Santa Fe Comic Con 2014: Naomi Grossman “Play With Me! Inside American Horror Story”

Panel Name: Play With Me! Inside American Horror Story

Topic: A Q&A about Naomi Grossman and her role on American Horror Story. Basically her being adorable.

Featured Guests: Naomi Grossman

Naomi Grossman, known for her role of Pepper on American Horror Story, visited Santa Fe Comic Con last weekend and we were lucky enough to attend  her panel “Play With Me! Inside American Horror Story.” Grossman has roots in New Mexico and was very excited to return to the state not only to spend time with us, but also visit with her mother in Taos. She sat in the audience during the panel. She said that she loves the city and knows it very well. When asked “Red or Green (chili)?” Grossman answered, “You know, believe it or not I’m not a hot pepper person.” 

Grossman grew up in Denver, CO and started acting young in children’s theatre. Every Saturday morning she would perform at Comedy Works and got her Screen Actors Guild card at age 15. She majored in theatre at Northwestern University then headed out to Los Angeles.

Naomi Grossman at Santa Fe Comic Con. Photo by Raya Jade Lieberman.

Naomi Grossman at Santa Fe Comic Con. Photo by Raya Jade Lieberman.

Before Pepper, Grossman wrote and acted in one woman shows all over the world in places closer to home like Taos, NM to far away cities like London and Edinburgh. Most were one hour long sketches and frequently autobiographical. She did a lot of comedy in these shows and is still selling them today as well as showing them on her YouTube channel. She started doing this because she was frustrated with how much time she was spending sending headshots to people, auditioning, waiting, praying, wasting gas getting to casting calls, ect. She decided to write her own roles and have fun with them, instead of spending more time at the post office than actually acting. I later looked up her sketches and they are genuinely hilarious.

Up until American Horror Story, Grossman thought “Gosh, I’ll never have a better role than one I could write for myself…And then here, Ryan Murphy created this character that’s pretty awesome.” Funnily enough, one of Grossman’s one woman shows was set on a carnival freak show. Perhaps she was destined for Pepper’s role.

When talking about the audition process for American Horror Story, she described the experience as “very secretive”. She said, “They didn’t actually release the actual script from the show and in fact they didn’t even let on that I’d be playing Pepper. They just said petite, childlike, possibly malformed.” When it came her turn to audition they asked her to do a monologue from Jessica Lange’s character and a little improv, including playing with a plastic ball. “They asked me to try to get them to play with me.” What they wanted to see was her range; whether she could go from childlike Pepper to “evolved Pepper” as she put it. Later, Grossman said that playing evolved Pepper in AHS: Asylum was the most difficult parts ; she had five days to prepare for the role.

Now that she has the part, Grossman shared with us that it is not uncommon for the cast to work 14 to 16 hour days. “We’re not crazy” she assured when talking about the Asylum season. Grossman says that the writers use Pepper sparingly. “I am kind of light and comedic and the show is so dark and dramatic so they’ve got to pepper me in.”  Again, the audience laughed. When shooting a show like American Horror Story, bigger is better in terms of energy. Even in a serious scene, characters pop off the screen when the actor portrays them as big as they can. Directors will often yell “Bigger! Give me bigger!” while shooting. “Everyone can go bigger except for Pepper!” Grossman remembers being shouted during shooting. She’s a very lively character as is.

The cast works very hard and though the show is scary for the audience, Grossman said that watching the show as an actor is very different. “The show’s not scary to me at all,” she said, “Because I know when I watch it that there’s a man holding a boom mic just an inch off the screen. Where with Murder House, which I wasn’t affiliated with at all… was scary because I hadn’t seen behind those films and mirrors.”

A fan asked about the intense makeup she wears while playing Pepper. “I’m pretty much non-functional once they make me up,” she joked. Pepper has large, hairy hands that Grossman wears glove like prothetic for. While the rest of the cast can check social media and play Candy Crush on their iPhones while waiting to shoot, Pepper’s hands are not touch screen friendly. She said that once she’s on set she goes underground. She can’t take any phone calls, she can’t Skype, she is practically cut off from the outside world until they wrap for the day.

We didn’t have too long with Grossman and while she couldn’t reveal anything about what was ahead for Pepper or whether she’d be back next season, she shared with us how much the creators of the show listen to their fans. Pepper likely would not have returned this season and become the only crossover character of the show had it not been obviously how badly we wanted her. She said that the creators check how many likes characters get on Facebook and take that into account when creating the show. While Grossman doesn’t think Pepper will return for another season after Freakshow, she urged us to let ourselves be heard. Perhaps if we speak loud enough our favorite little pinhead won’t be leaving anytime soon.

Photography by Raya Jade Lieberman. Videos courtesy of Naomi Grossman on YouTube.

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