Many remember the early seasons of American Horror Story with great appreciation and a sense of fondness. The show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, carefully tailored each character to fit the theme of each season with great fervor. Brought to life by the talented and multi-faceted actors that portrayed them, each character within the show’s many themes have, over the years, become something of a canonical reference point in the horror genre.
For Naomi Grossman, the actress that brought the character of Pepper to life in seasons two and three of the show—finding ways to incorporate comedy into the horror genre was, in her mind, the key to pulling off a character that was both tragic and horrific in its own ways.
On playing Pepper
“Not only did [Pepper] have a very specific physicality, intellect, and emotional life vastly different from my own—but it changed throughout the season(s),” says Grossman of how Pepper’s own character development over the course of two seasons presented a set of challenges—both physically and mentally speaking. “The early, playful Pepper in the start of Asylum, was in stark contrast to the later, alien-abducted one. Then, two seasons later in Freak Show, I had to not only find that early Pepper again, but make her 10 years younger! And of course, communicate so much without the benefit of actual dialogue,” Grossman says.
Pepper’s character development, unlike other characters on the show, had to happen without conventional dialogue at all. For Grossman, it meant portraying a character with animated expressions and features, which was a feat on its own without the added SFX, prosthetics and makeup added on top (this video shows all that went into her character).
At its core, Pepper’s portrayal had to be carefully thought out in order to be done successfully. There is a fine line between portraying a disabled character onscreen in a way that honors the character rather than turns them into a spectacle. For Pepper, a certain level of spectacle had to be brought out in Freak Show, where Pepper famously plays a traveling circus performer, but toned down in Apocalypse, where Pepper’s life in a mental institution signals her character’s struggle with being a functioning member of society.
Grossman’s portrayal of Pepper is both widely appreciated and well-known as one of the most beloved characters on the show.
“When I was first cast in the role, I’d wake up in sweat, afraid I’d be accused of stealing a disabled actor’s role,” Grossman says “Thankfully, that was never the case. I’ve heard from both disabled and able-bodied advocates alike: it all boils down to who will best fulfill the role’s demands,” she says of what helped her find comfort in portraying a potentially controversial role. “If he/she is disabled, great—but may their casting be based on their ability to play the part, not just their disability,” she adds.
That wasn’t all that went into it, though. A role like Pepper required some element of comedy to execute properly. Play into Pepper’s weaknesses too much, and the character would become far too tragic to resonate with viewers in the way that the show intended—and that’s before Pepper’s tragic back story is revealed in Freak Show.
But that did mean that the line between spectacle and realism would become even thinner. “Worse yet, I worried people might accuse me of making fun. Pre-Pepper, I’d primarily done comedy—from sketch and improv at The Groundlings, to my mostly comedic one-woman shows where making fun is what we do!,” Grossman says. “It was a delicate dance—portraying a special-needs character sensitively, without crossing any lines.”
A comedian at heart, Grossman’s path to becoming Pepper did not happen overnight. Her long history in the comedy genre—through work at The Groundlings and in other productions and stand-up specials—brought her, eventually, to major roles in other genres. This year, Naomi Grossman is set to appear in NBC’s Good Girls, and a film called The Initiation. If you want to see more of Naomi Grossman in American Horror Story , though, we’ve heard the creators can be swayed by social media buzz. 😉