Skilled acting abilities and the power of costume and makeup can transform an actor into an unrecognizable character. One of the most incredible examples of an actor-to-character conversion in recent years is of the pretty and talented Naomi Grossman into her recurring role of Pepper on FX’s hit series American Horror Story.
Grossman’s Pepper is the show’s first character to participate in more than one season, something particularly special as each season focuses on a new anthology, filled with completely different characters and a new plot. But Grossman’s Pepper was so interesting and unique in the second season’s Asylum that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk wrote her into the current season, Freak Show (how could they not? Pepper is perfect for both!).
Pepper is a mentally disabled character and acts childlike and playful. She appears gentle and innocent but has been accused of a violent crime. This results in her being a patient in the prison-like psychiatric ward in Asylum, set in 1964. The fourth season takes place years earlier, in 1952, when Pepper is a performer in a freak show. She has been a fan favorite since her first appearance, as she is captivating and fun to watch.
When you first recognize that the actress who plays Pepper is as cute as Grossman, it’s hard to believe. But a talented actor knows no bounds and Grossman turns every moment the viewers spend with Pepper into an unforgettable, bittersweet glimpse into the character’s life and view of the world.
In addition to AHS, Grossman has written, produced, and starred in two hit solo shows and numerous comedic shorts under her “Red Meat Entertainment” banner. The gifted and witty comedienne was also a former member of the esteemed Groundlings Sunday Company, as well as an alumna of Improv Olympic.
In a Hot2Molly exclusive interview, the ultra-talented Grossman spoke about the arduous process of physically becoming Pepper, what is in store for Pepper’s fans, and what it’s like to work with the show’s distinguished cast and creators.
H2M: You are so cute in real life! The physical transformation you take to turn into Pepper is beyond incredible. Can you describe the process?
NG: The process takes about two and a half to three hours. It involves a prosthetic nose, brow, ears, and hands, fake teeth, a wonky contact lens, a head shave, and a fat suit. People tell me, “Oh, I could never sit through all that.” To which I say, “Really, you couldn’t go to your job, and lay back and close your eyes for three hours?” Granted, on a sixth day in a row of shooting, when my skin is super-tender from having glue applied to the same place everyday, I think how quaint it would be to act with own face. But then, I wouldn’t be Pepper without all those prosthetics. She’s been so good to me, and such a joy to play. And I’m thankful I can take the ugly and fat off at the end of the day. It’s not usually that easy!
My least favorite element of the transformation is the contact lens. It blinds me in that eye, so I’ve been known to take a tumble. Scenes with moving cranes and choreography can be tricky, not to mention those intense, close-up scenes when I have to look into another’s eyes and really communicate. They say, “it’s all in the eyes,” but in my case, it’s all in the eye. Forget about my eye-line– that’s all over the place!
Then there’s the nose. I have to remember to blow mine before I can’t for another eight to twelve hours. The ears impair my hearing slightly, and of course keep me from talking on the phone. And the hands make it impossible to text. So when I work, I pretty much go AWOL. In fact, I need help to most anything– graze craft services, go to the bathroom… I’m actually relieved I don’t have much dialogue. Sounding intelligent with those teeth in season two was quite an acting job!
It’s not all sacrifice though. The man-hands make fantastic fart-sounds when they’re put on, which I still find hilarious. And the brow means I don’t need Botox! I can (and in fact, I have to) move my face like I’m used to on stage, doing big, broad comedy, and it translates as small and subtle on camera. And then there’s the added benefit of the whole world telling me how pretty I am, which is absurd, though far be it from me to correct them!
H2M: How would you describe Pepper to someone new to the show? She is such an unusual and fascinating character.
NG: Pepper is microcephalic, which means she suffers from a neurological disorder, resulting in an abnormally small head, and therefore severe mental retardation. She is based on the real-life microcephalic, Schlitzie, who starred in Tod Browning’s 1930’s film, “Freaks.” From what we know thus far, Elsa found Pepper in an orphanage, then put her to work in her “Cabinet of Curiosities.” Ryan Murphy has teased that “Freak Show” will delve into Pepper’s origin story, i.e. how she wound up in the asylum. There we learned, after she was fixed by the aliens, that she had been wrongly accused of her sister’s baby’s murder. So perhaps that’s in store? I can’t say any more!
H2M: Pepper has a new compadre this season! Are they supposed to be twins? And is it fun being one of a pair?
NG: Salty is Pepper’s husband! And well, like any marriage, it has it’s ups and downs! I suppose we’re like an old couple that starts to look alike after a while. Let’s face it, when you look like Pepper, and you find someone who looks like Salty, you basically have to marry them! Poor girl’s dating pool has got to be very small.
H2M: Will there be an episode that tells more about Pepper’s backstory? I know fans of AHS would love to see that!
NG: Yes! I mean, I can’t say too much, but Ryan has hinted at that. Let’s just say Pepper fans will be very happy… Or, VERY, VERY SAD!
H2M: What is it like working with the show’s stellar cast and with Ryan Murphy?
NG: It’s thrilling. I’m so spoiled! Everyday, I get to go into work and witness some of the greatest actors working today. It’s like an acting master class I get paid to attend. It’s basically like watching Emmys being won right before my eyes. That level of talent actually makes my job easy. So long as I’m honest and present in the moment, like they teach you in acting class, I’m set. Listening, feeling, and reacting is easy when it’s with Jessica Lange!
H2M: If you had a dream or goal for Pepper, what would it be?
NG: Her own talk show, maybe? She blurts out monosyllabic grunts, while the guest is forced to fend for him or herself. Sounds like comedy gold to me!
(Lead image courtesy of shanepaulwalker.com, Featured images courtesy of naomigrossman.net)