An interview with Pepper from American Horror Story

November 6, 2014

Arts and Culture | by James Joseph

With Pepper being the first ever character to get confirmed for two different AHS worlds. Appearing in the AHS4 ‘Freak Show’ trailer, we thought it’d be a nice little idea to release our print only interview with Naomi Grossman the actress that plays Pepper for you all to read online.

So without further ado, here is Pepper!
Questions by Courtney Blackman.

pepper ahs
When I first met Naomi Grossman, I was two. We were each other’s first friends, by proximity – neighbours in a small south of Denver in Colorado. We grew up together and Naomi was ridiculously fun. She was the only person I knew who actually had an imaginary friend, we used to make magic potions in her kitchen when her mum wasn’t home, we joined a synchronised swimming team together, and on the odd occasion I would go with her to Kidskits – her childhood acting school. After we grew up (actually we’re both still only 5 feet tall), had both spent time living abroad and settled, we reconnected in Naomi’s new home base of Los Angeles…where a stand out night was us crashing a Nicaraguan quinceañera.

Years later, Naomi came to visit me in London after performing for a month at the Edinburgh Festival, and she made a mark in the capital showcasing her one-woman comedy show, Carnival Knowledge at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Fast-forward a few more years and Naomi has her very own cult following for playing the rather disturbing looking microcephalic, Pepper in the television series American Horror Story. Naomi is gorgeous, so seeing her weekly, portraying a monstrous and murderous asylum resident, was nothing short of wonderful.

You built a career in LA as a comedienne. How did you make the transition to a more sinister genre?

Golly, they’re really not that different. Pepper has a certain comedic energy to her, which is probably why I didn’t feel I had to “transition” really. The stakes and situations differ from comedy to drama– but the characters are more or less the same. Sometimes our lives are comedies, sometimes they’re dramas – we are the constant. It’s the way we chose to deal with life’s comedies and dramas that inform our personalities, and define us as dramatic or funny. I tend to go big (both in my life and my acting), which people generally associate with comedy. But here I had the unique opportunity to play a big character in a drama! So there are always exceptions. It’s a shame she died – I would have loved to see Pepper in her own sitcom!

I love that you have a cult following and are the stand out character from American Horror Story. Have you received anything strange from a fan?  

Somebody once tweeted me a photo of a naked (but smiling), banged-up-looking hooker with black eyes. Yeah, that was strange. But for the most part, fans are very sweet. I get a lot of Pepper paintings, dolls, jewellery, glassware…you name it. For a while there were even “Pepper for President” posters popping up like urban art around Los Angeles. It’s astonishing the creativity this little creature’s inspired! Someone even tattooed me on his leg.  What’s stranger is where I’m positioned. I would have opted for lower and less inside.  

naomi grossman
It took you up to three hours in a make-up chair to transform you from Naomi Grossman into Pepper. Presumably you can’t email and text? What do you do creatively in your own head to pass the time?

Well, the three hours flew by, mostly because it was often 5:00 in the morning, and well, they tipped my head back and told me to shut up and close my eyes (that’s normal workplace etiquette, right?). So, I would just fall back asleep. But yes, once I was on set, my typical time-wasters were gone. It depended whether I was playing early/silly Pepper, or later/smart Pepper. Early Pepper loved to dance. I would entertain the hair and make-up crew with my moves! Evolved Pepper was all business. She had to speak with a mouth full of teeth, which required some concentration. So I kept myself busy, even without texting.

I’m always in awe of females (who have built in expectations in regards to appearance) that go the extra mile and aren’t afraid to take on a visually challenging character. Was shaving your head for the role a hard decision?

Yes and no. I obviously have no trouble being ugly. Though a small part of me of course still wanted to get laid (ultimately, I found out that men really don’t care about your hair!). At the end of the day, the decision was easy. It was a great role on a major show. Besides, I’m an actress, it’s what we do!  But yes, at first I worried that they would shave my head and stick me in the deep background, or worse yet, leave me on the cutting room floor. I was really relieved that first day on set, when Ashton Kutcher didn’t jump out of the bushes, yelling that I been, “Punk’d!”  

On AHS, you were often found in Peter Pan collars and chunky cable knit cardigans. When you shed the Pepper clothes, prosthetic forehead, ears and nose and fake teeth, what do you like to wear day-to-day? Who are your favourite designers?

I like to doll up. I treat every day as a chance to play a new character! Today I’m a sassy 60’s secretary with a sense of humour. Tomorrow, who knows?  But, it will be a conversation piece. Why waste such a glorious opportunity to express yourself on a t-shirt and jeans? I CRIED when my mom made me wear jeans to camp. To this day, I hate them! As for designers, I’m not precious. I love Betsey Johnson’s whimsical, playful style, though her fit models must be behemoths because I never fit into anything. I mostly just like clothes that flatter me. So in my case, that means vintage, since people used to be smaller. Also, anything that’s pink or shiny, I can find a way to make it work. 

What do you like to wear on the red carpet?

Again, if doesn’t look good on, who cares who designed it? I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends with an owner at Fred Segal as well as several stylists, who’ve kept my shopping addiction at bay. But other than that, I know my body and what will look good: form-fitting, small-busted, cinch-waisted, dresses that showcase my bum! You can never go wrong with black, though sometimes (especially in the horror genre) that’s what everyone’s wearing, so I like to be ironic and wear say, hot pink. Besides, then I match my car and my walls!  

You’ve nailed comedy and horror – what other genres would you like to explore?

I mean, I’m an actor. I’ll do whatever. I’m just glad to not be a clown at kid’s parties any more!  I kid (kind of). It’s not that I’ll do just anything. I’ve passed on several projects recently because they were a dramatic step-down from AHS (though honestly, what isn’t?). Ultimately, I’m interested in doing quality work with smart writing, juicy characters, solid cast, and high production value. The genre is actually immaterial. 
Who’s the most exciting person you’ve met in Hollywood? Has anyone left you starstruck?

Lily Tomlin (my personal Lord and Saviour) paid me a lovely compliment. She said she would to have to step up her game to stay competitive with the next generation of solo performers – that’s me!  That left me pretty dumbfounded.  Jessica Lange is obviously a force. Imagine being her consiglieri! And I still get excited when Dylan McDermott tweets at me. It’s like I forget we’re actually co-workers.    
What’s it like working with style icon Chloë Sevigny?
She’s awesome. We were of course stuck in our little blue frocks, so I didn’t get to take many style tips. Though I did have a certain pride for having shaved my head for the show, whereas she just did the one side. Seriously, Chloë, commit!

Now that you’re the reigning queen of horror, will we be seeing you on the big screen?

I hope so! I had no idea how devout horror fans are. Shoot, I could live just on slasher movies forever! It is tricky to predict just how to proceed. You want to make at least a lateral move, if possible. Though few roles are as fun or fulfilling as Pepper, and NO other show is getting nominated for 17 Emmys!  I’m slated to do a Lucha Libre/Sci-Fi film with the Mexican wrestling star, Mil Máscaras soon. Who knows what else is in store? I certainly never planned being the ugliest person on television. But hey, that’s worked out just fine, so I’m going with it!  

Visit Naomi’s website:
Follow Naomi on Twitter: @naomiwgrossman

Photos by Twentieth Century Fox and Logan Alexander

naomi grossman