The startling visage of Pepper reinforces the otherworldy nature of Briarcliff, the Massachusetts Sanitarium that looms in "American Horror Story: Asylum."
The premiere introduced audiences to Pepper, a sweet, murderous, beguiling resident whose entire backstory is only known in snippets.
A sister's dead baby is at the root of it.
We were first introduced to Pepper as she popped up in the yard trying to get Lana (Sarah Paulson) to play with her.
Cut to pretty actress Naomi Grossman, a writer/performer best known for her hilarious yet poignant one-woman plays, who endures lengthy makeup sessions to get Pepper-fied for the Ryan Murphy shock drama on FX.
The good news is Grossman's Pepper will continue to horrify and delight audiences throughout the second season with her recurring Pepper role.
“It was the first drama I ever auditioned for,” says this former Groundlings Sunday Company member. “I remember the casting session... it was just me and a bunch of little people. I kept thinking that there’s a difference between ‘small,’ and ‘little people’ and wondered if my agent also knew that.” Towering at 5 feet, Grossman claims that she “killed it (for a giant),” although she never thought she’d get the part. “I mean, it’s American Horror Story-- they’re going to go with the freakiest!” So they chose Grossman.
The Taos, New Mexico native is more than a side actor breaking out in a TV role. Whether she’s groping the TSA in her devilishly irreverent comedy short, “Touch My Junk,” or shaking her rump in her hilarious rap video parody, “Wigga Pleaze,” Grossman is creative and fearless. Beyond her cheeky youtube channel, however,(whose original content has screened at films festivals nationwide), is an equally intrepid, surprisingly impressive solo theatre career.
Her first self-penned solo show, Girl in Argentine Landscape, received critical acclaim (LA Weekly, “Pick of the Week”) and earned her an LA Weekly Theatre Award nomination for best solo performance. Her more recent, Carnival Knowledge: Love, Lust, and other Human Oddities, enjoyed a twice-extended, sold-out run in Los Angeles; it was then reprised at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, followed by a transfer to London’s West End (Leicester Square Theatre). Both shows have also taken stage Off Off Broadway in New York.
This same dauntless, independent spirit is what lead to Grossman to shave her head for her role in American Horror Story. “Of course I was nervous, I thought I’d never get laid again,” jests Grossman, who assures us that was not the case: “I got asked out through a car window the very next day.” Named the “bravest actress in the world” by the AHS hair and makeup departments, Grossman talked her way through the initial head-shave, convincing herself that she was an actress first, and a person with hair second.
“I’ve never been one to book those ‘nurse number four to the left’ type roles. While I’ve never played a pinhead per se, Pepper is more in line with the brandof over-the-top characters I love and aspire to play.”
A devout fan of Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Tracy Ullman, and all things SNL, when she wasn’t studying theatre at Northwestern University, she was moonlighting in Chicago’s long-running, cult comedies like Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack. “It wasn’t Chekhov,” she concedes. And certainly a far cry from American Horror Story. “What with all my solo work, I hadn’t shared the stage with anyone in a while-- much less the likes of Jessica Lange!” She beams as she speaks of working with the legendary actress.
“Within my first couple days on set, she’d brought her grandchildren over to meet me. That was a highlight.” She admits to enjoying the attention, her head covered in cloak a la Lady Gaga to maintain the mystery as they transport her to and from set. “I actually have to introduce myself when I’m there out of costume.” Which makes sense, given Pepper’s fake belly, arms, hands, brow, ears, nose, teeth, and eyeball. “I’m going to be the girl no one knows at the wrap-party.”
Monsters and Critics got a chance to speak with Naomi about all things American Horror Story: Asylum:
Monsters and Critics: Naomi, you are so very pretty, and then they make you up into Pepper! Please, what are the prosthetic and makeup devices they do to
you to transform? How long does it take?
NAOMI: Why, thank you! The make-up process is quite long, though
they've gotten it down to about 2.5-3 hours. Those first make-up
tests took at least twice that though-- they are incredibly meticulous
-- during those first couple times, I remember them very carefully
placing freckles almost as if were a work of art!
But you've got to figure: that's what makes for an Emmy-nominated makeup crew. They can do anything! The prosthetics are of course made of silicon, made
specifically for my face, and consist of a forehead complete with
punched-in eyebrows, a nose, ears, and even a bumpy little spine-piece
for my back. Again, depending upon the wardrobe, no one even sees
that, but that's the kind of detail-oriented professionals they are.
I have fake teeth, which of course change the shape of my face (and
speech). There's even a wacky lens for one of my eyes-- it's subtle,
but effective (it's disturbing having someone look at you, but not quite look at you, you know?).
It seems the only thing that's truly mine is the hair! At first they toyed with a bald-cap, but given Pepper's condition, it was important to make my head look as small as possible. So, it was obviously better for them to not have to stuff a bunch of hair into a cap. Though the bald caps they gave me initially looked incredibly authentic as well.
I think at one point they'd talked about using CGI to actually shrink my head, but I'm sure it was easier and probably much cheaper to have me shave my head than
have to employ such advanced special effects. Besides, the makeup crew takes pride in not having to rely on such tricks. So instead of making my head small, they built up my body by putting me in a fat suit. And well, the end-product is well worth the head-shave and hours in the chair.
It's a true gift of a character, on a major, hit show-- so I went for it, without a second thought. I'm an actress first, a person with hair second. And now I'm in a special little club with Natalie Portman and Sigourney Weaver and Brittany Spears!
M&C: What, exactly, is Pepper's back story? What insight did Ryan Murphy give you?
NAOMI: Not a lot! They're so secretive. Not even in the audition did
I know what I was reading for! It wasn't until I'd gotten the part
and was meeting with makeup, that they told me what I'd look like
- which obviously informs the character. So I spent a lot of time
watching and reading about Schlitzie from "Freaks." That was the
inspiration behind Pepper, after all. And though Schlitzie's time was
well before Pepper's, he no doubt had a similar, marginal existence.
Other than that, I only get the sides I'm in! Sister Mary Eunice
(Lily Rabe)'s line about me slicing the ears off my sister's baby was
about all I knew too!
M&C: What is the longevity of Pepper this season, does she make it all
the way to the end of the season?
NAOMI: Well, I can't tell you that! In fact, I don't even know
myself. They keep us very much on our toes! I only know what I'm
shooting on Monday. And well, I don't die Monday anyway! It seems
like Pepper's pretty popular, so hopefully they'll keep me around...
Though who am I kidding? No one's safe in "American Horror Story!"
M&C: Please tell us what you are also working on in your acting career?
NAOMI: I do solo shows-- in fact, I was in New York this summer
performing one in between shooting. I need to start writing my next
one. I toured with my last two to Edinbugh, London, NY, LA… so it's
time. I'm not just your typical actor, waiting around to get cast… I
like to take control, feel creative. Besides, with the very special
exception of Pepper, no one will ever write a better role for me than
one I write for myself.
M&C: What is the set like for American Horror Story? Where is it shot?
NAOMI: We shoot primarily on Paramount lot. The set is amazing. So
meticulously designed and constructed. It's scary unto itself! Why,
that winding staircase is enough to make anyone go batty! And all the
creepy, dark rooms with torture devices, the dirty cell blocks with
their big, metal doors, the 1960's modern living rooms… I love it!
Wish I could move in!
M&C: What is the most frightening episode for you so far?
NAOMI: Maybe because I see behind all the smoke and mirrors, I really
don't find it that scary! Hmmm… my face, maybe, after sitting 3 hours
in that makeup chair? Jessica Lange's talent is scary to me. That
scene in episode three when she broke down drunk while presenting the
movie-- you could just smell the Emmy! And of course the sets, the
lighting, the smoke in the air-- it's all very creepy. I'm probably
lucky they blind me in the one eye-- I can't see enough to get scared!
"American Horror Story" airs on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. EST on FX.