Naomi Grossman exploded onto the pop culture landscape with her intricatly played character, “Pepper,” a microcephalic woman with a very intriguing past, on FX’s award-winning series, ‘American Horror Story.’ A testament to her on-screen excellence is the fact Pepper was the first character to be featured in more than one season. The fourth season of the runaway hit series, ‘Freak Show,’ takes place in Jupiter, Florida in the year 1952 and centers around a troupe of strange performers whose lives are being threatened by a dark creature. Naomi Grossman wowed critics an fans alike with her stellar performance in the “Orphans” episode, which reveals Pepper’s twisted life story and masterfully links the ‘Asylum’ season to ‘Freak Show.’
While well-known for her playful character on a dismal horror show, Grossman began her career as quite the opposite. A former member of the esteemed Groundlings Sunday Company, as well as an alumna of Improv Olympic, Grossman has written, produced and starred in various hit solo shows. Her firs solo show, won an LA Weekly Theater Award nomination for best solo performance and her most recent, “Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust and other Human Oddities” enjoyed a twice-extended, sold-out run and rave reviews. The show was later reprised at the world-famous Fringe Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland where it received more critical praise, as well as a transfer to London’s West End (Leicester Square Theater).
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Naomi Grossman to discuss her fascinating career arc, dynamic performance on ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show” and what the future might hold for this star in the rise!
I wanted to start by going back to your early years. What made you want to pursue acting as a career early on?
I came from a very cultured family! [laughs] I was denied my first date because it wasn’t the symphony. I grew up going to the theater, ballet and opera. I always looked up at the stage and said, “That is where I want to be!” Sure enough, I got there! I was doing children’s theater from a very young age and pretty much anything and everything that came out of Denver, which isn’t a lot but “Father Dowling” and regional commercials. I got my SAG card when I was 15. In fact, I kind of joke that I did more work as a teenager than I have done as a young adult! [laughs] From there, I went to college at Northwestern, became a theater major and then went on to Hollywood because I could only handle four years of Chicago winter, although I loved my time there. I came to Hollywood and pretty much couldn’t get cast. I feel like I know why and that is because “American Horror Story” wasn’t around and there were no characters like Pepper! I joke, of course, but as a developmental actress, like myself, we are pretty much reduced to these thankless roles like Nurse #4 to the left, those kind of parts. I just wasn’t getting cast as those and I think we all kind of know why. I am not trying to flatter myself but I am definitely not an actor that disappears and often those sort of roles need to be wallflowers because they are there to support the star. Pepper was the ultimate because she is obviously there to support the star but shines in her own little way. That is not to say that I just sat around waiting for my big break. I really created a lot of my own success. I have a couple of one-woman shows, which have enjoyed great reviews, extended runs and sold out houses everywhere from here in LA to the fringe theater festival in Edinburgh, London’s West End and Off-Off Broadway. I also had a pretty long stint at The Groundlings, which is a comedy theater here in Los Angeles. It is a comedy factory where many of the SNL folks have come out of. I had a really nice run there! I managed to come away with hundreds of thousands of sketch ideas and wigs with which I managed to create quite the little YouTube channel for myself!
I kept busy! I wasn’t getting cast by anyone but myself. I really created my own path and definitely didn’t have the traditional Hollywood route. I like to think my story was kind of sad for a long time but ultimately is kind of inspirational. It tells you, “If you have a dream, you can’t sit around and dream your dream. You have to make it happen for yourself!” I like to think that people like Ryan Murphy wouldn’t entrust the role of Pepper to just anybody, even though they obviously needed an unknown as they were going to cover her with prosthetics! At the same time, I had to show that I could pull off this character. By the reviews I am reading today, that is what I did!
Absolutely! You have done an amazing job with the character and really made it special! How did your creativity and past experiences culminate with this role?
That is absolutely the case. It is interesting because I have all of this improv comedy experience and this is hardly a comedic role. At the same time, I have always been a big character actress and have looked to Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman and Gilda Radner for inspiration. Those are the kind of actresses that I always wanted to be like when I grew up. While they are known for their comedic characters, they are very multifaceted. The fact is, Pepper can be a comedic character and, in many cases, I feel like in many cases she has been the comic relief. I think that might be part of the reason we may have seen them so sparingly because she does change up the tone at times. Of course, last night’s episode “Orphans” was an opportunity for me to show that other side. That is life and what a full character is all about! We are not all comedic. We are all tragic. I think the best comedians out there have some real pain to draw upon and the same is true when it comes to drama. That is another reason I think the show is so brilliant. You think it is so scary and so sad but all of a sudden they come out with a song or a line that is just so campy and hilarious and beautiful! It’s like, “Oh my gosh! We need a little levity!” There is no question that all of those big wigs I wore, crazy faces I made and characters I created prepared me for this role! They absolutely did!
You brought a lot of life to Pepper’s character and story. When it comes to her and her story, what do you most relate to?
First of all, I really believe that Pepper is so complex and there is so much to her. At first glance, she may seem like this one-dimensional pinhead but, obviously, there is so much more going on. I think that is what people respond to. In one way, if we are talking to the little, innocent, “play with me” Pepper, that is so me! At the end of the day, I just want to have fun! I live my life to the fullest, meet people, go on adventures, travel, eat and make love! I live my life fully! I think Pepper does too! She is limited. She is stuck in the freak show or off at Briarcliff and there is only so much she can do in the confines of the asylum but she makes the most of her situation. I like to think that I do too and I can really relate to that!
Last night’s show, “Orphans,” showed a whole new side to her. Shooting it, I related to it in so many levels. As the character, I was so sad because I was in it and saying goodbye to Salty and Elsa. At the same time, it was also me being sad for Pepper and saying goodbye to her. As a character, she has been so good to me and has really changed my life. She has put me on the map and changed my hairstyle quite drastically! [laughs] I am going to miss her very much! She has been a part of my life for a good two years now. When Elsa said, “We’ve known each other a long time … ,” it’s true! Of course, I was also saying goodbye to New Orleans and potentially the show. I was heartbroken by that episode on so many levels. I related in every way and those were real tears.
Looking back on your time with “American Horror Story,” what is the biggest thing you learned about yourself from the show?
I learned so much! I learned so much as an actress just watching the masters at work! Can you imagine how lucky I was to attend this masterclass by Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett? I feel like I have learned just as much about myself as a human being as an actor. Hanging out with Mat Fraser, Rose Siggins, Ben Woolf, Jyoti Amge, they taught me a whole new side. I mean, I kind of identify as one of the freaks, yet of course I am not, I am not physically disabled. I think at one time, when I first arrived at “Freak Show,” I felt a disconnect. I had the reaction of, “Oh my God! That woman has no legs!” or “He has flippers for hands.” Now, I don’t even noticed that. “They are one of us!” to quote the Tim Browning film “Freaks.” I don’t see myself as any different. I think that is a major evolution on a human level.
Whether it is this role or any other project, do you have a typical process when it comes to bringing characters to life?
Yes. I am obviously a very physical actress and you can see I can transform myself completely and it’s not just the makeup! [laughs] Although, that is notable for sure! I change everything. I change my posture, my mannerisms and my body completely. That is part of what I do and it does probably come from my comedy and stage background. My favorite thing to do in the world is to go into a wig store, throw on a wig and see who comes out! [laughs] Inevitably, some character emerges! That is kind of how it worked with Pepper. Obviously, I knew what my job was and that was to do Schlitzie, the real-life microcephalic from the 1930 film “Freaks” that Pepper was modeled after. As long as I was pretty much doing that, I was on the right track. In one way I was imitating but, of course, I had to bring my own spin to it. I think you do your research as far as observation. I also created my own story for her, which ultimately wasn’t nearly as lovely as the one they wrote for me! Then you get your haircut done, the prosthetics put on and you open your eyes and you are Pepper!
We are catching you at the tail-end of what was an amazing year for you. What does the new year hold for you?
There are some big shoes to fill! As much as I love being the empress of my own creative empire, I don’t think I can go back to little YouTube shorts at this point! [laughs] I like the spirit of that but, at the same time, I don’t want to take a step down. I don’t know what you step up to! [laughs] I think a lateral move is the best I will be able to do here for a while! [laughs] I would like to see more of the same, more film and television roles. I don’t want to say more roles like Pepper because she is so unique and I don’t want to get stuck in only pinhead roles because, lets face it, there aren’t that many! The last time we had one of those on screen was 80 years ago and I can’t wait 80 years to get cast again! [laughs] I would like to see more of that! It seems like anymore all you see is beautiful women and character men. For some reason it is OK for men to get ugly. I’d like to see that I prove otherwise. I’d like to see more interesting character roles for women. I think I have proven that I can do that, so more meaty, ugly roles, except that I think the best move for me would be to be pretty here for once! [laughs]
Is there a role or genre you always had your eye on tackling?
Yes and no. Yes, my dream was always to be a part of Saturday Night Live. Since I was a little girl and could barely stay up for it, my eyes were on that prize. If Lorne Michaels is reading this: Lorne, I will still be on your show! [laughs] When I watch “American Horror Story” I think, “Why do I want SNL when the show I am on is so much better!?” [laughs] At this point, and it was another revelation for me, was that I no longer care about that. Now, I just care about doing good work. I no longer just want to be on TV or just want to be famous. I want to do work that I am proud of, so that is why Pepper on “American Horror Story” has been so gratifying. That is exactly the kind of work I want to be doing!
You can serve as a great inspiration to so many young actors. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make a career in the entertainment industry?
On one level, I hate to discourage anybody but it is a long road to hoe or at least it was to me. It did not come easy. I would say, if there is anything else that you want to do, you should do it instead. [laughs] In my case, I always kept coming back to it. I would ask myself, “Gosh! Is there anything else I would like to be doing?” Pretty much anything else seemed like it would be easier! I kept returning to the answer, “No! There is nothing else I want to be doing!” So I continued. If you are one of those unfortunate souls that only wants to act, then act! If that is the case, I don’t recommend sitting around and waiting for Hollywood to call. You have to create your own opportunities. If that means writing a one-man show or creating a YouTube channel, which were my outlets, but there are a million more. That would be my advice. Do something else if possible and, if not, then do it yourself!
Thank you for your time today, Naomi! It’s been a pleasure speaking to you! Can’t wait to see where you turn up in the future!
Thank you, Jason! Talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.