at the end of the show they showed a regular picture of everyone with the credits, I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s you.
Naomi G: It is. Even looking at the mirror when they’re done, still I think, “Wow, that’s me.”
Back to the show. It’s a very strange show, and there are definitely a lot of people who are only going to get a vague idea of what it’s about, and say, I’m never watching that, but for people who will watch it, it’s actually very interesting stuff, with great characters… and not just crazy for the sake of being crazy.
And your character is a very cool character… and with other people running the show, you could easily imagine that it would… almost become nonsensical. You know, just some caricature of what we want the character to do… and all the characters are like that.
Naomi G: Right. I think a lot of people do think, “Oh horror. It’s scary. Not me. Too bloody and gory,” and it’s too bad, because I completely agree. I think it’s one of the best dramas on TV. The acting is extraordinary. I mean Jessica Lange, and everyone. Everyone is on top of their game. I look around, you know, the cinematographers, the art directors, set designers, costumes, everybody is so good at what they do. It’s like being on a movie really.
Do you think a lot of the people… you mentioned a lot of different roles… do you think people are running with things so much because it’s such a crazy thing? Like, they think to themselves, “No one else will have a chance to do this,” so that builds its own excitement for doing it.
Naomi G: I’m sure. Well, I think Ryan Murphy is clearly a genius. He’s surrounded himself by other geniuses, who, once he’s translated his vision, they just go to town, and he trusts them, and they deliver. Yeah. I do.
Once you get to the point where you really know everything about the character, and “the cat is out of the bag,” what do you do to get ready for a role like this?
Naomi G: Well, I couldn’t let on what I was doing for a very long time. I was cast in June, and it wasn’t until October that it aired, and I could tell people who I was. You know, my friends had no idea. They just knew that I was suddenly wearing a wig around. As far as preparation goes, they showed me pictures of Schlitzie from the 30’s, who was one of the stars of Freaks, which is apparently the inspiration for this character, and they said, “this is what you’re going to look like,” and so it just stands to reason that this is how you’re going to act. And, then it was, you know, go home and watch Freaks, which is what I did.
And there was a coach, only because as much as I’m good at mimicing and doing big, broad characters… at the same time, you don’t want this to be a caricature. You know, this is not SNL. This is real. Not only is the show realistic, truthful, grounded, subtle in style, but at the same time, this is a real condition that people have, so I would never want it to seem I was making fun. So, I wanted to know that I had a real professional looking at me saying, “No, you’re ok.”
A lot of what we did was sort of exploration improv. You know, if this person could say more. If we were just hanging out with her, what would she be like?
It sounds like they gave you a lot of… openness to figure it out?
Naomi G: Absolutely. A lot of it was, I went in for… maybe seven make-up meetings, and they would take a bunch of pictures, and I would invariably go into my character, and they would say, “Oh, that’s it. That’s it. That’s exactly what we want.” So, I had an idea from their reaction, because they’re in the production meetings, and know what everyone’s going for as a team.
That’s really interesting. I don’t think that’s what you would expect… or, that’s not what I would expect.
Naomi G: Yeah, I mean, I had no idea I would be getting my direction from the make-up artists.
I have to say too, the minute you put that make-up on, you kind of want to go there. You know, I’d been watching things for months and months, on a loop, on my computer, and then I look in the mirror and see it, and you want to go there.
It wasn’t until, the later episodes, like what you saw in the last, the cliffhanger, number nine, that we get a real departure. That was actually much more challenging, believe it or not. Because, you know, I hadn’t spent time being this “heightened” Pepper.
While you’ve been on this, are you only on this, or do you have other things going on?
Naomi G: I have been, only because it’s been pretty much full time. Only because suddenly I’m getting attention, doing interviews, meetings with industry people. All of a sudden my Twitter, and Facebook, and email have taken on a life of their own. So, I’m still kind of getting my bearings of what it’s like to be this public person.
Right. And yet, you get to just walk around, right? I mean, no one is going to spot you.
Naomi G: Yeah, it’s amazing. I was recognized once, and it was really surreal. I don’t know how I felt about it. It was like this thing I’ve always wanted, and yet, you know I’m the most hideous person on television…
Yeah, that could be a double-edged sword.
Naomi G: Yeah, I had always imagined what that would be like, and then it happened, and it was nothing like that. I was just, “Oh…” But, it was kind of awesome at the same time.
So, just to close things out, I wanted to ask you… apart from shows you’re on, what’s your favorite show right now?
Naomi G: It’s terrible I know, but I literally have Post-It notes next to my remote controls to tell me how to use them. I do have kind of a phobia about technology, so that’s part of it.
So, you aren’t watching the Netflix Instant on your iPhone?
Naomi G: No, I didn’t even know you could do that on your iPhone. Streaming is generally the way I watch though, when I watch. I watch things, like I said, when I have an audition, just to get the tone of the show. This is… it’s just lame, but I tend to be really active, and just sitting and watching something is really hard for me. I go to the movies a lot, and I do love going to the movies, but I tend to konk out.
I think I just keep my day so packed that when I’m suddenly seated, in the dark, for even a second, I’m just out. I just feel asleep in Django Unchained. Every five seconds there’s a bullet and/or an ‘n’ word, generally together, and yet, I was out. And, I know what a great film it was. I get it. I loved it, actually. I just sort of flatlined.
That’s just how I tend to be… oh, my God, I’m going to actually admit this… the last episode, “The Coat Hanger”, I actually checked out during that, and I was with friends, and they nudged me, and they were like, “Naomi, you’re on TV.”
I was a huge Sex and the City person. That’s definitely in my genre. I’m a little bit cliche girl like that. But, you know, if I tell you that’s what I watch, that’s kind of ridiculous. That was ten years ago.
I need to watch more, because that’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from. For a while I watched, So You Think You Can Dance. You know like Mary Murphy, Kim Catrall, these are characters that I totally love.
You like Mary Murphy, as a character?
Naomi G: She’s one of those people you want to watch, you know, for the one hour a week. She’s not an every day…, you aren’t going to tune in everyday with Mary. I don’t know, I just think she’s funny. She’s so ridiculous. She’s so over the top. She’s almost like one of these reality show train wrecks that you can’t look away from.
So… you like her as a character, but not necessarily in a good way?
Naomi G: Oh, if she were my neighbor, I’d move.
Well, see, if you just throw that out all by itself… people could go the other way with that, and think strange things about you.
Naomi G: Well, but I tend to love… I mean this is like a problem for me. I tend to date people that I could never actually be with, that are wildly inappropriate matches, and yet, they’re funny, and I could take them around to parties, and people are like, “What?” And, that’s fun for me. I’m trying to sort of grow up, and look toward the future, and be with someone that I could actually be with over time. Who would feed me intellectually, and emotionally, culturally, etc., but for right now, I’m into just having fun, and being entertained. And, these people entertain me. Mary Murphy is entertaining, that you must give her.
Yeah, I’m not absolutely sure I have to give her that actually. Except, I guess in the sense of the Dance Moms lady. You know that show?
Naomi G: No. This is actually a game with my friends and I. They like to make really obvious pop culture references that everyone knows, and watch my reaction. It’s something I really need to work on for 2013.
- Pepper On ‘American Horror Story’: Naomi Grossman, Who Plays The Fan Favorite, Talks Musical And More (huffingtonpost.com)
- Best of 2012 (Behind the Scenes): Naomi Grossman on being cast, transformed into Pepper on ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ (horrorboom.com)