From the archives
Feature originally published in HERO 18, 2017
After closing two plays, Finn Wittrock is busy shooting the next instalment of American Crime Story, due to air early 2018. At the same time, Evan Peters returns for a seventh glorious season of American Horror Story this September – a show Wittrock is no stranger to, between them they’ve created some of its most memorable characters.
What a GREAT TIME to get these two in conversation.
jacket by NEIL BARRETT FW17; gloves by VERSACE FW17
Evan Peters: So how long are you in LA for?
Finn Wittrock: I’m here indefinitely, I do actually live here, it doesn’t seem that way!
Evan: [laughs] Yeah, so the play’s over?
Finn: Yeah both plays are done, about a month ago we closed The Glass Menagerie. I hung out in New York for a bit as I had some random things that I had agreed to do before I knew the show was closing, and then last week I came back home and the other day I started American Crime Story. It’s been good!
Evan: What’s that about?
Finn: It’s about Versace, it’s the next iteration of the OJ crime story saga.
Evan: Did you know anything about the story?
Finn: I didn’t really know much about it, but it seems that anyone who was a little more mature in the 90s was very aware of Andrew Cunanan. He was a serial killer, who Darren Criss is playing, who murdered Versace, but before that it turns out he killed four other people. He was a bit of a pathological liar – he was a guy who came from nothing but talked and acted like he was a very fancy, well-read and very rich, and worked his way into these circles. And then it seems things went awry and he ended slaughtering people who thought he was just in love with them.
Finn: It’s an amazing story, and the way Ryan’s [Murphy] doing it is very cool, he’s kind of messing with time a little bit, it really keeps you on your toes.
Evan: Who are you playing?
Finn: I play this guy Jeff Trail who was the first victim of Cunanan. He was in the Navy and one of the first people to come out against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. So he was gay in the Navy but in the closet, he did this interview with CBS where he was covered in shadow but he was saying that it’s not in the Army’s best interest to get rid of gays in the military. So yeah, he was a really stand up guy and then ended up falling in with this drug addict sociopath and wound up dead. Pretty sad. Evan: Yeah that’s a complicated character. Did you do a lot of research for that? How did you approach it? Finn: I’ve been doing as much as I could, it’s kind of tough, you know? It’s really funny having come from eight months of doing plays to go into this, and I got a script like two days after I got back home – four days later I was on a set. So there’s not much time to prep.
Evan: That’s incredible.
Finn: You really have to cram it, I prefer to have a little time to let it sit in, you know? Luckily there’s no lack of research, there’s lots to read and I can see him and I can hear his voice, but it was kind of an abrupt awaking like, “Oh fuck I’m on the set already.” [laughs]
Evan: Yeah! How long did you get to do rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie?
Finn: Well I guess we did three weeks in a room and then a week of tech and then three weeks of previews, so it wound up feeling like plenty. We also had this workshop back in the summer, so I felt like we were pretty raring to go. But it’s just so different.
Evan: Does that bother you when you don’t have any time to prepare for the show? Like it’s not maybe the best performance or the most researched performance, or you’re just kind of winging it, you’re in the moment just making shit up and hoping it works for your character and experimenting in each take?
Finn: I’ve been pretty lucky usually, I am sure it’s happened to you too, very last minute stuff has popped up… What’s weird about doing TV, or film too, is that you’re doing it out of order, so day one when I feel very raw is like this weird scene in the middle, and then maybe by the time I actually wind up filming the first scene or a big scene maybe it’s a few weeks later and the character has sunk in and I know what I’m doing. And then I can be like, “Ah, I wish I could fucking go back and do that weird middle scene when I didn’t know what the fuck was going on,” you know?
“The first year of acting class seemed a little stiff at the time… I was very impatient when I was younger but now that stuff is the most useful.”
jumpsuit by MOSCHINO FW17; belt by LANVIN FW17
Evan: Does that happen to you with each take? Do you ever do a take or get done with a scene and right after you’re like, “Oh shit, I could have done that.”
Finn: Oh for sure.
Evan: And then you have to somehow let it go and then go into the next scene. I’d love to do a film where we rehearse like a play and then shoot it in order.
Evan: I think Clint Eastwood shot one movie in sequence, which would be incredible to do.
Finn: That is a big thing about doing a play – everyday you do it from beginning to end, so it’s not as much guesswork. Filming is kind of guessing, like, “I haven’t filmed the scene that goes before this, so I don’t know what I would actually be like in the scene now.” It can be frustrating but then again, on the other side of the coin what sucks about doing a play is that sometimes a scene goes by and you’re like, “Oh fuck I wish I could do that again,” and you have to wait until tomorrow night to do it, and then you forget about it. But on film you can be like, “Wait can we go back, right now? Can we stop this and take back time for a second?” And you can perfect and carve out a moment that way. Do you feel like that ever?
Evan: Are you kidding? I mean it’s like the story of my life, all the time. I’m so envious of the plays that you get to be in in the theatre, and I just think it’s such a thing that I missed out on, I mean it’s not too late, I can go do it…
Finn: No it’s never too late, definitely not too late. You have your pick of New York theatre right now.
Evan: Oh my god, I don’t know about that, I’d kind of like to start at the bottom up to be honest, do you know what I mean?
Finn: There’s plenty of off-off-off Broadway shows.
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Evan: [laughs] Oh boy. OK I want to go into Juilliard a little bit. There was this training that I never had, and I’ve kind of been winging it and doing this guesswork, and right now I’m feeling like… I don’t know, I’m clawing at a wall and I can’t seem to get out. So I’m trying to figure it out and get a good footing and technique, I’m trying everything. I was curious, with Juilliard, I’m sure they shove technique down your throat but how has your personal technique changed and evolved over the years? Did you keep a lot of the Juilliard technique, or have you thrown it to the wayside?
Finn: First of all, I think it’s very gracious of you to be able to say that about yourself and have that kind of struggle. I think it’s just different. Yeah I went to Juilliard, but you went to American Horror Story, and I think they’re all just different training grounds. You can learn by doing as well as by being a student. But I guess I didn’t quite realise the value of it until it was over. It was when I was in the world and actually working that I looked back and said, “Oh, that one random day in acting class when I was like, “Can we get this over and do some plays?”– that day is what I’m drawing from right now. The first year of acting class seemed a little stiff at the time… I was very impatient when I was younger but now that stuff is the most useful. The first year of school we didn’t even touch a scene, we were wandering around the classroom imagining ourselves in our childhood home, or on a field, or on the moon, or in a painting, you know? Which could be tedious but actually looking back on it, it really laid the groundwork. It works out your imagination in a way that you can hook into later, and I think technique in general is the most useful when you’re not prepared or when you feel off or not inspired, there’re tools to go back to and draw from. We never really talked a lot about Stanislavski, which is fine because some of it feels very dated now, but I remember the one thing he talks about is technique is for the random Wednesday afternoon when you’re tired and don’t feel like doing it and you need something to draw from, and he says if you’re inspired – if the muse is with you – throw everything away and follow that instead. So that is what the technique has helped me with. But there’s also plenty that I’ve forgotten and plenty that was not useful, I believe everyone makes their own method as they go.
Evan: I love what you just said about the muse. What’s the first thing you do when you get a new project and realise, “Oh shit I love this, I’m completely inspired.” I find myself going over the lines, trying to memorise them or researching and reading books and watching movies… I also find myself not wanting to watch movies that aren’t in the same vein as the character, I can’t go see Spiderman because I’m working on Horror Story on Monday. It makes no sense, you know what I mean?
Finn: Yeah, it takes you to a different mind space.
Evan: What’s one of the first things you do when you get a role, when you think, “I’m dying to do it.”
Finn: It depends on the character. I usually start from the outside, like something physical, even if it’s the way the guy walks, or his tone of voice, or his posture or something. I think maybe that’s part of starting from a more theatrical background, not everyone does that. And then I think once I can hook onto something, even if it’s tiny, like something no one would notice, then I can dig into the internal world. I usually go from there to thinking about early childhood and what their upbringing was like, and parents and sisters and all that shit which informs your psyche before you’re even aware of it.
“I would really love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson before I die…”
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Evan: Right, I notice that about you and your work. Dandy [the character Finn played in American Horror Story: Freak Show] had such an interesting way of walking and moving, you put your toes kind of pointed inwards which I loved. It just made the character – when you stomped your foot it was fantastic. It was such a great character choice. And then I noticed in The Glass Menagerie – which was fantastic but the way – you’re such an athlete, like you were just moving so fast and strong, up and down all over the place with this incredible posture and it was like a 50s Superman. It was pretty incredible to see the transformation.
Finn: Gosh this is the best interview I’ve ever had. [both laugh]
Evan: Ok so let’s move on from all the acting technique and go into some other stuff.
Finn: Someday we’ll have to reverse this so I can pay you so many compliments.
Evan: No I need constructive criticism! Ok so one of my favourite things to do is to dream about who I might get to work with, actors and actresses. Like, it would be fantastic to have a scene with them, or see how they work. I just kind of daydream about it, I was wondering who you want to work with.
Finn: I mean, tangentially, that’s one of the best things about the Ryan Murphy world and American Horror Story, that you get great people coming back each time – to be exposed to so many awesome actors and also see them season by season be a totally different character, you know? But I’d like to work with Joaquin Phoenix sometime, that would be cool.
Evan: Oh yeah that would be cool.
Finn: Yeah, I also think of what directors I want to work with too, I would really love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson before I die… There’s so many.
Evan: Would you work with Steven Spielberg?
Finn: No, no I don’t think I would do that, I’d pass on that.
Finn: No, that would be amazing. He came to the final show of Glass Menagerie, it was very cool, He actually came to Othello too. There was this running joke that when Spielberg comes then you’ll really turn it on, you know? [laughs]. And David Oyelowo came backstage and he was like, “Well it happened, I looked out and he was really there, so I hope I brought the juice today.” [laughs]
Evan: Wow, yeah that’s a little intimidating! Does that ever freak you out? Does it throw you off and you’re like, “Ah shit, what’s my line?”
Finn: Othello was peculiar because a lot of times the audience was lit as much as we were, we were in a very close space so you really did see everyone and it was, like Oprah came to the opening night and she was like, you know, right in front of you.
Finn: It can definitely be jarring, she came backstage and because I end up the play as a bloody mess I always had to take a shower, and I walked out just in my towel and there was Oprah right outside the bathroom. She didn’t even flinch, like so many men had said hello to her only dressed in a bath towel, it was very impressive. But I find I’m less thrown by famous people and more by like people that I know, or people I didn’t know were going to be there.
Evan: Oh yeah?
Finn: People I respect in my life, or the worst, the hardest is when my acting teachers come. It’s like I’m a freshman, or I’m auditioning for the school again, I’m right back there. That’s the most intimidating.
“I believe everyone makes their own method as they go.”
jumpsuit by GIVENCHY FW17; gloves by VERSACE FW17
Evan: Have you ever had people visiting you on the set? Like when you’re shooting?
Finn: Yeah I do sometimes, but I find it distracting more often than not, especially when it’s someone who’s not used to being on a set because no one quite understands how boring it usually is and how much time there is waiting. When my agents come, that’s ok because they can mostly take care of themselves, but sometimes you feel like you have to babysit somebody, and it can really be stressful. Do you not let anyone come?
Evan: I don’t really like people that I know to come to set because for some reason it really takes me out of it – they know who I really am, it makes me feel a little self-conscious so I try to avoid it.
Finn: Yeah I concur. Sometimes people are so excited to come and like, you’re going to be sitting and watching lights move for ninety percent of this.
Evan: What do you do in the time between? I find it hard to do stuff because then I get distracted from the work, so it’s like a fine line of doing something that occupies your mind just enough but not too much where it throws you off and you forget about what you’re doing.
Finn: Yeah, I remember you being very focused, I remember a couple of scenes we had you were very focused between times.
Evan: Yeah I can’t get out of it.
Finn: You were wearing your headphones and you had your script, and I was really impressed. But you also had monologues and I had like one line.
Evan: Right, they’re good at throwing massive amounts of monologue at you at the last minute.
Finn: [laughs] Yeah they love doing that. You were weeping for your dead mother, it was really intense. But it was great, I was impressed by the focus. I keep the script on me and kind of keep going back to it making notes, I mean, it depends where I am, if it’s a character I’ve been doing for a long time I’m more comfortable shooting the shit with the crew and talking to people and I try not to do so much social media or talking on the phone or texting. I try to keep my phone at a distance. I do the crossword puzzle sometimes just to keep my mind stimulated, and that becomes it’s own weird addiction.
Evan: It’s good for Alzheimer’s.
Finn: Yeah exactly, I’m phasing out the Alzheimer’s now I’m 32.
Evan: I remember Denis O’Hare was a big Candy Crush guy.
Evan: It was season three, and he had this really long hair and gross fingernails and he was just sitting there on set doing Candy Crush in his chair – it was a really funny sight. Finn: If I’m lucky, sometimes I can find a novel that keeps me in the mindset. Actually for this show there’s a pretty thick novel about Andrew Cunanan that helps pass the time. Music helps too. Evan: Now with lines, a lot of people say memorise your lines last, sometimes I do that, sometimes I do it first. Sometimes I don’t even know them, sometimes I just show up. This is crazy and this may not be true but I heard that Robert Downey Jr, like Brando, had an earwig, and could get lines fed to him.
Finn: Wow. That’s crazy because he talks so fast, how does he do that?
Evan: So fast – I don’t think that one’s true. Brando, on the other hand, had the longest pauses in the universe.
Finn: That’s true, and you can tell he’s trying to think where his cue card is.
“If I have the time I prefer not to ever actually have to practice the line, but just to have read it so many times it’s already stuck there.”
Evan: And that’s another thing, sometimes when you get the monologue last minute, you’re like, well what if I did have a cue card? Could I make that work? How would I even do that? That’s an art form all on it’s own I’d love to explore.
Finn: People on SNL do it every week you know.
Evan: Yeah there you go, and you can’t tell. I mean sometimes when a guest comes on you can tell. So what do you do?
Finn: I’m kind of a word guy, I learn the words first, I mean I just read it over and over. Like I would read Glass Menagerie maybe two to three times a week during the run of the show, on my subway into the city. Just read the big scene of the play over and over, lightly, not even thinking too much about it, almost like a meditation, just letting the words creep in. If I have the time I prefer not to ever actually have to practice the line, but just to have read it so many times it’s already stuck there. It is like a muscle I think, the more you do it the quicker things stick. I don’t always have that luxury but that’s my ideal.
Evan: It is a weird thing when it’s just in there. Like, how do I even know that?
Finn: Yeah [laughs] like, “What the fuck? Is it like the Matrix, have they plugged it into my brain?”
Evan: Oh I wish.
Finn: “I know Kung Fu, I can fly this helicopter, I can recite Hamlet, awesome.”
Evan: Oh yeah, you have Shakespeare coming out too.
Finn: Yeah A Midsummer Nights Dream. It was just at the LA film festival, I haven’t seen it yet but I hear it’s really good, It was a really cool script, very modern, set in modern Hollywood. It was very clever take on it and the four lovers were really fun, Hamish Linklater and I were Lysander and Demetrius and then Lily Rabe and Rachael Leigh Cook were Helena and Hermia. The lovers were kind of in our own bubble so I don’t really know anything about the rest of the movie [laughs] but I hear it’s great.
Evan: Yeah it is interesting – when you don’t work with other people but they’re in the movie.
Finn: Like in The Big Short I didn’t meet Christian Bale until the premiere. We never crossed paths, you know? And you have something coming out – American Animals?
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Evan: American Animals yeah, I’m excited about it. I haven’t seen it but I did have a blast shooting it. It is a cool story, it’s about these four guys who try to steal their college’s first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species and [John James] Audubon’s The Birds of America – it’s sort of a heist in a college. It’s a true story based on a Vanity Fair article.
Finn: Did they get told off?
Evan: Ah I’m not gonna say, you can watch the film!
Finn: Ok I will.
Evan: Landline, let’s talk about Landline a little bit. How was that to make?
Finn: Yeah it was hilarious and very moving, infidelity is always an interesting subject.
Evan: Did you guys improvise a lot, it looked like you guys were having a good time.
Finn: Yeah a lot, I think it was probably the most improvisation I’ve ever done. Jenny Slate, she’s really a master and so I was kind of following her lead. It was really loose, a very carefree set in a good way, you could go anywhere. It was fun to be on a set where everyone is really exploring, discovering the story as you go. I mean, of course they had a plan but it felt very spontaneous, and it’s fun to work with comedians, you know? I had this little part in this movie, A Futile and Stupid Gesture and it was all comedians and it just makes that off time very exciting. You’re ready to be done with the filming and just hang out with people. Jenny was just so much fun. She’s a comedian but she’s also got real acting chops.
Evan: I loved everyone, I thought everyone was pretty fantastic in the movie. Very truthful and funny, I was really into it.
Finn: Yeah, throwback to the 90s.
Evan: The 90s, who doesn’t love the 90s? I was looking at the movies of 93 and they are some of my all-time favourites, the comedies and the dramas.
Finn: Yeah, like what ones? The blockbusters of the 90s were unbeatable.
Evan: Yeah Demolition Man came out. It’s a pretty incredible movie for a lot of reasons. But yeah just Google 93 and you’ll be shocked.
Finn: Was Jurassic Park 93?
Evan: I think it was, either 93 or 94. Let me look it up here. [Googles]
Finn: Clueless, round there.
Evan: Ok Jurassic Park is 93, Groundhog Day…
Finn: Oh I was right.
Evan: Sleepless in Seattle, Mrs Doubtfire, Dazed and Confused, The Nightmare Before Christmas and one of my all-time favourites, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Finn: Oh my god, that was all 93? Man it was really all downhill from there.
Evan: Listen… The Sandlot, True Romance, Philadelphia, Hocus Pocus…
Finn: What?! I mean just True Romance. We didn’t know how great we had it.
Evan: No we didn’t.
Finn: We had no idea the renaissance we were living through in 93 when I was nine years old.
Evan: I know, Robin Hood: Men In Tights. Is there a great performance that’s inspired you, theatre or film, or TV?
Finn: Oh gosh, well, I’m going to out myself as a true Paul Thomas Anderson dork, but Boogie Nights and Magnolia are two of my favourite movies. I think Jason Robards in Magnolia and also Phil [Phillip] Hoffman… also Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore… I just think everyone has never been better. I really admire directors – I don’t know what they do – when I see a great performance, a side of an actor that I haven’t seen before, I always wonder what it’s like to work with that director.
Evan: Yeah Phil Hoffmann literally blushes…
Finn: Yeah he’s on the phone asking for a porno mag and his actual face goes red, it’s like how do you…
Evan: I know, he’s incredible, what was the movie…
Finn: Love Liza?
Evan: A Sidney Lumet…
Finn: Oh, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Evan: Yes, the scene when he’s in the car, I mean that was one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever seen. I was blown away by that. That was a truly inspiring performance.
Finn; Yeah that was amazing, but again Sidney Lumet – fucking genius.
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Evan: Exactly, they must know how to bring it out of you like a cat.
Finn: Phil told me a story once about that movie, because it’s Ethan Hawke right, who is playing his brother, and they’re kind of in competition with each other for their dads’ favour. And he said that Sidney would come in one day and be like, “Ah Phil you should have seen what Ethan did yesterday, he just blew my mind he was just so amazing, he was so good.” And Phil’s like, “Ah fuck, god damn it, fuck.” And then I guess months later once the movie was over he told Ethan, “Sidney thought you were so good,” and Ethan’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s what he kept saying about you!” So he was pitting the brothers against each other. It totally worked.
Evan: That’s really smart. Do you get envious of actors out there? Are there other actors that you’re like, “Ah man fuck, that person’s really good, I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to work harder, I’ve got to dig deeper.”
Finn: Yeah all the people that steal my parts every other week. [laughs]
Evan: The assholes! Yeah I find that drives you to be better.
Finn: I think it’s very important – especially with people that you are in contention with, like same age, same sex you know – to really watch their work and be gracious and positive about it. Often someone will be like, “Oh everyone was good apart from that person, and it’s like, well that person is just like you, that’s probably why you don’t like them. Evan: You’re kind of right. Finn: It’s hard to do, I’ve been bitchy as much as anyone else, but I think it really doesn’t help anyone to hold a grudge or to not judge someone fairly because you’re envious or jealous or whatever. Or just in the same ring as them.
Evan: Right, yeah you have to admire and just learn from it. Healthy competition.
Finn: Yeah healthy is the key word. And I do believe in some way you get the parts you’re supposed to get, you know?
Evan: Yeah that is weird right, when you’re in a certain phase in your life and all of a sudden this role comes in and you’re like, Jesus, I’m right there. It’s refreshing when that happens.
Finn: This was supposed to be.
Evan: Yeah, you can relax a little bit.
Finn: Exactly. It will come to you when it’s supposed to. I think patience is the hardest thing to learn in this fucking business.