You might not recognize Naomi Grossman at first glance. She played Pepper on two seasons of the American Horror Story anthology series — both Asylum and Freak Show — but she was so well camouflaged in heavy makeup to transform into the character, few are as aware of her sexy real self. We caught up with Grossman (without the buckteeth), to find out her thoughts on the AHS experience, her upcoming projects (which include a "zom-com"), and what she would do with Matt Bomer's body.
Out: First, how were the Emmys? You spent time some new and old cast members.
Naomi Grossman: Yes! I sat with Evan Peters and John Carroll Lynch during the actual ceremony, chatted with Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange at the Governor’s Ball, then ran into Finn Wittrock at the Fox party. He introduced me to Lady Gaga, with whom I had a really lovely conversation. Afterwards she stood up but, because her dress was so big, paparazzi immediately spotted us. The cameras began flashing, and she pecked me on the cheek. That kiss would later turned up in Variety. I may look like a goon in that photo, but I don’t know when I’ve ever been so happy!
I'm curious, how did you get your start in Hollywood?
I got my SAG card on my 15th birthday, working on Father Dowling Mysteries. But it was well after that before I achieved any real mainstream success. I moved to Hollywood almost immediately upon graduating in theatre from Northwestern. I spent the first two years driving to and from the post office, sending my headshots and resumes to casting. I finally realized how futile that was, and had a real heart-to-heart with myself: I wanted to act; and yet, I wasn’t acting! I was wasting all my time and postage, leaving my fate in the hands of strangers, hoping they would cast me—all the while, I could be casting myself! So I aligned myself with a great theatre director, Rich Embardo, with whom I collaborated on my first one-woman show. That ignited something in me: I never stopped creating, nor sat idly again after that. So long as I was acting, be it on stage, starring in my own solo shows, or yucking it up on my own youtube channel, I was happy. “Making it” was no longer important. Being fulfilled creatively was. Eventually, yes, I got that audition for American Horror Story, which changed my life forever; but that was hardly my start. Nor was Father Dowling, nor was moving to Hollywood. My start was when started to take control of my career myself.
You just wrapped up a role in Fear, Inc. what can you tell us about the film?
It’s a low-budget horror-comedy. I play a henchman. The script is great, which is why I signed on. I always say, "If you don’t have a decent blueprint, your house won’t stand up." Hopefully we did the script justice, and made a good movie!
Any other upcoming projects?
I’m working on a “zom-com” this winter. I also worked on another horror film called The Chair, which should be out shortly. And of course, I’m still riding this Pepper-wave till it’s ashore.
What's your favorite thing about playing Pepper?
Perhaps her endurance? She was this “little character that could.”When I was first cast, I honestly thought she was little more than a glorified extra-role. Then she came back from her alien-abduction, singing and dancing and delivering monologues... Only to return a year later as the first crossover-character — with her own, epic, origin story to boot! Nevermind the action figures, and Halloween masks, and fan tattoos... It’s never-ending. But even if it does end, it’s still exceeded every expectation.
How did Pepper change from Asylum and Freak Show?
She was 10 years younger... so, she was perhaps a tad sprier and lighter? But technically, it was my job to keep her the same. Sure, we evolve as time goes by, but our core doesn’t change. So I needed to stay consistent with the Pepper I’d established. Besides, that’s what fans had responded to, which is why they’d brought her back in the first place.
Your character was the first ever to appear in multiple seasons of the series. How did that feel for you? How did Ryan break the news to you that you'd have that special opportunity?
He didn’t, really.There was a rumor early on that I’d be coming back as Pepper, but I remember seeing Ryan in the makeup trailer, and him asking me: “So, are you Pepper, or...?” And I remember thinking, Dude. You tell me! And quick, before they shave my head again! I think the initial concern was that it might cease to be a miniseries if the stories were connected — which is why, you’ll notice, in the first couple episodes, they refer to us as “the humorous pinheads,” as opposed to calling us by name. Connecting the seasons, however, was an interesting thing to do, as Ryan so adroitly decided, and has obviously worked out well for me.
Your last scene in American Horror Story: Freak Show was an emotional one. How did it feel to film and how did you prepare for that episode?
I had about 12 hours between reading and shooting that episode (and somewhere in there I had to sleep). I hadn’t a clue that story-arc was coming. I figured, if they’d gone to all the trouble of bending the rules to bring a character back, surely they’d do something with her. But then, I’d also spent the first nine episodes in the periphery, so my hopes for a juicy plot-line were starting to feel a little lofty. I remember reading for the first time, and crying there in the production office (because I couldn’t wait for them to deliver the script!). On one hand, because it was just so sad! I was sad for Pepper — this little creature who’d become such a huge part of my life, who I’d come to adore. On another hand, I was sad for myself: I was going to have to say goodbye to my new home of New Orleans, and freaky friends, and dream job, and Pepper. On the other hand, I was thrilled: What an extraordinary opportunity they’d bestowed upon me! Finally I’d have a chance to flex my atrophying acting-muscles! And of course, I was scared since I’d waited since I was 15 for opportunity like this, and I didn’t want to botch it now! As for that particular scene, I believe we shot that until 4am on the sixth day of shooting that episode. Which is to say that was my sixth straight day of crying. My tear ducts were about dried up. But I managed to squeeze out one last tear.
It was really cool that you and Sister Eunice got to build a relationship in that last scene.
Yes, we didn’t get much of a chance to know each other on Asylum. But I think we were both so thrilled to get to play these characters again, that we bonded over that.
Pepper has an exciting turn in Asylum with the alien subplot. Do you think we could see another season of Pepper possibly? What do you think happens to Pepper?
I stopped second-guessing the writers long ago. I mean, they did such a superb job of wrapping her story up in “Orphans,” we mustn’t expect lightening to strike three times! But then, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected with this show, so I suppose anything goes. Still, Ryan also likes to try new things, and seeing that he’s already done that, probably not. But we never actually saw her die... so who knows? I wouldn’t even begin to conspire what happens to her.
What type of character would you want Ryan Murphy to write for you in future season of AHS?
As a rule, all of his characters are so complex and layered-- anything he’d endow me with would do. But one with hair would be cool!
What are your reactions to Jessica Lange leaving and Gaga coming in to the anthology series?
You can’t blame Jessica. She’s had a sensational run. And we work 100-hour work-weeks sometimes! She’s entitled to some time to relax and enjoy her grandkids! As for Gaga, I think she’s a brilliant addition. She’s the Queen of Edge. And Ryan’s the King! The two together will no doubt build an empire like none we’ve ever seen. I couldn’t be more excited for it!
I was so sad to hear about Ben Woolf's passing. You were very close, and spent a lot of time together before he died. How did you hear?
One of our personal appearance agents texted me, alerting me to the article on TMZ. It didn’t seem real: I’m just not used to reading about my friends in gossip columns. Especially regarding something so horrifying. I contacted his family, who hadn’t even heard from the hospital — which also made it seem unreal. To this day, it still doesn’t feel real. I don’t think it ever will.
Any cool ideas for American Horror Story's sixth season?
My mind isn’t warped enough for that! There’s a great show called The Writer’s Room, hosted by Jim Rash, in which he interviews various show-runners about their processes. The one featuring AHS is particularly good — they joke that the last season (whenever that is) will be about mimes. Which, in my opinion, are equally scary as they are hilarious.
What does the LGBT culture represent to you?
I think Pope Francis said it best: “If a homosexual person is of goodwill... I am no one to judge.” It’s simply no one’s business — not even the Pope’s! If you’re straight or gay or bi or poly or trans or a furry or into feet! Who cares who we love, or sleep with, or marry? If Kim Davis doesn’t believe in marriage equality, she shouldn’t be in the business of marrying people! For that same reason, you don’t see vegetarians becoming butchers or Christian Scientists working as pharmacists or Amish folks applying at Best Buy!
Any thoughts on New York?
Meh. I’m too old/ it’s too cold. Not for me!
What's your spirit animal?
I’m a monkey, definitely. I’m joking almost always.
Marry, Fuck, Kill: Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) & Andy (Matt Bomer)?
If you can get past the fact that he’s a priest, the Monsignor seems like the nice, marrying kind. Dandy needs to die, clearly. And well, that only leaves one thing to do to Matt Bomer... [sighs].
Watch a clip featuring Grossman as Pepper in AHS below: