Hollywood is full of overnight success stories that were actually a decade in the making. The latest is Finn Wittrock, an All My Children alum, Broadway regular, and serial TV guest star who has been earning rave reviews for clowning around as mercurial man-child Dandy Mott on American Horror Story: Freak Show.
Wittrock, who can be seen next month in Oscar bait Unbroken, a biopic about former Olympian Louis Zamperini who survived a plane crash in World War II, spent 47 days adrift in the Pacific, and endured more than two and a half years in a brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp, spoke with Yahoo TV exclusively from New Orleans, where the creepy cast was starting to shoot the 12th episode.
Dandy has turned into the most delicious character on Freak Show especially with Twisty gone. How much of his arc did you know when you started, and what things developed as the shoot went on?
Delicious. I like that word. I knew a bare minimum going in, very broad strokes about the character and storyline. I got scripts for the first two episodes. That's all I knew when I got to New Orleans. I just keep figuring it out episode by episode. What is pretty amazing is that I keep getting surprised by what they've written for Dandy. What I've done has also informed a bit of the writing. I think they also tried to make you think he was just going to be a quirky side character, not a main bad guy. They wanted to make you think you had him all figured out so they could keep surprising you.
He drinks from a bottle. He works out in underwear. He throws tantrums. Is anything too ridiculous for Dandy to pull off? Is there a line you can't cross with him?
If there is, I haven't found it yet. He really keeps outdoing himself, as fans will see in upcoming episodes. Every time he does something ridiculous, l think they can't possibly top it, and then they do. This show always has the risk of being too heightened, but Ryan [Murphy] gets such great actors because it walks that line. I feel empowered when I watch the others make big moves. Especially when you see every big move Jessica Lange has pulled off over the seasons. There really isn't anything I feel Dandy isn't capable of.
That freedom must be so fun as an actor.
That is always fun when you get to tap into a character that has no limits. It is so liberating.
Is he evil? Is there anything redeeming about him?
Look, I have to be on his side completely to do the character justice. Of course, I can take a step back and objectively say he is evil or creepy and psychotic. But to even have a chance of pulling him off, I can't ever be judging him. People say you are so creepy and scary, and honestly I am not trying to be any of those adjectives. The actions themselves are scary and creepy, but I am not trying to play creepy.
Assuming there are no tortured animals or overindulging moms at your house, do you have anything in common? Perhaps a love of ascots?
We do share a love of three-piece suits. It's less about having experiences in common because I of course do not share interest in any of his hobbies other than acting. With any character, you try to find the connective tissue between you and them and find what is collectively human about them. We all have a monster inside us. Dandy isn't that far from a needy infant. If you imagine an infant brain that never developed farther than needing a world that answers to all your little wants and needs, then you basically have Dandy. Emotionally he is an infant, but mentally he is very, very intelligent. Put that together with a big bank account and a need for destruction, and you have a very dangerous combination.
Be honest. Does that Twisty mask smell?
It smells like weird plastic synthetic mask material they used to make it mostly. I wouldn't describe it as pleasant. I did share a mask. They made it special for Twisty. There weren't many duplicates because that outfit was intense and pretty expensive. So, yes, I breathed in John Carroll Lynch's breath and cooties.
How do you feel about clowns personally?
I don't see what the big deal is. Why are people so scared? They're fun. They juggle, they have big funny noses, they only kill people occasionally. But no one is perfect.
Working in your underwear: daunting or no big deal?
That was one thing they did give me some notice about, which was kind. I didn't know the context, but I was warned that I would be pretty naked. So I prepared myself physically and mentally. It was daunting at first, but once I'd read the monologue I was more excited than scared to be in my undies. I memorized the monologue so when we recorded the workout scene, I was delivering it in my head and that helped. You can lose a lot of your inhibitions if you commit to a character that has none.
What did you do to prepare?
It is dangerous in this city [New Orleans] because there is great food everywhere. I won't pretend that I don't eat that food, but for a few weeks in advance of shooting that scene I was pretty diligent about avoiding the good stuff and not overindulging. And you put in a few extra minutes every time you work out. Being pretty naked on national TV is a pretty good reason to discipline yourself.
I can't tell you how many women and men are out there jealous that you were hanging out in tighty whities with Matt Bomer.
I knew that day I peaked. Pretty much my career will be downhill from there.
Had you guys met on The Normal Heart or was this an "into the frying pan" situation?
We had met on that project. He had to do a starvation diet to lose all that weight for the end of the film and I was in that mode to shoot Unbroken, and in my second scene of Heart I had to be a pretty low weight as well. We commiserated on that torture and we talked a lot about all the food we would eat when it was all over, so we got to know each other a bit there, so it was a fun reunion. It made sawing his arm off without clothes on a lot less awkward.
Tease a scene or an episode that we haven't seen yet that you are particularly proud of/happy with.
I was really happy with all the stuff with the twins in 6. In Episode 8, there's some really cool stuff I get to do with mom, with Frances [Conroy]. It is also where Gabourey Sidibe enters our world. There's a big, big twist in that one that I get to be a part of.
Was there anyone that you wished you'd gotten to work with more?
I don't have a whole lot to do with most of the freak show folks. I do wish I had gotten to do more with Denis O'Hare because I have crazy respect for him. I also wished I'd had more to do with Kathy Bates because she's one of the greats.
Now that you are a part of the troupe, have you talked to Ryan about coming back next season as many of the actors have done?
For sure. One of the things that separates this from other TV jobs is that you never get stuck in any one character. That's always the danger of doing TV. Do I really want to play the same guy for seven years? But this is like doing a very long movie. Ryan has not said a word about what is happening next season, but I know it will be completely different than this. I'm just excited to have survived the initiation.
You've been working for years, including a long stint on a popular soap, but I'm assuming this is getting you the most attention. Do people recognize you without the ascots?
It has been happening with greater frequency after every episode. I usually get at least one person recognizing me pretty much anywhere I go, whether it is out to eat ramen or at an airport — especially down [in New Orleans]. I knew the show was popular but I didn't appreciate just how rabid the fans are.
Have you had funny fan encounters?
I haven't had any crazy moments in real life, but my Instagram encounters have been pretty crazy. Every week I shoot up a few thousand followers, and I saw a lot of Dandys on Halloween. My friends and fans sent me images of guys with blue sweaters, curls over their foreheads, and clown sidekicks for weeks.
Guessing this is a far cry from your role in Unbroken.
Yes I don't think it is a spoiler to say there are not killer clowns in that one. It was a very demanding shoot, and the subject matter did have an effect on our personalities. I feel like we grew up a little bit, but it was also a very special thing to be a part of. I saw a cut of it, and I'm very happy with the way it turned out. And obviously I got to work with Angelina [Jolie], and that made everything OK. She's a good friend to have in your corner in this business.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.