Naomi Grossman quickly became the breakout star of 2014 with her captivating performance as Pepper, a microcephalic sufferer with a very interesting past, on FX's "American Horror Story." Pepper the Pinhead was first introduced in 2012's "Asylum" and returned for "Freak Show."
This crossover made Grossman the first "AHS" star to reprise a role on two different seasons, something the shows legendary creator, Ryan Murphy, swore he would never do. While the actress has become known as the character that just wants someone to "play with me," Grossman actually began her career going at it alone in one-woman shows ("Girl in Argentine Landscape" and "Carnival Knowledge") that earned her award nominations and rave reviews.
HNGN caught up with the slim, 5-foot tall actress to talk about her role as Pepper, her views on "beauty" and what's ahead for her in 2015.
HNGN: Congratulations on the IMDb Starmeter Award. You were named one of the Top 10 Breakout Stars of 2014. What's it like to receive such an honor?
Grossman: I definitely owe the fans for this IMDb award. That was all them. And maybe that transparent dress I wore on the red carpet [to the "Freak Show" premiere]! It's kind of surreal, because it wasn't that long ago when I was like 93,000 [on that list] or something. I was right in the thick of it, with "Freak Show," when they announced that, so I didn't really have the time to wrap my head around what a big deal it was.
You are also the first "AHS" star to crossover into multiple seasons as the same character. What was it like to get that call from Ryan Murphy?
They kind of eased me into it. At first I got the call that I was back and then it was months later that I found out that I was back as Pepper. It was shocking, you know... little old me. I mean on that show I'm surrounded by these big names with major careers behind them so to all of a sudden have all these rules broken just for little old me, was kind of miraculous.
Ryan said they thought really long and hard about it and I think it was obviously the right move. But then, I'm biased. I mean, they could have brought me back as another character and I would have loved that too. But Pepper's story hadn't really been delved into at all and I think they killed her off in "Asylum" before they really realized just how popular she was.
Will you return for Season 5 of "American Horror Story?"
I don't know. Maybe they do, but I don't! A show like this is every actor's dream – who wouldn't work on something that's so highly-rated and popular and critically acclaimed and well done?
What kind of character would you like to play next season, if offered a role?
I'm all about transforming myself. The idea of Pepper was created by Ryan, so I can't take total credit for it, but that is something I kind of put out into the universe as an actress. I'm all about taking on big characters. I get so much mileage for the transformation and yet why? People say, 'I could watch the episode and I wouldn't even know that was you.' And it's kind of sad that that's the case; that it's so rare that an actor acts – that an actor really becomes another person. Back when I was in acting school that was the point.
I'm so tired of turning on the TV and seeing the same actress playing the same role over and over again. The transformation doesn't have to be as dramatic as mine, but if it's a new role, let's see them inhabit a whole new posture, using new gestures, taking on a new voice. As far as next season is concerned, I would love to play a new character. That said, I would also play Pepper forever, given the opportunity. But I think it would be interesting to see me do something else.
Why do you think Pepper was such a lovable character? Fans quickly latched on to her and her story.
I think it was always the naivete and the innocence, and that her innocence is not an act – she is innocent. And to see this little survivor – and that's what she is – go through so much and yet still just wants to play with you. How beautiful is that? She goes from being mistreated at an orphanage to the freak show to her sister's house to the asylum. She just goes from one horrible place to the next and you never see her whine about it. And I think that's why people love her, and I think we all want to root for the underdog.
What has playing Pepper taught you about yourself?
I don't even know where to begin. The character taught me to appreciate the little things. Like the fact that I have legs-- because let's face it, there were people on set that didn't. The experience [of being on "Freak Show"] taught me so much about humanity, and relating to others that are perhaps different.
You're such an upbeat and lively person. How did you mentally prepare yourself to play a character that barely spoke and was rather timid?
I had to be sensitive to the scene. There were certainly big, fun party scenes, like the "Name Game," where I did get to infuse a little Naomi into Pepper. But as far as the timid bit, it's called acting and being sensitive to your environment and the scene.
Was there ever a challenge to portray Pepper's lovable side given her physical appearance?
No, I think that helped me actually. I can make the same faces in the mirror but they don't have the same affect. I think the makeup ultimately helped people fall in love with her. It wouldn't be Pepper without all that makeup.
By now everyone knows you actually shaved your head for the role. Was there ever a discussion about wearing a bald cap instead?
For the first makeup test, I actually did wear a bald cap. To my novice eye, I thought it looked fine. And taking it off looked especially great because I got to keep my hair [laughs]. But the fact is, these are makeup professionals on a whole different level. And there was a difference. At the end of the day I'm about making the end product as good as it can be and so it seemed to them like it was worth it. I wasn't going to jeopardize the opportunity for myself, so I went ahead with it. That's how committed to acting I am.
You've been quoted as saying the bald head definitely got you some male attention. Men liked the new look?
Well, during "Asylum," they kept that little top-notch, so I always wore a wig. But then, when I came to play Pepper again it was the dead of summer and I was in Louisiana, and I just wasn't feeling the wig. So this July was the first time I really rocked the bald. And yeah, as far as male attention, I don't know if it was the bald head or just the vibe I was giving off – like I'm this confident woman, out with her no-shame 'do. I think that's attractive, period – to men or to anyone. I don't think it was necessarily the hair. I think it was the vibe that goes with it.
You got your start in comedy, doing solo shows. Do you ever want to revisit that again?
Of course! I always sort of thought of myself as comedic. In fact, this was the first role where I had to [play a serious character]. At this point, I totally got bit by the drama bug, and I also feel like I've really underestimated myself. Here I thought I could only do comedy and clearly that's not the case. I'd rather not limit myself to certain genres. I just want to do good work.
Although Pepper isn't physically attractive she managed to became a fan-favorite. What's your personal idea of beauty?
I know this is so cliché but I think beauty is on the inside. At first her outstanding characteristic was being ugly and then later on we come to find out she's so much more. She's innocent and naïve and sweet and loving, and all of a sudden no one's talking about how ugly she is anymore. And that's really awesome.
I'm thinking about so many actresses, like the Lena Dunhams and the Melissa McCarthys, or even me, who are not conventionally pretty. There are so many people out there who are not conventionally pretty but they kick so much ass that we don't care anymore. And that's what I think is important. I'm so much more moved when people talk about my performance than my beauty. Don't get wrong – I love it when people tell me I'm pretty too. But, ultimately, that's not what I'm about. I want to take people on a journey, I want to move people, I want to make them think. And when they tell me I've done that, that's the real compliment.
What are you working on in 2015?
I am going to be working on a horror film in February called "The Chair." I play the mother of the death row inmate that's destined for the chair.
And can you tell us a few interesting facts about yourself that fans would be surprised to know?
That's so hard only because I'm such an open book. All you have to do is watch my one-woman shows – I tell everything. I'm very impulsive – I bought a car on eBay once. I don't want to say it was a lemon, but let's just say I bought my next car with cash straight from the dealer. I live as much off the grid as I possibly can. I just got my first credit card a couple years ago. The people at the bank were shocked that I lived that long without one. Oh, here's a shocker: I don't have TV. How ironic is that?