“I love really big characters,” says actress Naomi Grossman.
Her role as Pepper in two seasons of the FX anthology series American Horror Story – Asylum in 2012-13 and its 2014-15 prequel Freak Show – is certainly her biggest character to date, never mind that the actress herself is a diminutive five feet tall.
Her portrayal of a woman born with the neurological condition microcephaly – evidenced by an abnormally small head and limited mental capacity (until the aliens who abducted her bestowed her with intelligence, that is) – left an indelible impression on screen and on fans; she was number five on imdb.com’s list of the Top Ten Breakout Stars of 2014, as determined by the number of searches about her conducted on the entertainment website.
With a head shaven except for a topknot, oversized ears, jutting teeth and other physical abnormalities, Pepper is playful and naïve, but possibly not as innocent as she appears. The first AHS character to cross over from one season to another, she seems to have concluded her story, but Grossman hopes that the door may still be open for return appearances.
Born in Denver, Grossman trained in theater at Northwestern University.
She created and performed in two solo shows in Los Angeles and elsewhere, Girl in Argentine Landscape – she was an exchange student in Argentina – and Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust, and Other Human Oddities; the latter played the Edinburgh (Scotland) Festival Fringe and then had a run in London’s West End.
She was also a member of the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings Sunday Company. She has recently filmed, appropriately, a horror feature, The Chair, and will be appearing in the movie A Zombie Named Ted.
Q: You had to act through layers of makeup, as well as prosthetics. What was the makeup process like every day?
A: It took a village! There were more people in on this – someone was applying every eyebrow hair. They’d paint on the makeup, airbrush it and then add a freckle. My right eye and my mouth were mine. I had a prosthetic nose, brow, ears, arms – they were gloves – and teeth. It took hours.
There were little things you’d have to think of – blow your nose before the fake nose goes on. If you had to send a text, you couldn’t do it with those hands, so while you still had your fingers, you were on the phone.
People did say, “You had to act through all that makeup,” and it’s true. But really, it’s a matter of acting honestly, and reacting honestly. The makeup does a lot in itself, but I have to give the character life. I’m allowed to let my freak flag fly.
Q: Was it difficult to have a shaved head?
A: I am an actress. Actresses want to be pretty, but the whole point is being a character, taking the audience on a journey. Of course, I was game for it.
I was sort of oblivious as to how I appeared. In Asylum, my first time as Pepper, it was so interesting how people would behave around me.
I’m a totally functioning adult, used to being treated as an adult. To be on set, to have the crew members waving at me, making faces at me, giggling – that was special. I’d forgotten that I looked like that, and they very much reminded me.
Q: What was your audition like?
A: I didn’t even know what the role was, until I was in the makeup chair! The audition consisted of reading a monologue of Constance’s [Jessica Lange’s first-season character].
They also gave me a ball, and asked me to play with them. They wanted to see if I could do improv. [Pepper’s first line in her first appearance is “Play with me!”]
Q: How did your comedy experience help you play this role?
A: It goes back to, Why me? Casting an improv actor was quite ingenious. A lot of Pepper was improv. I didn’t have a lot of lines – we were relying on my physicality to portray my character.
I’m used to being on stage, asking, “Can I have a suggestion?” from the audience. Improv helped.
Q: Prior to AHS, you had created and starred in comic shorts, which have been shown at various shorts festivals. And you did two solo shows.
A: My videos and solo shows were born out of my frustration about not being cast. I came to Los Angeles with my theater degree and thought that that put me in line for my own sitcom. I was frustrated that I wasn’t acting.
So if I’m not being cast in the traditional way, I’ll cast myself. My first solo show got an L.A. Weekly Theatre Award nomination and great reviews. My fire for this profession was reignited.
Then I went on to The Groundlings, where I’d write sketches every Sunday. After I left, I had all these sketches that had been done once or twice. So I grabbed a friend with a camera. I shot and edited short films and got them up on YouTube.
Q: You were submitted this year for Emmy consideration. What was that like?
A: It was a real learning curve, being able to meet Television Academy members on a nightly basis at the For Your Consideration events, watching a lot of television.
Obviously, I had the added pressure this Emmy season, but I’m a social person. I’m bad watching TV on my own, so being an Academy member is a great excuse to watch the DVDs I should have watched anyway!
Q: What have you learned from Pepper?
A: There is power to her compassion and sensitivity. She’s this little character that could. She struggles – everywhere she goes, she’s met with strife – but she still wants you to play with her.
Her innocence and ability to love are admirable. I think we can all learn from her. I learned from those freaks.
We get so wrapped up in our own daily dramas. I have legs and arms that are fully formed. These freaks don’t, and that doesn’t stop them. I think that limitations are in our minds.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to limit yourself.