American Horror Story, the cult classic from the twisted minds of Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, is one of those shows you have to see to believe. Each season more outrageous and enthralling than the next. Naomi Grossman, a talented actress who is best known for her role as Pepper, a patient of Briarcliff (and a member of a traveling Freak Show) with strong protective instincts, a limited vocabulary and childlike mannerisms.
Grossman, who shaved her head to play this part, has become one of the most iconic characters on the show and dubbed TV’s “ugliest person.” Although, I think that term is a little harsh– I mean, you gotta love big ears and a sometimes stylish moo-moo. We’re of course talking about Pepper. But in all seriousness, Grossman not only elevates this role to uncharted territory with her sensitive and phenomenal portrayal of an overall gentle ‘freak,’ but the visual transformation between her and her character is mind-blowing. In the best possible way.
Grossman chatted with me about her recurring role as Pepper on AHS, as well as the challenges she often faces with a role like this (like talking with those fake teeth in, it’s as hard as it looks, people) and that only now, two and a half years later, she realizes how big the character really is.
And we couldn’t agree more, Pepper For President!
MCKENZIE MORRELL: So to start off, can you describe Pepper, the character you play on American Horror Story?
NAOMI GROSSMAN: Pepper is microcephalic, which is a neurological disorder that affects the brain, resulting in an abnormally small head. It’s what once upon a time, people called pinheads. They were generally farmed off to freak shows; their keepers would typically shave their heads with the exception of the top-notch to accentuate the pin. Pepper was actually modeled after Schlitzie, a microcephalic gentlemen who starred in Tod Browning’s 1930‘s film, “Freaks.” So really that was my job. To do Schlitzie. I’d reveal more of her arc, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the show… But she’s a wonderfully full, complex character with a really beautiful back story. She’s one of the few good guys on American Horror Story.
MM: Other than shaving your head, did you have to do other preparations for the role?
NG: Sure, there were emotional and mental preparations. I didn’t know anything about what I just told you, so I spent a lot of time reading about microcephalia, as well as watching Schlitzie, so I could emulate his gestures and speech and posture and movements. Of course, it was especially important that I do so sensitively, since this is a real condition and I didn’t want to appear as if I were making fun– particularly since my background is in comedy. I feared the hate mail that I might get, be it from groups that might object to an able-bodied actress taking a disabled role, to folks thinking I was making a mockery of this disability. I’m pleased to say that was not the case… quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve been invited by those very groups to come speak at their events. It’s incredible to me that it’s come full-circle, and that my worst fears were replaced by this wonderful dream.
MM: That’s really great to hear. Pepper has become such an iconic character. Once you realized the magnitude of this role that you blindly took, what was your reaction to this newfound fame and people receiving it so well?
NG: It wasn’t until episode 10 of Freak Show that I really had a sense of how big this character would be. I definitely hadn’t a clue when I was first cast. Back then, I thought I was just one of an army of pinheads. It wasn’t until I was on set for the first time that I realized I was THE pinhead. Even then, I only said a syllable an episode for the first couple of episodes, and then I disappeared for a bit. I thought they’d cut me out and recast. I had no idea that I’d come back, much less in such a big way, with monologues and an entire storyline. So that was a surprise. And then to go on the internet and see your face tattooed on fans’ limbs, or to drive down the street and see “Pepper for President” posted on a telephone pole. That’s the sort of stuff that you just can’t anticipate. Then to be brought back for Freak Show? That was unprecedented. I never thought I’d get to play her again. I figured she’d died in 1966 of pneumonia and that was the end, and so it wasn’t until they called me back for Freak Show and said, “you’ll be Pepper” that I thought, “how is this gonna work?” Then while we were shooting Freak Show, I was basically periphery, painting nails or delivering the fat lady food. As happy as I was just to be there, I half-way wondered, “what was the point?” Why go to all the trouble of bringing back a character — the first time we’ve seen that happen — unless you’re going to do something with her? It wasn’t until late October (we started shooting in July) that I learned I’d have an actual arc. So again, to answer your question, it wasn’t until two and a half years later that I really began to fathom the scope of this character. And for all we know, there could be more. I personally don’t think so, only because they did such a great job wrapping her story up. But I’ve also stopped being shocked by the show and the twists and turns it takes. So who knows.
MM: It’s got to be amazing to be the only recurring character in the history of the series that’s very well known for having its cast members come back each season as a whole new character. So I think that speaks volumes to your work and the character as well.
NG: Thank you!
MM: You’re welcome. So now, do you — you must get noticed in public often. How are the fans when they see you in person? Do they say anything weird to you? That could stem to twitter and facebook and the fan interaction?
NG: Well, I do get, “Oh my God, you’re so beautiful” a lot, which is weird because I’m not. I’m not saying that to fish for compliments, but yah, next to Pepper, I’m a supermodel. Personally, I’m much more flattered when people talk about my performance, because that’s something I can control. I have a complex relationship with beauty and Hollywood. I appreciate being told I’m beautiful, but why is that even important? I think actresses should be able to act. If they’re nice to look at, great– but what really matters is that they take you on a journey, and make you feel. You look at magazines and it’s as if being pretty or skinny is what it’s all about. I can clean up, I’m in good shape– but I don’t think that’s nearly as newsworthy as giving a great performance.