“I want my own show! Like a ‘Carol Burnett Show/ or ‘Tracy Ullman Show’ or ‘Dave Kroll Show’.”
What inspired you to become an actress?
My parents were always really diligent about exposing me to culture— we regularly attended the theatre, ballet, opera, symphony… I just always dreamt up being up there, centerstage, under the lights, all eyes on me! Then I attended a show by a children’s theatre troupe at our local, public library, and the die was cast. I began taking their classes, auditioned for their troupe, and became a “Kidskits kid” myself! To this day, a large portion of us are still in the biz, and very close friends.
You portrayed the role of Pepper in the Second series of American Horror Story – Asylum; how did you get this role?
It was an audition, like any other. My agent called with a next-day appointment. He provided me with sides to prepare. I did, to the best of my ability; but because the show is so secretive, or perhaps because the new season’s sides weren’t even written, they included Jessica Lange’s monologues from season 1, which obviously wasn’t the role for which I was actually auditioning. The “breakdown” for the role was for a 4-5 feet tall, possibly malformed, childlike actress. Now, I wasn’t going to convince casting that I was malformed— but I knew not to wear heels, and could obviously act youthful. But other than that, I had no idea what I was going in for. The audition was two-fold: they gave me a ball, and had me improvise, as if I were a child trying to get them to play with me. Then, as an adult, I was to do the monologue they’d me to prepare. Again, at the time, I had no idea what that was about; but now, in retrospect, I understand: they wanted to see range— that I could go from the early, naive Pepper, to the later, alien-abducted Pepper. Then, the callback basically consisted of a meeting with makeup. They took a bunch of pictures of my profile, which they later manipulated to see what I would look like as Pepper. They apparently did this with a couple of actresses… but, fortunately, I looked the freakiest!
Did you find it difficult acting is such heavy make up/prosthetics?
No. It’s the same job, with or without makeup. You don’t act any differently because you’re wearing makeup. If anything, it aided my performance. I come from the theatre, where we’re trained to project to the back row. Thanks to the prosthetics, I didn’t necessarily have to tone down my performance for the camera. I could be as big and boisterous as I am on stage— in fact, I had to be in order to communicate the character through the makeup. Then later, in “Freak Show,” I had more subtle, emotional work to do… I had to trust that the emotion would transcend the makeup, and still read. I’m happy to say that it did.
Did you ever expect Pepper would become such a iconic character in the show?
Never. When I was first cast, I assumed I was just one of an army of pinheads! I mean, why would a show, particularly one with such big name-talent, endow such a juicy character upon an itty bitty nobody like me? But, it also made sense… You pay a premium for those big names; in which case, you want to see their faces! Finding an extreme character actress with an improv background was actually a stroke of genius.
You just can’t anticipate what’s going to hit, and what’s going to fall flat. That’s for the audience to decide. I don’t even think the creators knew. I consider it like Jackson Pollack-style filmmaking— they throw a bunch of paint on the canvas, and see what sticks. They threw a bunch of nut-jobs in a dayroom, and Pepper popped. But no, that’s not the actor’s decision. Otherwise, we’d make it always!
How did you feel when you found out that Pepper would be returning for the fourth season – Freak Show?
I was thrilled! Though it seemed to good to be true… They’d never brought a character back before, so I didn’t entirely believe it until I was back on set. I remember having a conversation with the creator, Ryan Murphy in the makeup trailer before they were to shave my head. He said, “So, are you Pepper, or….?” And of course, I thought, “Uhhhhh, you tell me, boss! And quick before they come at me with those shears!” I think the concern was that AHS was billed as a “limited series,” as opposed to a standard drama, and how a returning character might affect that. In fact, if you notice in the first few episodes of “Freak Show,” I’m not even referred to as Pepper, but rather a “humorous pinhead.” But as Ryan has said in interviews, they thought long and hard about connecting the seasons, and decided it was an interesting thing to do. And the audiences evidently agree!
Your last scene on Freak Show (Episode 10 – Orphans) – yours and Jessica Lange’s performances had me in tears! Were these emotional scenes hard to film?
Yes, and no. Yes, only because I hadn’t had a lot of practice doing that… During the 9 episodes I’d done prior, I’d been mostly playing with ribbons, and delivering the fat lady food. Then, suddenly, I got that script, and 12 hours later, I was crying on cue, throwing tantrums, and making martinis while holding babies with big, rubber hands on! So it was all very sudden, uncharted territory for me. That said, I’d basically been preparing for this my entire life. I’d graduated from acting school, I knew I had it in me, I just hadn’t had the opportunity to prove it yet. So, it was a lucky break— and we all know luck is nothing more than when preparedness meets opportunity.
Is this the last we have seen of Pepper?
I have no idea. That’s a question for the creator. 😉 I feel like the writers/producers did great justice to her character— way more than anyone would have expected. And Ryan has said he doesn’t like to repeat himself, so I would doubt it. But, I suppose we didn’t actually see her die… And that would be the last thing anyone would ever expect, and doing the unexpected is up Ryan’s alley. So who knows? But even if I did know, I would never tell!
Would you ever return to AHS as another character?
I would love to! Again, that’s up to the powers-that-be!
Are you still in touch with any of the cast?
Yes, I often see Mat Fraser, Erika Ervin, Jyoti Amge, John Carroll Lynch, and Denis O’Hare at horror conventions, as well as Jaime Brewer and Sarah Paulson at industry parties. It’s a very loving, supportive group.
Are you a fan of the horror genre yourself?
Yes. Or rather, more specifically, I love good storytelling, ripe with over-the-top, multi-dimensional characters. I think the horror genre lends itself well to that. I’m not a horror fan like these folks I meet at comic cons— they’re die-hard, with their cosplay and fan-art! But I do appreciate any vehicle for juicy drama and campy comedy!
If you could play any role which would it be and why?
Within the world of AHS, I think Frances Conroy tends to land the juiciest roles. Or maybe it’s just what she brings to them! They’re all a little off their rocker! I loved Myrtle Snow (and her wardrobe, of course), as well as the Dark Angel/butch counterpart. It’s complex characters like those, which appear one way, but are actually another, that I feel AHS especially excels at.
In the world, I want my own show! Like a “Carol Burnett Show,” or “Tracy Ullman Show,” or “Dave Kroll Show.” I’d love a sketch series that would allow me to play a bunch of original characters, maybe interconnected, maybe not. Or even a show like “United States of Tara,” which was more serious in tone. If there’s anything to know about me, it’s that I love big characters, and am fearless about taking them on. So a show like that would be a dream-vehicle for me.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have a cameo in an upcoming horror movie entitled, “Fear, Inc,” which is making it’s world premiere during the opening weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. I’m in an interactive series called “Point Society,” which has just been released. I did another horror film called “The Chair,” and am slated to do a “zom com” called, “A Zombie Named Ted;” though those release dates have yet to be disclosed.