Pictured: Finn Wittrock in a scene from 'Unbroken'
It’s been two months since American Horror Story fans saw psycho hunk Dandy Mott wreak havoc on a freak show in Jupiter, Fla. But fans of Finn Wittrock, the sculpted actor behind Mott’s explosive emotions, have plenty to look forward to. Wittrock’s celebrated feature film, Unbroken—Angelina Jolie’s WWII pic about Olympian-turned-POW Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell)—is available on DVD/Blu-ray this week, and he spoke with Out about the preparation for his role, the loyalty of his gay fans, his new puppy, and the many places we’ll be ogling him next.
Out: The gay community is really taking notice of you right now. This isn’t your first interview with Out, you were nominated by the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association for an award last year, and you’ve been featured on just about every gay entertainment site there is. What do you think the draw is?
Finn Wittrock: I guess they’d have to tell me. I’ve been lucky to be a part of a few good, important stories in gay culture with The Normal Heart and Masters of Sex, and I think the community’s very loyal. Once you break into something like that, they seem to be curious about everything you’re doing next. And I think Ryan Murphy has a good following in that community, and lots of the things I’m doing have been riding on his coattails. They’re good coattails to be on!
You’ve played lots of characters on the fringe of society: a man who dies of AIDS and has his body dumped in a dumpster (The Normal Heart); gay prostitute (Master of Sex); an isolated, sociopathic murderer (AHS: Freak Show); a gigolo (Sweet Bird of Youth). Do you intentionally go after these roles, or do they seem to find you?
They definitely seem to come to me and I wonder what that says about my personality! I’m often tapped for parts that are tortured characters, either physically or emotionally. Maybe people just like to hurt me! I’m definitely drawn to extremes, and to things away from my own personality—places I can push myself further than I have before. Even in Unbroken part of the challenge was to see how physically and emotionally far we could go with it, and how much I could push my own boundaries of what I’d done before. As soon as I see myself repeating my work, I go a little crazy.
In 2008, according to your own article in the Juilliard Journal, you volunteered to help in New Orleans, which was still recovering from Katrina. Do you find time for volunteer work now?
I just did a really cool little photo shoot with the Animal Rescue Awareness Campaign that tries to find homes for pets on the street. I’m trying to keep that sort of thing in mind with my career. I’ve been so busy with that stuff lately. There’s an amazing group that I was a part of at Juilliard and after called Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). We would go down to South Florida—and they also have programs in South Africa and India—basically doing outreach for kids in lower-income places, where public school funding has been cut. And that’s the kind of thing I want to try to keep in my life as much as possible. It’s very rewarding. I also love to teach, ever since I realized that I could! It’s kind of a thing you don’t know you can do until you do it.
You mentioned animal rescue of street pets. Do you have any pets of your own?
Yes! I just got a little puppy named Zeke and he’s a couple months old. He’s great! He’s the cutest dog in the world. He’s not from the street; I adopted him from a friend who needed to find a new home for him.
— Finn Wittrock (@FinnWittrock) March 13, 2015
In addition to the articles you contributed to the Juilliard Journal, you have a writing credit for the upcoming film The Submarine Kid, so you have seem to have an interest in writing that goes back awhile and is maybe picking up again now. How strong is that interest?
It’s definitely very strong. It’s one of those things that I’ve been doing on my own for a long time and it’s coming to a point where I’m sort of ready to put it out into the world. It’s always been this other passion of mine. As an actor you’re always waiting for someone to give you a job, for someone’s approval. Writing is something you can do on your own. You don’t need someone else’s go-ahead to create. It’s always been an outlet of mine, especially when I wasn’t working. I found a way of maintaining creativity. And now, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve written a lot of things and I should show people!” The Submarine Kid is a special thing that my friend and I have been writing since we were in college, draft after draft, then we finally got a half-million-dollar budget together, shot in LA in last April, and it just got fully edited about a month ago. It was a very surreal thing to be in a screening of it. We actually made a movie! So now the uphill battle is getting anyone to see it, but I feel very, very proud of it.
When your Unbroken character, Mac, is stranded on the raft, he takes comfort in hearing Zamperini describe his mother’s Italian cooking. What’s your comfort meal, and do you cook?
I do; I love to cook! I’m getting better, but I’m a classic New York strip steak guy, and my dad has a special mashed potato recipe that he’s allowed me to have, so I do that whenever possible. I love food. Unbroken gave me a newfound appreciation of food. Once it was over it was like I never tasted food like I did after starving. There were about three months of that, and at my lowest I dropped almost 40 pounds, so it was kind of brutal. But we kept pushing ourselves because we wanted to do the story justice.
Mac mentally gives up the minute the plane goes down, but his survival instinct kicks in when he beats the hell out of a shark, at his physical weakest. Sharks are my greatest fear. What’s yours?
I’ve been asked this a lot because of American Horror Story, and I always give a different answer. I don’t know my greatest fear, but snakes are scary. And this is very strange, but I have a weird thing about eels. You ever see an eel? I saw one in New Orleans and it was really freaky!
Zamperini describes the shark moment as a Mac Attack. Please tell me when you do something kick-ass in real life, you call it a Mac Attack now.
Always, always! Mac Attack moments! I remember Jack O’Connell being concerned that McDonald’s would be concerned about a trademark. I think we actually had to run it through and make sure it was clear.
[SPOILER ALERT] Mac’s death scene is one of the most touching, tender deaths I can recall, and it’s in a war film. In this, and several other scenes, Unbroken manages to illuminate some of the humanity hidden in these horrific circumstances. Can you talk a little bit about what into preparing for this scene, and filming it?
I think that’s a lot of what you can say about Angelina’s touch, and she really was concerned about that. She knew she had the wonders of modern cinema at her fingertips and the war scenes would look good and be taken care of, so she was really focused on illuminating those quieter moments that were just between people. It was a focus. Acting-wise, that scene was tough, but I was thinking about a guy who had really lost everything, and just expended the last of his strength with the shark attack—really trying to get into the mindset of a man who was really depleted emotionally and physically. But because he knew he contributed to the other guys’ survival, there was a sense of peace, and some of the guilt he had from eating their rations is relieved for him at the end. In the midst of all this awful chaos, there’s a moment of peace.
In the upcoming My All American, you’re playing college football star Freddie Steinmark, who gets cancer and becomes an inspiration to many people before dying young. Aside from Unbroken, it’s pretty atypical for you to play a hero lately. What does it mean to play a role model?
It sort of goes back to what I was saying: I’m always drawn to the thing that’s opposite of what I just did before. Everyone says that Freddie is the best guy they ever knew. I would hear that he was a role model a lot, and that gives its own challenges—it’s boring to just play an idol. I had to get my fingernails dirty and do my own research to find out who he really was, and use some of my own imagination, too. But he was a guy I fell in love with posthumously—he was a light among all of his peers. These guys in their 40s and 50s now remember the games like they happened yesterday, play for play, and their eyes tear up when they talk about Freddie. It’s an amazing story. He was a gem of a person and incredible player, and then his leg was gone the day after a huge game, and he’s dead a year later. It’s a tragedy, but I think IT will be a very uplifting story, all in all.
A scene from 'Masters of Sex'
Speaking of playing a good guy, I want to go all the way back to 2004 when you were in Disney’s Halloweentown High and you played Cody, who dates Debbie Reynolds’s granddaughter and helps save the day. How much did you get to work with Debbie Reynolds in that film? What was it like to work with her?
She’s awesome! I got to work with her a bit, but it was more fun hanging out with her and hearing her stories. She talked about traveling on the bus from way outside L.A. every morning at 6 a.m. to rehearse with Gene Kelly for Singin’ in the Rain. And she would improvise scenes in Halloweentown High. There was a scene with a parrot where the script basically stopped existing and it became like an improv skit between Debbie Reynolds and a parrot. But Judith Hoag, who plays the mom, was April O’Neil in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie, and that, to me, was the most exciting part of working on that film!
You’ve been acting for a long time and you’ve worked with many famous people, but you’re only recently becoming famous yourself, so I’m wondering if you still get starstruck. Who that you’ve worked with has made you the most starstruck?
I can trace a lot of what’s happening now back to 2012, with Death of a Salesman. Working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mike Nichols was kind of a pinch-me-moment, or a pinch-me-for-months! I learned so much from those guys and they really opened me up as an actor in a way that’s hard for me to put into words, but it was super inspirational. And now that they’re both gone, that’s even more special. But everyone came to that show, so I think meeting Daniel Day-Lewis was the most full-on starstruck I was. Special times.
You haven't uploaded anything public to your YouTube channel in two years. Tell me about Tanner for America, and if we'll ever see something new on the Finn Wittrock channel again.
Tanner is a project some friends and I did just for fun. It’s really just a funny idea we shot over a few weekends and then did other stuff. But there is going to be more, based on how much interest there has been! It’s in the planning stages now. I also have a fun guest spot on the Hulu show Deadbeat, which drops April 20. My episode is the one with James Franco.
You’re having a big moment on screens right now, and you’ve had great reviews in theater in the past. What’s your ideal future for your career?
I really want to keep theater in my life. It’s a big commitment to do a play—energetically and also time-wise—it consumes you completely for those four, six, 12 months, so you need to be really choosy about what you do, but I’m really itching to get on stage again. My ideal career would be to be able to hop back and forth between film and stage, and keep my foot in the good television that’s out there, which is more and more every day. And my goal is to do projects that I think are important, and work with people on the cutting edge. I’ve been lucky so far, and I’d like to keep it up.
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