You'd recognize Anthony Carrigan if you saw him on TV, right? Not necessarily. The up-and-coming actor has been popping up in primetime network TV dramas for several years now, but only recently while feeling (and looking) like himself. We spoke to the actor, currently starring as Victor Zsasz on Gotham, about his career, his alopecia areata — a condition that causes the loss of his hair, eyebrows, and even eyelashes — and what body image means to him, personally and professionally.
How long have you had alopecia?
AC: I've had alopecia since I was 3, so quite a few years. I grew up with it and it was always very manageable. I only had spots that were [relatively small] so I always covered it up. I was always very embarrassed about it. Even when I was in my 20s, very few of my friends even knew that I had alopecia. I kept it under wraps. I didn't want to let anyone know and I didn't want it to affect my career or the possibility of me getting hired for a job. So I covered up. I got out of school and got some good jobs, but at that point it started getting worse.
There was one point where I was doing a job and we had millions of viewers every week, it was a TV job, and I lost half my scalp and both eyebrows and the majority of my eyelashes. I was covering up in order to look like this character. It was pretty terrifying to have to keep that secret and pretend like I looked this way, that I looked normal when I just didn't. I was doing red carpet events and putting on my eyebrows before going out there and hoping that no one would notice. It's a really weird thing to be seen while trying not to be seen. It's a very strange thing.
So is that the point when you knew your hair was all going to go?
AC: Yeah, I knew that was a possibility but I was terrified of what that was going to look like. I always avoided the way that I look naturally. Also at that period of my life I was being encouraged to cover up as well by certain friends, certain family, certain business people. They thought I should cover it up but it didn't feel right, so eventually – and it took a long time – I got to the point where I didn't care anymore. I wanted to just feel OK with the way that I looked so I shaved my head and I stopped wearing makeup.
Immediately I started booking work, but the work was just a byproduct. The most important thing was that I just felt so good to not have to hide anymore, to own the way that I am and feel really good about it, feel really positive about the way that I look. That took a lot of work. It wasn't an overnight thing. It was very incremental. It took a lot of positivity and a lot of compassion and reinforcement.
I eventually got to this place where I was proud of the way that I look. I thought that it was super cool and unique and strange and different. As soon as I embraced that and started carrying myself in that way, all of a sudden that's how everyone began to see me. So that was great!
What are some of the strangest questions or assumptions you get about looking the way you are?
AC: To clear the air once and for all: I don't have cancer. I'm not going through chemotherapy. I have alopecia. Alopecia areata, to be exact about it. I love the way that I look, I'm not worried about it. And, there was a question someone asked me earlier; it doesn't really help me swim better.
Do people assume you're an actor? If they don't recognize you from roles, do they ever comment on your appearance and assume that is has something to do with your profession?
AC: Not really, no. It's funny, I feel like, strangely, fewer people notice my alopecia than they did me wearing makeup. In fact it comes as a surprise to a lot of people! They'll be talking to me and then they'll say "oh my god, you don't have eyebrows or eyelashes, do you?" and it's funny because people would immediately say "oh wow, you're wearing makeup," which is really strange.
In terms of your career, some of your previous roles have been a very grumpy genius artist [as Tyler Davies in The Forgotten], a stoner genius game developer [as Cory Smith in Parenthood] and a mathematical genius bookie [as Marino Puzzi in Over/Under]. Your two most recent roles are supervillains. What are some of the roles that you want to do, or have always wanted to play?
AC: My path as an actor hasn't really changed. I want to continue to keep on playing different characters who are are all genius, I can't escape that [laughs]. But no, I want to play characters that kind of defy the norm, I think. I think that's something I can bring to each role, whether it's a romantic lead or something more independent or something in comedy. It would also be fun to play a hero. A superhero, for sure.
What kind of auditions come up for you?
AC: Definitely people want to pin me as the murderous psychopath. Which is fun, which is fine. It's fun. But also just weird, quirky characters. Definitely strange people.
What does body positivity mean to you?
AC: I think there's always the opportunity to accept yourself exactly where you are. I think a lot of people feel that they will accept themselves as soon as they go to the gym, as soon as they clear up their skin, as soon as they address a certain issue, then they'll feel OK about themselves. I think they can always accept themselves exactly the way they are and that's a practice. In each moment you have a choice where you can build yourself up or tear yourself down, and choosing to build yourself up is always within your power.
As a man and as an actor, are there still some pressures you feel regarding how you should look body-wise?
AC: I think my alopecia has forced me to accept myself in such a radical way that it kind of burned through everything else. I think that our culture is so obsessed with body image and with being this completely unrealistic ideal, and that ideal looks different to every single person. It's in their head as what they should be or should look like, this ideal. Ultimately, isn't it better to just feel good about yourself, than to try to look good first and feel better that way?
If you could go back to when you were shooting The Forgotten and talk to the Anthony Carrigan who is losing his hair and tell him one thing, what would you say to him?
AC: My initial impulse is to say that I would just listen to him and see what he has to say. But I think what I would say is "I know you're really scared right now and I've come back from the future to tell you that it's all going to be OK. The only thing you have to do right now in this moment is just be good to yourself."
What words do you have for other people with alopecia?
AC: I've talked a lot about not wearing makeup and not wearing hairpieces, but I fully encourage people, if it makes them feel more like themselves, to do exactly that. Anything that makes you feel more like you, go for it. I don't want anyone, whether it's people with alopecia or whatever body image issues they're struggling with, I don't want anyone to feel like they have to be ashamed or that they have to cover up something that they're ashamed of.
This interview has been edited and condensed.