“Embrace your inner freak and all the freaks around you,” said actress Naomi Grossman on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at SOU EPIC’s first event of the school year. Grossman, known for her recurring role as Pepper on the television show “American Horror Story.” Grossman came to share her experience being woman in Hollywood, playing a disabled character, and the importance of representation. She described herself as having a “unique perspective” on disability.
Playing Pepper taught her “…how powerful humanity can be,” said Grossman. She credited “…the unabashed way in which she wears her vulnerability,” with Pepper’s widespread popularity. Pepper is the only character (until Twisty’s cameo in the latest season) to appear on two different seasons of AHS. In the season Freak Show, Grossman’s castmates included those who had the disabilities they were portraying. Grossman described this cast as “Diverse, eclectic, and inspiring.”
Her character, Pepper, has Microcephaly– a birth defect which causes a smaller brain size than average, and intelligence and brain function which stays at that of a four year old. Going into playing this role, Grossman was scared of the potential backlash, of being seen as “Making fun” of disabled people, and of not having the appropriate experience to play such a serious role. She took the role and was amazed at the response. Disabled communities that she feared would lash out at her actually reached out to her with gratitude asking her to speak at events and teach acting classes to disabled groups.
According to Grossman, 20% of the population is physically disabled, but only 2% of the characters we see on television are physically disabled. Grossman calls for casting of disabled actors in disabled roles; not just in storylines about disabilities, but romantic leads, comedy, complex characters who are not reduced to their physicality.
Life with her cast opened her eyes to the discrimination: “Tourist’s actually pointed at [Rose Siggins, who played Legless Suzi] and laughed, as she was on her way to her own red carpet premiere,” said Grossman. She also described her friendship with Ben Woolf the actor who portrayed Meep. Her favorite quote from him was: “We’re all freaks…in our own way.”
She has been told she does not fit the right image of a feminine actress, and she asserted that women are trained to embody traits which oppose those that define comedians: small, quiet, and domestic rather than big, loud, and bold. Grossman also stressed that, while there is no evidence that men are funnier, it is still widely believed that women are not funny. She encouraged the women in to “Be funny. Be Strong,” and bust the myths that they cannot be those things. On being a woman actor, she said that pretty is easy to find in Hollywood. Focus on what is unique in yourself, and “Stop worrying….there is always someone prettier or skinnier,” but there is no one exactly like you.