Heads noticeably turned as Finn Wittrock entered Hugo's restaurant in West Hollywood, California, one mid-December morning — some faces flushed with horror, others with a flirty smile, but all with visible excitement. Given the year Wittrock's had, the attention is hardly surprising.
The 30-year-old actor began 2014 as Taylor Kitsch's doomed lover in HBO's Emmy-winning movie The Normal Heart, and he will close the year as an Air Force officer stranded at sea in Unbroken, the harrowing war drama from director Angelina Jolie that is poised to factor into this year's Oscar race.
While those two roles bookended Wittrock's big year, his true attention-getting, star-making, head-turning performance has been on FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show, where he stars as Dandy Mott, an emotionally stunted, entitled rich kid with serious mommy issues who's developed an unsettling obsession with bathing in the blood of those he's murdered. The heavily-GIF'd, widely talked-about performance is not only one of Freak Show's most memorable, it's also one of the most terrifying.
"Whenever strangers come up to me and say, 'I'm so scared of you,' I say, 'Don't worry, I only kill famous people,'" Wittrock told BuzzFeed News on Dec. 15 with a laugh, flashing the mile-wide grin Ryan Murphy has used to terrorizing effect on the current season of AHS. While some might scoff at being turned into an object of horror, Wittrock takes fan interactions like those as a sign he's doing his job well.
"The response has been very positive — very big, but very positive," he said. "It's cool that the biggest thing in my career hasn't been run of the mill; it's very different than anything I've ever done or anything I will ever do and I'm so happy that Ryan gave me a chance to stretch and push the limits."
Pushing boundaries has long been of interest to Wittrock, who caught the acting bug at a young age — thanks, in no small part, to his father, an actor and a voice teacher. Eventually, summers at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, led Wittrock to L.A. County High School for the Arts. "That's when I started studying acting and couldn't turn back," he said. "I've always known it's sort of the only thing I could do."
After graduating from LACHSA, Wittrock was accepted to the Juilliard School in New York City, the training ground for some of Hollywood's most acclaimed stars. And less than a year after completing his Juilliard education, Wittrock was cast on All My Children, where he played the nefarious Damon Miller for nearly three years. "Juilliard was so theater-focused and great, but I feel like the soap was my boot camp training for camera acting because it's so different," he said. "Film and television are so piecemeal. You do one scene and then you put it to bed and then you do a scene that comes before. In a play, you have to go from beginning to end every night, and that's harder, but also more fulfilling, in a way."
That's why, at the end of his All My Children contract, Wittrock returned to the stage as Happy Loman in Mike Nichols' acclaimed 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman. "A lot of the stuff that's happening now, I can trace back to Death of a Salesman," he said, very matter-of-factly. "Francine Maisler, the casting director, saw Death of a Salesman and called me in for Unbroken. The casting director of Normal Heart had seen Salesman too. I look back on it now and it's like one thing led to another; it was a chain reaction."
Following The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy — a writer, director, and producer known for creating an unofficial company of resident actors with whom he works — added Wittrock to his troupe and cast him as Dandy in the fourth season of American Horror Story. Though the role has become one of the year's most noteworthy, it wasn't initially designed that way.
"The part was not supposed to be as huge as it became," Wittrock said, exhaling a literal sigh of relief. "It was supposed to be six to eight episodes, but on day one, [Ryan] was like, 'Do you want this to be a series regular, because I have a lot of ideas for Dandy and we're really excited about where this character will go.' I was like, 'Yeah!' But I had no idea what was coming."
What came was a hypnotic exploration of Dandy's descent into madness as he developed a god complex that allowed him to embrace the darkest parts of his murderous psyche. "Even the prop guys were like, 'I've done a lot of crazy shit, but this might be the craziest shit I've ever done,'" Wittrock said, specifically of the double-headed mom-marionette featured in Freak Show's ninth episode, "Tupperware Party Massacre."
Living in Dandy's skin for more than half of 2014 has been an educational experience for Wittrock on every level. From an acting standpoint, he's learned that sometimes you shouldn't play the obvious notes. "The actions that Dandy has are so malicious that I don't have to play malicious," he said. "I sort of discovered that he's actually not angry at anybody he kills. In one episode, there was the line, 'This is the blood from some ladies I killed earlier today,' but I made the line 'lovely ladies,' because I don't want it to be one note of evil sadism. It's a lot of colors. There's joy and fear and vulnerability to Dandy, as twisted as that is."
Wittrock has also used his American Horror Story role to examine the societal obsession with quote-unquote villains. "I have been thinking a lot about what we see in villains, how we relate to villains, and what it is about certain villains that we actually empathize with," said Wittrock. "Like Macbeth. We're not supposed to like a guy who kills the king and takes over, but there's something about him we're really fascinated by. So how do we, as actors, make an audience empathize with someone they know is doing wrong?"
"I think there is that demon in all of us and, in society, we're not allowed to express it," he continued. "If you can watch a really good villain, if you can watch Macbeth's whole journey, we don't have to then live [it] ourselves because we've lived it through him a little bit. It might actually make us more peaceful."
Wittrock's Freak Show education is quickly coming to an end — production has already begun on the season finale. "It's brutal," he said of the last stretch of episodes, which he described as a prolonged showdown between Dandy and Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters).
Audiences can next see Wittrock on Dec. 25 in Unbroken, the true story of Louis Zamperini (played by Jack O'Connell), a former Olympic athlete turned World War II Air Force bombardier who finds himself — along with Wittrock's Francis "Mac" McNamara and Domhnall Gleeson's Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips — marooned in a life raft for 47 days following a plane crash. The role, both in preparation and execution, tested Wittrock's limitations in a major way.
To properly convey the physical effect that amount of time stranded at sea would have on the survivors, all three men underwent drastic physical transformations. "At my very lowest, I was 130 pounds, and I'm usually 170," Wittrock said. To get there, he did a lot of calorie cutting and "a lot of jogging" before a professional nutritionist was brought in to cement the actors' state of emaciation. "It takes a toll on you in a lot of different ways, both physically and emotionally and mentally," he said, as his hands forcibly smoothed his jet-black hair. "I was cold all the time, I slept weird, my hormones were all messed up, but it was good for the part because it made me emotionally vulnerable in a way. It was also a good reminder that we were just dipping our toe into what these guys actually went through."
Prior to his death in July 2014, the real Zamperini consulted with the actors, sharing his firsthand memories of Mac and Phil and describing scenarios the actors had to bring to life. That insight into Mac proved to be an invaluable — and inspiring — resource for Wittrock. "It definitely heightens your sense of responsibility," he said of Zamperini's stories. "This is not a work of fiction that some writer created off the top of their head. This guy died in front of Louis. He saw him literally starve to death, so, yeah, we better not fuck this up."
After Freak Show comes to a close and Unbroken opens, Wittrock will take a much-needed break from work with his new wife, Sarah Roberts. "I'm very lucky, but I've taken the stairs, not the elevator," he said of getting to where he is today. "Some people jump to the top and I feel like I've had to work up, step by step, which I'm fine with [because] you appreciate acceptance more when you've experienced rejection."
That slow ascent has also made Wittrock grateful for whatever clout the last year of professional success has afforded him. "I'm still fighting for every job I get," he said. "In general, the only reason I want any fame or notoriety is so I can work with the best people. It just opens the door to rooms you want to be in, rooms filled with the people you want to meet. I want to work with the people who are at the top of their game, and that's what fame does: It allows you more access to people in this business."
Wittrock has also taken his career into his own hands — he co-wrote and co-stars in The Submarine Kid, a drama he will shop around to film festivals next year. But when it comes to his next role in someone else's project, Wittrock has one goal. "I want to keep pushing my boundaries," he said. "One of the biggest things I learned from Unbroken is that you can go a lot further than you think you can. We often underestimate our actual capabilities."
"Selfishly, I am looking for something opposed to what I just did," he added. "A story that challenges a new part of me … I've had such a great time and feel so liberated after Dandy, but…" Wittrock paused, and smiled, "A nice rom-com sounds really great."