America Horror Story: Asylum has such an amalgam of strange, creepy characters who slither in and out of the FX horror show’s criminally insane asylum, Briarcliff Manor. But one character that’s a hit with fans is Pepper, the childlike yet murderous microcephalic female inmate with a tuft of hair and a joyfully toothy grin recalling the derogatorily named “pinheads” in Tod Browning’s 1932 side-show film Freaks, and one of its stars, Schlitzie. In this funny, sassy exclusive essay to EW.com, actress Naomi Grossman explains her transformation from a pretty, comedic actress to mischievous Pepper with the aid of prosthetics and makeup. She even shaved her noggin for the part.
By: Naomi Grossman
Might as well start at the beginning! The “breakdown” for the role (that is, the notification that goes out to agents and actors as to what casting is looking for) read something like, “4-5 feet tall, possibly malformed, childlike.” Now, I’m short – 5 feet exactly. But I’m proportionate, darn it! There’s not much I can do to prepare for that! So I suited up in my best baby doll dress, and I walked into the audition waiting room to find a room full of little people. My first thought was that I needed to have a sit-down with my agent, explain the difference between “little” and just “not big.” So I already felt like I was at a disadvantage. Besides, it’s American Horror Story! They’re going to cast the real freak! And, well, they cast me. The audition itself was unusual in that they didn’t give us Pepper’s actual part to read. But that’s of course because the role was under such tight wraps. I didn’t know well after I was cast what the role even was! They basically had us read one of Constance’s (Jessica Lange’s) monologues from the first season, which had obviously already been cast, and then do a short improv, as if we were a child. I think they just wanted to see if we could act. I remember feeling like I’d nailed it, for a giant. But still didn’t expect a call back.
Next came a meeting with the special effects makeup department. They took dozens of pictures of my head, asked me all sorts of covert questions, i.e. “Are you claustrophobic?” “Will you cut your hair?” Again, they couldn’t let on to what they were doing until I was officially cast, but I could tell this was not your typical “nurse number 3 to the left” type role!
Then, once it was official, I underwent a series of makeup meetings and tests. They had evidently manipulated the photos of my head to see what I would look like with the prosthetics, and that’s how the role was cast. Now, knowing what I would look like, I could begin to research this condition (microcephalia) and prepare for the role. I watched Tod Browning’s Freaks, and anything and everything “Schlitzie.” (He was the inspiration behind this character, after all.) I do a lot of comedy – big, over-the-characters mostly – so it was no mystery as to why I’d landed this part. But at the same time, I knew this was more than some silly, three-minute sketch at the Groundlings (where I performed many years, whose work I love and respect). This was a real person with a real condition, so it was important I play her very straight, without an inkling of mockery or making fun.
I find the makeup really informs the character. You get those big ears and nose and brow on, and boom! It’s Pepper-time! The entire process takes about two and a half to three hours, and that’s with two men working the entire time! Those first makeup tests especially took much longer – Mike Mekash, Christopher Nelson, Jason Hamer, Eryn Krueger Mekash – the entire Tinsley makeup crew is incredibly meticulous. They literally place freckles and veins like I’m a work of art! But then, that’s what makes for an Emmy-nominated makeup crew. There’s really nothing they can’t do. The prosthetics 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 level of detail we’re talking about. 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 blinds me in that eye, and you know how they say, “Good acting is all in the eyes”? Well, in my case, it’s all in the eye!
Come to think of it, the only thing that’s truly mine is the hair (or what little they left of it). At first they toyed with a bald-cap – and believe me, it looked phenomenal. I personally saw no need to shave my head. But better to leave the makeup questions to the makeup professionals. Besides, given Pepper’s condition, it was important to make my head look as small as possible, so it was obviously better to not have to stuff a bunch of hair into a cap. I think at one point they’d talked about using CGI to actually shrink my head, but I’m sure it was easier and cheaper to have me shave my head. Besides, the makeup crew takes great pride in not having to rely on such tricks. It was quite clever of them actually. Instead of making my head small, they built up my body by putting me in a fat suit. (And all that time spent slaving at the gym!). Ultimately, the end-product is well worth sacrificing my hair and sitting countless hours in the makeup chair. It’s a true gift of a character, on a major hit show. I didn’t think twice about it. I figured I’m an actress first, a person with hair second. And well, they provided me with a wig identical, if not better, than my actual hair. Now everyday is a great hair day!
I remember that first big shave so clearly: I was cackling hysterically, the hair/makeup crew was chanting my name, and later went on and on, calling me “the bravest actress in the world.” I’m not saying it wasn’t a tad nerve-wracking. I worried I’d never get laid again! But then my fears subsided when I got asked out through a car window the very next day. And now it takes me all of three minutes to get ready in the morning! Not to mention I’m in this special, little club with Natalie Portman and Siggy Weaver. And while I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Pepper when the season is over, I look forward to pulling a Britney in the window of some chichi salon!
Another challenge was not being able to talk about it! My friends and family knew I got a part – and that something was up or I wouldn’t suddenly be wearing this wig around – but I never let on as to what that role was. They just assumed I had a penis coming out of my head! Even on set they kept me a secret. Until the first episode aired, I had to walk around the lot with a shroud over my head (and a PA to guide me). I’d zip by in a golf cart, and tourists would assume they’d seen Lady Gaga!
Then of course all my on-set time-wasters are gone. I can’t take phone calls because my ears are buried in silicone. I can’t text because the iPhone doesn’t recognize my silicone fingers. I can’t graze at the craft services table, because that would require taking out my teeth. I’m not complaining. It’s just part of the unusual circumstances of being Pepper.
But that’s not the half of it. That first day on set, no one wanted to make eye-contact with me. They assumed they’d cast a real microcephalic. Then, they began to warm up, figuring, “Oh! It’s an actress! In makeup! We’re shooting a TV show!” Immediately the hierarchy of star vs. guest star vs. co-star vs. background was dispelled. Everyone wanted to know what I actually looked like, how long it took, did it itch, etc. Then Ryan Murphy came over, took one look, and said, “Pepper is the best.” He was referring to the makeup, of course, but still, it made me feel pretty good! I remember that first day was very hot, so my two makeup guys were on hand, fanning me. I remember Chloe [Sevigny] and some of the other stars asking, “Yo, how do I get a fan?” Everyone has been so friendly and nice. Early on, Jessica Lange brought her grandchildren over to meet me. That was a highlight.
I got recognized on the street for the first time recently. I was immediately hit with a rush of mixed feelings: pride/personal achievement and complete self-revulsion. Do I really look like Pepper?! Obviously not. Still, it’s great that she’s so popular. … Now if Pepper will just share her success with Naomi!
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