I recently had a chance to interview American Horror Story’s Pepper, played by Naomi Grossman. Grossman’s talent knows no bounds. As a theater alum at Northwestern, as well as an alum of Improv Olympic, Grossman has been involved in a variety of projects, ranging from the famous Groundlings Sunday Company to theater productions. We already know that she’s a talented actress, but she has also written, produced and starred in a number of films and comedy shorts that have been screened everywhere from the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival to the Fringe Theater Festival in Scotland. Her solo-shows Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust and Other Human Oddities and Girl in Argentine Landscape were both critically acclaimed across the globe.
Fans of the series were ecstatic to find out over the summer that Grossman’s Pepper would be the first character to appear in multiple seasons of the show; in her case, Pepper is featured in a crossover from Asylum to Freakshow, and her role in Freakshow would give us the background to how she ended up at Briarcliff years later. Freakshow takes place in Jupiter, Florida, in 1952, and yet we find Pepper locked away in the New England mental hospital in 1964. Fans have to wait until Freakshow’s Episode 10 for answers. Now it’s time to meet the amazingly talented actress behind the meatloaf-loving microcephalic.
From where do you draw inspiration for Pepper’s character? Are you given any latitude in developing her character (this season, or during Asylum)?
The Pepper character was modeled after Schlitzie, a real-life microcephalic and star of Tod Browning’s 1930’s film, “Freaks.” As far as latitude goes, “do Schlitzie” was about all the info the producers gave me. Which was the perfect amount—I knew precisely what they wanted, yet never felt micromanaged. I created a whole back-story for Pepper, which actually pales in comparison to the one the writers have created for her. I can’t reveal any more, except that Pepper fans are in for a treat!
Who is Pepper for you?
Pepper to me is pure love. I think that’s what makes her so refreshing and dear.
What has been your favorite scene to shoot this season? Who is the most fun to do scenes with?
Again, my favorites have yet to air! Other than that, the musical numbers and party scenes really allow me to flex my improv/comedy muscles and let Pepper play, like only she can! I couldn’t say who’s the most “fun”—Sarah Paulson is VERY fun, but with her two heads, he scenes take four times as long. Which is not fun. That said, other than “The Name Game” and select party-scenes, “fun” isn’t the first adjective I’d use to describe AHS. Not that it’s not “fun” per se—it’s intense…emotionally exhausting, grueling, fulfilling, and inspiring. Going out in New Orleans after a 100 hour work week is more “fun”!
Do you do anything special to get into Pepper’s head space?
It depends on the scene. For the lighter, more playful Pepper, no. I know her so well, I can just turn her on and off. As for the more emotional stuff, I don’t get a chance to do that every day, so yes, I have to go to a dark place. Which I’ve found incredibly gratifying, and has taught me so much, not just as an actress, but as a human being.
Talk about the differences in the role when Pepper became “enlightened” in Asylum. Which version of Pepper was more challenging to play?
For me, the enlightened version. I’m very comfortable doing big characters. I come from a Groundlings comedy theater background, where I would contort my face in a cartoonish way on stage weekly. Having to be subtle and still and communicate with just my eye (since my other eye is blinded), has forced me out of my comfort zone. I think I’ve underestimated myself though—I haven’t done drama at this level since college. I’m glad to know I still got it!
The orgy scene in Freakshow’s “Monsters Among Us”—WTF? What was filming like that day?
If I didn’t know AHS was a real, bonafide show, I’d have thought I wound up in a porno! I’ll never forget Eve lying on her back with her leg up, and Toulouse swinging around it like a stripper pole…All the while, Ryan [Murphy] shouting from the sidelines, “Hump the leg! Hump the leg!” I don’t know if you caught me in all that grainy footage fist-pumping as I orally pleasured Evan Peters. HIS idea, by the way! I remember thinking, “This is every teenage girl’s dream.” I actually felt funny about it afterwards… At the time, all I could do was fist-pump and make it my own.
How does it feel to play the first/only character to cross over between two seasons of American Horror Story? Would you like to return in the fifth season as a different character?
Well, Lily Rabe reprised her role as well—but I like to think it all began with Pepper! It’s tremendously flattering. They broke all their own rules. Changed the entire game with the recent reveal that the seasons are all connected. Of course I’d like to return as a new character! I’m an actor!
I know that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk keep a tight lid on plans for upcoming installments of the show. Do cast members ever provide suggestions? If you had your way, what would your dream AHS season be about?
I wouldn’t know where to being. I don’t know that the other actors have opinions either. Again, my backstory for Pepper wasn’t nearly as good as the one they wrote for me, so I really couldn’t begin on future seasons. I watched a great round-table entertainment show hosted by Jim Rash called “The Writer’s Room” in which Ryan and Brad [Falchuk] joked about a last season entitled “AHS: Mime.” I know they were joking, but I love the idea!
As a member of the Groundlings Sunday Show and an alum of the Inprov Olympic, does your comedy background help you with a character like Pepper? Intentional or not, the meatloaf scene in “Massacres and Mayhem” was hilarious in its own way. I don’t think any fan of the show will ever be able to think of meatloaf and not think of you!
Awww, that’s sweet. Yes, it absolutely helps! I think there’s a fine line between comedy and drama… Both are best when the stakes are high, though in the case of comedy, the characters’ intentions are often absurd, like getting one’s meatloaf. Who gets that riled up over mixed ground meat? Pepper, that who! And why not—she’s hungry and she knows that she wants. She should have it! Either it, or a tantrum.
I loved seeing your Tweets as you shopped for wigs for the AHS Freakshow season premiere party. Ultimately you went au naturel—i.e. bald. How liberating has it been to play a fan favorite like Pepper and have the ability to define yourself based on your performance and not your looks? Are you surprised by the number of people who can’t believe what you look like in real life?
That was a joke, and a social media stint. I love a good wig, though I knew that was best kept to Twitter, and NOT the red carpet. Although I knew there’d be a lot of competition out there, what with 2 foot tall women, and 7 foot tall women, and major stars like Jessica Lange! To answer your question though, it’s been very liberating. But then, I was never going to garner fame based on my looks. Not that I’m ugly, but Hollywood beauties are just a whole other thing. I’m very realistic about who I am, and what I have to offer. You cast me because you want something unconventional and quirky and interesting, hot in an Almodovar-girl kind of way, or perhaps ugly in a Pepper way! The good news is that I offer range, which traditional beauties don’t necessarily. It’s true—people’s reaction to me has been funny—they can’t believe how beautiful I am! Which is hilarious to me unto itself. I don’t know that I’ll ever be “over it,” though it’s astounding how surprised people are, 10,000 blog posts later.
What is one thing that AHS fans would be surprised to know about you?
I’m an open-book. Between my solo shows and You Tube vids, I’m pretty sure I’ve told all my secrets.