What was the wildest thing that Finn Wittrock had to do during his run as Dandy—the dashing Peter Pan with a murderous streak—on American Horror Story: Freak Show? And what does it say about this show that, in one scene, Wittrock stripped to his underwear to bathe in a tub filled with his character’s mother’s blood, and that may not even take the crown?
“There’s a lot of, ‘We’ll see how they pull this together!’” Wittrock laughs. “‘Good luck, guys!’”
The trust exercise that is working on a Ryan Murphy series (Murphy is also the mastermind behind Glee and the upcoming Scream Queens) certainly paid off for Wittrock, the 30-year-old actor who also appeared last year in Angelina Jolie’s World War II epic Unbroken and Murphy’s HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart.
Quick with a hearty laugh and almost addictively good-humored in real life, it turns out that Wittrock was quite adept at playing against type as the sociopath. Whether he was playing the protégé of a demented clown, stripping to his tighty-whities to lather up in his mom’s blood, or laying waste to a troupe of circus freaks in a graphic season-ending massacre, Wittrock was so convincing playing Dandy’s dark side that people are legitimately confused when they meet him.
“A lot of times fans will say, ‘Wow, you’re so nice! I’m so surprised!’” he says. “It’s like, what did you think?”
Wittrock has already garnered a Critics Choice Awards nomination for his role on the series and is a favorite to land an Emmy nomination next month. Plus, Murphy has already invited him back into the American Horror Story fold: It was recently announced that he’d be checking in alongside Lady Gaga, Sarah Paulson, and Matt Bomer when the anthology series returns for its Hotel season this year.
With all of this going on, we chatted with Wittrock about navigating the delirious TV funhouse that is shooting a Ryan Murphy series, the hardest Freak Show scenes to shoot, and why he’s basically become an honorary member of the Jolie-Pitt family.
What’s the thing that people have been hounding you about the most from this past season? And has that been annoying?
People always want to ask me where the character comes from, and whether I’m like him. Or a lot of times fans will say, “Wow, you’re so nice! I’m so surprised!” And it’s like, what did you think? That Ryan Murphy hired me for the job because he knows I have a weird relationship with my mother and I like to bathe in blood? (Laughs) Obviously, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I always explain it that I always thought of Dandy as a stunted child. He emotionally never matured, but intellectually did mature. That sort of infant psyche, which is all ego, never matured into a well-balanced adult. He was allowed to grow and become a monster.
I don’t know whether this speaks to any deranged behavior on my part, but I see in a way the fun of being in Dandy’s mindset, of being petulant and selfish and demanding. Murder and mayhem aside, that might be a gratifying way to behave.
Yeah. There’s a part of us that wants to have permission to act like that. A baby is really cute and innocent and adorable, but if they could they would kill someone to get to their mother. (Laughs) It’s a good thing that they can’t, you know? So I think that there is that infant brain inside us all. But we have just become socialized—or most of us—so we quell that. But there is something satisfying about seeing it on a rampage.
So many scenes were just really bonkers. Was there one you remember being really daunted by, or that you were nervous about pulling off?
Well, the stuff with the clown, those first episodes, when we were all discovering—me and the writers—what world this lived in. So there were times when I was afraid it would be too much of a cartoon. And I wanted those scenes to be really grounded. I wanted his mind to really be blown off a bit. And actually John Lynch [who plays Twisty the Clown] really helped with that. He was silent, but he really gave you a lot as an actor. So I was nervous about that. And when I first read the bathing in blood, it was like, “Wow, I really thought you couldn’t outdo yourselves after all you’ve done. But you’ve found a way.” (Laughs)
Is that a scene that a lot of people ask you about?
Yeah. Yeah. People had lots of mixed reactions to that. But the stuff I was really most proud of was the stuff with Frances Conroy [who plays his mother]. I really liked those last few feuds we had where everything exploded and things went crazy. It was like doing a really great play, working with her. When you can sort of ground it in that drama for a while, you’ve earned yourselves the place where you can go bathe in blood and kill a bunch of people and all the crazy stuff. You’ve gone to some depths, so you give yourselves permission to do crazier things.
The bathing in blood scene might be a good example of this: I imagine being on a show like American Horror Story requires a lot of faith that something on the page that seems so out there and could go so, so wrong will turn out OK. What’s a good example of that for you?
Where you’re like I trust you…? Well, those things that were happening at the end of the season, like the crazy puppet thing and then the big mass murder at the end. No matter what you do, professionally there’s a lot that’s just not in your control having to do with tone and rhythm and effects. So you do have to put faith in your creators. (Laughs) Then again, by the time we got to the end of the season we were on the same page. You get to know them really well and you get a feel of what it’s supposed to be and how it will come together. You’re in charge of a lot of it, and there’s a lot of, “We’ll see how they pull this together! Good luck, guys!”
What was it like acting against Sarah Paulson as the conjoined twins?
It’s always challenging. She’s such a pro, so it was really cool to see how she would transform from Bette to Dot. Even when she wasn’t “acting” but had a Dot wig on, the way she’d talk to me was different from the way she did when she was Bette. It was a very technical and sometimes tedious process with those special effects. It basically takes three times longer than a normal scene would. There’s a lot of tweaking. It took a lot of patience, especially since the schedule got a bit crazy at the end. You really want a good actor next to you for that, and I felt like I really needed to be there because she had such a huge task. She deserves a lot for this season, I think.
Her characters are a good example of seeing something on the page and acting it on set and not having any clue of what it will end up looking like on TV. There’s a lot of that with this show, because it’s so stylized.
It’s very stylized. I’ve heard that with TV directors, it’s very in-demand. Directors want to do this show because they get to really go for it. There’s no holds barred in terms of what you want to do with the camera. They really experiment and have fun. But it is a test of faith. “I hope this works…”
Let’s talk about Dandy’s demise. What was it like shooting that massacre scene? It plays so tense and exciting, but what was it like for you, the guy doing the offing?
People would ask me if it would disturb me, and most of the time during the shoot I was able to leave Dandy on the set and walk home as Finn and not have Dandy follow me. But at the end of that day having killed everybody, it was weighing on me for the first time. I was really feeling guilt and disgust. But dying is much easier. Actors are always happy to die themselves. Killing other people can be much harder on the soul.
You’ve been dying so much on screen lately. The Normal Heart, Unbroken, this…
I know! I don’t know why. People really love to abuse me. Why do I have that effect?
They’re good death scenes, though.
I had a string in a row, a bunch of them. I don’t know what that’s about! Maybe I should look into that.
So we talked about the surreal nature of filming the bathing in blood scene. But the other, um, revealing scene was the big nude scene you had in front of Gabourey Sidibe. I imagine when you sign on for a Ryan Murphy series and you’re an attractive young male, the writing’s a bit on the wall…
Yeah. All the guys, we all had to at least show our ass once. It’s basically in the contract. (Laughs) You see it coming, and then you don’t quite see that coming. Luckily, that was down the road. So I had gotten to know the crew and gotten to know Gabby a bit.
Is it better to shoot a nude scene when you’ve gotten to know a crew, or better when you don’t know them?
It’s better when you know them because when you have to do a love scene on the first day of shooting or something, that’s just hard. There’s so much ice to break beforehand. This you can just jump in and play and hope that everyone’s going to be a professional.
Well, you looked great, needless to say. Between that and your role in The Normal Heart, you’ve solidified a rather strong and passionate gay following.
So I’ve been told.
Well, that should help secure a healthy future in this business.
Knock on wood, yeah. And I got to play a cool gay character in Masters of Sex. People have asked if I feel like I’m being typecast, and it’s just not on my radar. If it’s obscene or over-the-top, that’s something else. But these were all good stories and really challenging characters to play. Sexuality was secondary.
And in really prestige projects.
That’s the thing. I remember I had seen the play The Normal Heart and was staggered by it. And I saw Larry Kramer in the lobby handing out these pamphlets as the audience was leaving, “The AIDS crisis is today.” I was like, “This guy is on another level.” And Ryan really expanded the play in a way that only he could do it.
We opened talking about what people ask you most about in working on American Horror Story. But I imagine in the past year you’ve had to talk exhaustively about “what Angelina Jolie is really like.”
(Laughs) Oh, yes.
Did that get annoying to have to answer all the time?
It would if I was lying. I could be very honest and say that she was such an impressive, awesome person. It’s really true. We kept waiting on Unbroken, “Is the ball going to drop and she’s going to come to set one day and be a crazy diva?” No one would actually hold it against her, but she never did. Even in the most stressful time, that opening scene, the airplane scene, was a really technical, difficult thing. And it’s the only time production went over schedule. She deserved to have been stressed out and angry, but whatever she was she never showed it to anybody. She was always graceful and collaborative. So it was a very special time. And I just got to work with Brad on The Big Short, another movie.
Now you’re part of the family.
Yeah, I only do movies with one of the two of them.