By ROCCO THOMPSON
Described by co-star Sarah Paulson as being “enormously, terrifyingly handsome,” Finn Wittrock’s movie star good looks belie his fearsome talent. Having cut his teeth with bit parts in television and a stint on Broadway playing opposite Andrew Garfield and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman, Wittrock became a recognizable face when he was cast in the role of petulant murderer Dandy Mott in American Horror Story: Freak Show, the fourth entry in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s popular and stylish anthology series. Since then, he’s become one of Murphy’s frequent collaborators, receiving Emmy nominations for his turns in Horror Story and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Though he’s transitioned into feature films the past few years (most notably playing opposite 2020 “Best Actress” winner Renée Zellweger in Judy), when the time came for Murphy and RATCHED show creator Evan Romansky to cast Edmund Tolleson, the charismatic killer who provides a foil to Paulson’s hard-edged antiheroine in Netflix’s upcoming prequel to 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wittrock was the only choice. Rue Morgue sat down with the actor to discuss what goes into building a three-dimensional killer, what horror fans can look forward to in RATCHED, and how Murphy and his team create an on-set atmosphere where it feels like anything can happen.
How did your work on American Horror Story prepare you for RATCHED?
I would say, it prepared me just in the sense of knowing that if I was in this world, that I was liable to be asked to do anything. Literally anything. And I think Horror Story is really good, because it gives you a kind of fearlessness about doing things that you never thought you’d possibly do. So, I’d say bravery is what I learned from that show, yeah.
What makes this role unique from previous psychopaths you’ve played?
I’ve always thought of his [Edmund Tolleson’s] past as very different from any of the others, but, I guess I don’t think of them as psychopaths. I think of them as their own tortured person, individually. What’s especially fun about this is that you dive into his back story in a way that I haven’t always been able to do. I always thought of him as someone, who, all of his life, had to be a different person and change his personality based on what he needed from the person in front of him. Which, in a way, kind of made him a good actor. He’s kind of a chameleon, because he doesn’t really have a core personality. He’s always had to be someone different in every awful situation he’s been in since he was a baby. So, that was a cool, kind of scary challenge, and nothing that I’ve really ever done before.
What do you think fans of American Horror Story will appreciate about this series?
There is a horror element to it. There’s a suspense element to it. There is some gore to it. That’s the thing that will get people hooked, but then it goes in very different places. I think it’s a different type of show. It’s not purely genre. It’s sort of combining the darker Horror Story elements with some of the more elevated stuff like a Crime Story and Hollywood. I think it combines a lot of different of his [Ryan Murphy’s] worlds.
RATCHED definitely feels like it melds all of things he does well together. You’re among Murphy’s most frequent collaborators, how has that on-set relationship evolved?
It’s very easy to be intimidated by him, not because of his personality, but the heft that he has. You know that you’re in such a big universe already, but he quickly quells that, and makes it a collaboration with an actor. That’s what’s fun, is that every new project is a chance for him to bring something out of you that you haven’t gotten to explore yet. Some other part, some other range of your capability as an actor that he somehow knew was there, but maybe you didn’t even know was there. He also brings along an entire army of people with him. Obviously, the cast…there’s a second language that is built with having worked with Sarah Paulson. But there’s also the crew, and the department heads are often all the same people. So, there’s this trust that you have that’s very unique in this business where you often walk onto a set and you haven’t met anybody. Walking in here, it’s like, “Oh, hey, I know you from the thing.” There’s a feeling of safety about that, and that’s why actors feel comfortable going to these extremes [with him], because you feel like wherever you fall, however dangerous it gets, someone is going to catch you.
It feels as if this is the most screen time you’ve shared with Sarah Paulson. Can you speak a bit about acting alongside her?
We connected pretty well on Freak Show. We had a lot of stuff together, and that kind of creates a rapport…you cut through the initial “good to meet you” introduction stuff, and you just go straight into the thick of it. But I do think the relationship in RATCHED goes much deeper than we ever have together onscreen. It felt like a dance with her. It felt like, “Oh, she’s going there. I’m going to go here.” I like to surprise her sometimes with something crazy, and she’s always game for everything. It is more screen time than we’ve had, but give me more! Give me more!
Were there any scenes that were especially intense for you to film this time around?
Which one wasn’t? There is a scene in Episode 2 with Dr. Hanover [Jon Jon Briones] where Edmund is sort of trying to convince him that he’s schizophrenic, or maybe he really is. That was a very daunting scene, because the dialogue on the page was a stream-of-consciousness, like gobbledygook. To try to make that specific, and make that something that Edmund was fully inhabiting… I thought of Edmund, like I was saying, having to have made himself a really convincing actor. So, yeah, that was really daunting. And then there’s as scene in Episode 3 in the prison which shows a lot of myself, which was daunting in its own way. Because it’s… I was very exposed, not just emotionally.
Were there any films that aided you in creating this character?
I watched Silence of the Lambs–it’s always helpful to watch Anthony Hopkins–and Psycho, but I was very, very scared that if I watched too much of that stuff that I would start to imitate it. So, I found myself watching people on the streets more: homeless people, people that were talking to themselves, people that largely go ignored in our society, but are everywhere. Especially walking around LA. We usually just kind of turn our back, but if you take a second and watch, it’s a very eye-opening thing. That’s where I found a lot of my research, just walking around in neighborhoods…parts of downtown where I probably shouldn’t be.
This is Evan Romansky’s first production as a writer and producer. Did you work closely with him?
A little bit, yeah. He was always there for questions that we had. I was impressed by the scripts from the get-go. I thought there was a vision for this that was just so big and mysterious. We didn’t quite know what it was in terms of the genre-bending thing, it didn’t quite fit a box that I had ever seen before. So, I trusted Evan and Ryan to sort of make sure that the tone was consistent, and then kind of just let it loose!
How do you hope viewers respond to RATCHED?
I think that people are going to be interested in the twists and turns that it takes, and there will also be shock value, but I hope people question their own preconceptions of what mental illness is. I hope that it sparks that conversation. Who gets to call who insane, and who defines what sane is? The people who make those decisions might be the least sane person in the room.
RATCHED premieres September 18th, 2020 on Netflix