To say that Finn Wittrock was one of the breakout TV stars of 2014 would be an understatement. This is an actor who had a chance to appear in Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart,” and then transitioned over to “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” where he had an extremely memorable arc as infantile psychopath Dandy Mott. His arc went from the beginning of the season more or less until the end, and it was full of sensational character moments, shocking endings, and of course plenty of death. Dandy is responsible for the death of a good many characters on this past season, though he eventually did meet a grisly fate of his own.
Today, we had a chance to speak exclusively with actor Finn Wittrock in our latest edition of our Emmy Preview series, and we had a chance to go through much of what it took for him to give such a fantastic performance this past season (one that is definitely nomination-worthy). We also briefly talk about what the future could hold for him at the end of the chat.
CarterMatt – Was it around this time last year when you started filming ‘Freak Show’?
Finn Wittrock – It was around mid-July last year I believe.
It has to be a strange experience going from doing all of that to still talking about the character now. Is that hard to do? Has your impression on the character or anything on the show changed over time?
It’s kind of that thing where the more you talk about it, the more you realize what it is. A lot of stuff that you do unconsciously when you’re filming it, sometimes after you get some perspective on it you’re like ‘oh yeah, that’s what I did’ (laughs). You can articulate it. If it’s a movie or a show or a part that I get sick of, sure [it would be hard]. But I had so much fun doing this and it was so stimulating … I’m sure that by the time the Emmys are over I’ll be like enough Dandy! (laughs), but it was so cool. First of all it opened so many doors for me, and as an actor it was such a fun, challenging stretch as a character.
I remember back when Ryan first announced you were on the show on Twitter, and while I had seen ‘The Normal Heart’ and was excited, I had no idea who you were playing. When did you first get the news yourself?
I didn’t know for a while. Last year I was wrapping this football movie called ‘My All-American,’ and it probably could not be any more different than Dandy, and I remember around the end of the shoot I got the first three episodes of ‘Horror Story,’ which told you a lot but didn’t tell you everything. Then we started filming not long after that. The turnaround between getting it and working on it was not that huge. You kind of had to take a leap and trust your instincts, and trust that Ryan is going to lead you in some awesome direction, though you don’t know what that is.
Because Ryan directed the first episode of last season, I got to spend some time talking with him one-on-one, which is a special thing. That was less about the storyline, but more around what we thought Dandy’s backstory was, what his emotional infrastructure was, was he capable of love, his sheltered childhood, and sort of the idea of him having an infant ego that never grew up, even though the rest of his brain really did mature. You have this really smart person with this really infantile, emotional state, which is kind of a scary combination.
We kind of went from there, and every new episode was kind of late ‘what are you going to throw me this time?’ (laughs). ‘Who am I going to kill now?’
So what in the world is the preparation like for this character? He’s obviously got this terrible part of him, but then we also saw early in the season that a big part of him really just wants to be accepted.
It’s like going back to the playground. He never was accepted, despite all of his wealth and all of the opportunities he had. You saw what happened in the second episode; not even the freaks accept him. So he’s always sort of ostracized, and that leaves him lonely, and that kind of vacuum is what leads the way for the clown to become his idol. Like his god, almost.
The prep kind of kept coming back to the inner child thing; it may sound hippy-dippy, but that’s kind of what it was about. ‘Me me me me me.’
What was it like filming some of those scenes early on with John Carroll Lynch as Twisty? You’re doing these scenes with someone who doesn’t communicate in traditional dialogue, not reacting in traditional ways. Were these scenes even more exciting?
It’s exciting to break up the pattern of your line / my line. I was working with such a good actor in John so that it wasn’t a monologue, even though I had all of the words. It was definitely a dialogue, and he was [acting] it through as an actor would. He wasn’t just a stuntman, standing there. He was giving me a lot, and it was a scene between us. There were definitely still challenges about that kind of thing, like ‘what exactly is f***ing happening?’ (laughs); it was about getting specific about this really bizarre reality.
There are a lot of people who talk about the bathtub scene or the killing spree at the end as these iconic Dandy moments, but is there maybe a part of the season that you are especially proud of that maybe isn’t getting the same sort of attention?
My last big scene with Frances Conroy, [who played my] mom [Gloria], I was proud of that, actually. I thought that the scene had a lot of ups and down, intricacies. It wasn’t just like a one-note, ‘I’m going to kill you, mother.’ In it we found, because she’s so good, a whole lot of depth there. Even the murder itself is not even an act of pure hatred. [There was self-loathing], sadness that I have to do this. A plethora of feelings. The complexity of that scene was definitely one of my favorites.
At what point during the production did you get the sense of what was going to happen to this character? I’m sure that even before you were told, there was probably a feeling of ‘yeah, this guy’s not making it to the end alive.’
Yeah, I didn’t think he was going to reform. (Laughs.) There were a lot of rumors flying around the set before, based on the fact that the writers were toying with different ideas; in terms of whether he was going to die or not, that was the big question. I heard conflicting things from different people. I honestly didn’t know until I read it.
I had a pretty decent idea that he was at least going to go out with a pretty big bang. It kind of had to end, after a lot of murder. We all kind of saw that coming. So the big question was ‘does Dandy get away with it or not’; actually, the show has been like that through all of the seasons. Despite being twisted and dark and macabre as it is, there is bizarrely like a moral compass to it. People usually do get what they deserve in this universe.
We talked a little bit about the killing spree [at the end of the season]. How twisted was it to film that?
It was actually really hard. People are always asking me ‘did it affect you working on Dandy, going into a dark place?’. Some characters you take home with you more than others. With Dandy, I was mostly able to kind of leave him on set when I went home, and not let him crawl into my nightmares (laughs). The killing, though, I did start to get some guilt and self-loathing after that. I was a little sick with myself. Especially with a gun! I really don’t like guns, so having to shoot all of those people did have an [impact] on me.
But actors love to die, you know, so everyone who I was killing was having a great time! I was just like ‘I hate myself.’
But when you did get to die, did you have a good time with that?
I did. Technically it was a very difficult process, that cage. There were some issues with it, and it was our last day and we were so tired. It was definitely a trying day at work; I felt like I really earned my paycheck at the end of it. It really was fun; I knew he had to die, but I really wanted to see that he had an epic death and I think he got it. I felt it was a wonderful kind of cinematic irony for him going out on stage. This was the dream he had all of his life, and the one time he gets it, it is like this great death scene.
A couple of last questions for you. Before the show premiered, were you worried at all that some would try to transpose this character onto you in any way?
Oh definitely. People do that. Like, when I was on a soap opera [in “All My Children”], people were like ‘why did you sleep with Colby’s mom?!’. People would get mad at me! People who are very into a show often don’t make any discrepancy between the character and you. I was mostly worried that they would just write it off as a weird, psychopathic mama’s boy and not be willing to go to any depth with him. That was my work. When I saw the reaction and saw that people were scared and creeped out, but there was also more than that, that was encouraging.
So what are you looking for next? I’m sure that you’ll want to work with Ryan and Ryan would want to work with you again, but is there anything in particular that you are looking for?
I’m always wanting to find a thing that is somewhat of the opposite direction of the thing I’ve done before. I am looking to do something … whatever the opposite of Dandy is (laughs.) Maybe something gritty and masculine. We’ll see. You kind of don’t know until you see it. I’m sure that Ryan has something up his sleeve.
Thanks to Finn for speaking with us today about all things “Horror Story,” and we hope you found it as much fun to read as it was to conduct. We’re going to have more Emmy articles in the coming days, and you can see all of them so far, including another recent exclusive with “Outlander” star Sam Heughan, over at the link here. Also, be sure to sign up today to get some other TV updates sent in your direction via our CarterMatt Newsletter. (Photo: FX.)