Naomi Grossman is wildly known for her role as Pepper the pinhead in American Horror Story. Currently, she’s nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Short Format Comedy or Drama for her role as Lorna in the series, ctrl alt delete.
Grossman’s projects are completely diverse. She dives into roles that are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, from comedy to horror, with each leaving a lasting impression on the audience.
What made you want to get into acting?
Well, my parents were always really supportive of the arts. They were great about exposing me to culture. So from a really young age I was going to the opera, the ballet, the theater, the cinema. I just always looked up there and said, ”That’s where I wanna be.” So sure enough, as soon as I was old enough to be up there, I was. Pretty soon I was doing children’s theatre, regional commercials, some television— anything that came through Denver at the time, which wasn’t a whole lot. But yeah, I caught the bug early and never looked back.
What was it like playing the same character in AHS in two completely different environments?
It was totally unprecedented. I didn’t know necessarily what the implications were. I remember when I was first brought back, I saw the creator, Ryan Murphy in the makeup trailer, and he said, “So are you Pepper, or…?” and I was, of course, like “Wait, what? They’re about to shave my head! So let’s definitely decide this!” In fact, if you watch the first couple of episodes, they don’t even refer to me as Pepper. They just call us ‘The Humorous Pinheads.’
There were challenges, obviously, with each season. In Freak Show, Pepper was 15 years younger, 2 years later. And well, people change with time— so I had to give her a special spring in her step for the prequel. In it, we see her whole backstory, so I had a lot more pathos and whatnot to play with. My role got significantly juicer as it went on, and of course, I just had more information, which made it easier. In Asylum, alternatively, I didn’t even get full scripts— only the pages I was in. So, for example, when I read Sister Mary Eunice’s line, “oh, she chopped her sister’s baby’s ears off” or whatever, I assumed that I had. I had no reason to believe otherwise. So I kind of gave this devilish little face to keep it vague, because of course, even I didn’t really know.
What was the most difficult part about playing Pepper?
The hardest part of the transformation was not my job at all— it was the makeup artists’. That’s a really, really complicated makeup, only because you shouldn’t be able to see where Naomi stops and where Pepper starts. I’m one of those actors who, when you put a wig on me, totally transform into another person. Actually, I was just listening yesterday to an interview with my former colleague, Seth Meyers, and he talked about his time at SNL, and how there are some actors that are like me, and some that are like him, who just look like Seth Meyers with a wig on. No matter what he does, he kind of just always looks like himself. (Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing— he’s very handsome!)
I, on the other hand, am not that person. It’s a true gift for an actor, really, to have this chameleon quality. So for me, all I had to do was sit there and keep my mouth shut for about 3 hours. That was the extent of my job as far as the physical transformation was concerned. But of course, ultimately makeup just sits on your face unless you do something with it. I obviously had to bring it as well, and that was really just a matter of doing my homework.
I tend to work from the outside-in. I researched Schlitzie, the real-life microcephalic from Tod Browning’s 1933 film, Freaks, who was the muse for this character. I memorized his walk and talk and moves and whatnot. But I also had to go inside, and create a backstory— whether or not it was provided to me, I still needed to have one! The one they ended up giving me two seasons later was infinitely better than the one I’d created for myself, but that doesn’t matter. Like I said, what’s important is that I had one. Other actors go the other direction and work from the inside-out. I think as long as you do it all, it doesn’t really matter in what order, I think.
Check out a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Naomi’s Pepper makeover process!
On working with Ryan Murphy
Well, he’s a total genius, obviously! Like so many geniuses, he sees things that the naked eye doesn’t. He’ll be looking at the monitor and he’ll say, “We need more wind!” and I’m like, “Who’s looking at the curtains right now? Jessica’s giving this performance of a lifetime, and he sees the wind!” But again, that attention to detail is what makes him so amazing at what he does.
Furthermore, not only is he so great, he surrounds himself with great people. Everyone is working at such a high level— not only does he see things the naked eye doesn’t, but all the people around him do too! So it’s this perfect synergy of really high-functioning folks, all under one roof, working towards this one, cohesive vision. That’s what makes the show so great.
Who is someone that you would love to work with that you haven’t had a chance to?
I am currently girl-crushing like crazy over Lily Tomlin, though I don’t see her on this show necessarily. But then, why not? She’s brilliant in everything she does. If anything, I think I’m a good example that comedic people don’t have to be limited to comedy. Comedy was my background, and although nobody really knows me for it, that’s what I spent a majority of my career doing. But yeah, she has always been my demigod! I just happened to see her last night, and she knew my name, and gave me a giant kiss on the cheek! So yah, I’m seeing stars for Lily right now.
What’s it like to be (or process of being) nominated for an Emmy?
It’s super exciting! When they announced it, I was with a bunch of Emmy hopefuls who’d gathered at someone’s residence (still don’t know whose) to watch it while it streamed. This was all at like 8 in the morning, so I figured, “If I wake up in time, I’ll go.” And I did! Good news or bad news, it’s still more fun with other people and mimosas! But yeah, we watched, and turns out I was the only one there who was nominated, which was unfortunate. But hey, at least I was there! I’m glad I at least brought the party.
After the dust settles, it’s a lot of this kinda thing: interviews, red carpets… Of course, now I’m thinking about dresses and who I want to take. A lot of social media obviously, shaking babies and kissing hands of Emmy voters. It’s not what I saw myself doing this summer certainly. It’s the last thing I expected from this little web series that could! When they offered it to me, if anything, I thought it was edgy enough that it might get sold to a Netflix or Hulu or one of these more daring, internet-streaming platforms. Then maybe I could weasel my way into a series regular role that way.
That hasn’t happened yet, but still could! But an Emmy nomination has, so I’m not complaining. It’s a great example of how we can’t micromanage the universe. I always thought I would one day make it to SNL…I haven’t. I made it to AHS. But hey, the results is ultimately where I wanted to be anyway. Have your eye on the prize, but don’t be so focused that you can’t see the other prizes that await you.
On her character Lorna in ctrl alt delete
She’s absolutely out of her mind. She’s apparently based on a real person, as are all the women and stories in this series. She’s what I like to call an “abortionado.” Basically, she just gets abortion after abortion after abortion. It’s her birth control. But she has a great sense of humor about it— it’s her hobby! She jokes about needing a punch-card, having her own chair there, that kind of thing. At the end of the day, it’s like a workplace-comedy like any other. Just like how The Office is set in an office, and Cheers is set in a bar, this just so happens to be set in an abortion clinic. At the clinic, there’s invariably going to be doctors and nurses, and in this case, this one crazy patient who’s really made herself at home.
Why was it important to you to work on a project like ctrl alt delete?
Well, I don’t know about “important,” necessarily. I obviously have my own political opinions, but I don’t feel comfortable galavanting around with them. That being said, I am a woman, and I do believe in reproductive rights, and that the government should not be controlling our bodies, so I am pro-choice. That said, I didn’t choose this project based on my political beliefs. I chose it because Lorna is insane!
Two things: entertainment entertains, obviously, but it can also change lives and force people to think and act in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. If this show can shine light on an important issue, then awesome. That’s why it’s important, and that’s why I support it.
The other thing is this: the creators of this show are really passionate about this particular issue, and even have a personal connection to it. They’ve both had abortions, and lived to tell about it. They both looked to the media for a show with stories like their own, and couldn’t find it. Because no such show existed until they created it. They saw the need and were pro-active about it. I also support that.
I’m also a writer/creator myself, and my stories are also personal. My stories are about the misadventures of dating in LA, and moving to far-away lands— because that’s my story. So even though their story is not my story, I really love the idea of an artist taking his or her own personal story and fictionalizing it. Or not fictionalizing it—just telling it! Carrie Fisher said, “take your broken heart and turn it into art.” They had this otherwise undesirable experience, and they’re turning it into art. I’m proud to be a part of it.
Which project from comedy to horror has been your favorite to be a part of so far?
Oh, that’s impossible! I mean, obviously, Pepper’s always going to have a very special place in my heart. That’s the role that’s really changed my life. But let’s face it, AHS is also supported by a massive budget, at a major studio, with A-list stars. So, just to keep things interesting, I would say my very own one-woman show, Carnival Knowledge: Love Lust and other Human Oddities. It was also successful, on its own scale.
Again, no major studio, no A-listers, no budget at all, in fact. Literally, every dollar that didn’t go towards rent or food that I made at my little side-job at the time, teaching Spanish, went towards that show. Every success that it enjoyed: a twice-extended, sold-out run here in Los Angeles, then later in Edinburgh, Scotland, London’s West End and then finally off-off-Broadway in New York. All of that was just me— I didn’t have to share it with anyone!
I had a brilliant director who I’ll obviously credit, Richard Embardo. He was the baby-daddy, but I raised that little sucker! So for every good review, every accolade, every door that opened, I get to claim responsibility. Whereas something like American Horror Story, I’m just a pinhead. I’m not belittling what I did, but at the end of the day, there are literally thousands of people behind it, and make it the success that it is.