It’s quite possible you had never seen Cody Fern before. The young Australian actor has only a few credits to his name. But Fern is unforgettable on FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story as Andrew Cunanan’s second victim and good friend, David Madson. Viewers saw David’s murder in episode 4, but due to Versace’s backward structure are now able to see the beginnings of the relationship.
EW talked to Fern, who was recently cast on the final season of House of Cards, about landing this major break and acting in this true-crime saga.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get this Versace role?
CODY FERN: I was actually in London at the time because I was working on a feature film that I was writing and directing. So I was in London because I went to work on the script with my writing partner. I was in a little bit of a rut in terms of where I was as an actor. I was always up for big roles, and it was always between me and one other. I was really selective about the work I wanted to do. I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting the gig. It always came down to star name, this that and the other. So I actually decided I was going to take a year off from acting and just focus on writing and directing. I had jokingly said the only thing that was going to put this production on hold would be if Ryan Murphy, HBO, or David Fincher called. So it’s funny now.
You grew up in Australia. Were you aware of the Versace murder?
Being from Australia is isolation from this story in once sense, but I also think it’s a generational divide. I knew there was Gianni Versace, but I didn’t even know Versace had been murdered. So I was new to the story as a whole. Before I started filming, I read Vulgar Favors. So I came to know everything as I was actually in the story, and that was phenomenal. I think it’s something the series does so brilliantly in the kind of switch-and-bait of we think we’re entering the world of one killing, but we’re actually entering into this story that hadn’t been told: There are four other victims that nobody knows about.
Was there any thought to reaching out to David’s family?
I considered reaching out to the Madson family. First and foremost, we have Maureen Orth’s book. Second, you have Tom Rob Smith, who’s phenomenal as a writer. There was some discussion whether it or not it was appropriate for the actors to reach out to the families because it’s really dredging something up. I think everyone had a sense of wanting to protect the families from that kind of exposure. There are survivors of this tragedy and they are the family members, and it will be up to them as to whether or not they watch the series, so I think we wanted to keep it as their decision. I didn’t approach the Madson family out of respect. But when you have Tom Rob Smith’s writing and Maureen’s research, you’re in a good place.
Tell me about episode 4, which was the most intense for your role. The entire hour is a building sense of dread, ending with David’s death. How was that shoot?
Emotionally, it was incredibly fraught. It was a huge upheaval. It was something I couldn’t separate being on set and taking the work home. It really affected me psychologically. It was so dark. At the same time, I felt so supported and so free to explore and to take risks and to really go there. So in one way it was the easiest thing I’ve ever done because Ryan works in a particular way where he selects every single person he’s working with. Being on set, it runs like a family so you feel very protected and very safe and nurtured. But then, of course, emotionally it’s one of the most taxing things because not only are you dealing with the literal things David is going through, but he’s also going through an incredible amount of shame that has built up since he had conscious thoughts. I think that was something that was also a layer we wanted to bring to the show, in dealing with homophobia and internalized gay shame. So that was the hardest thing to deal with.
The murder of Jeff Trail and the hostage situation that ensues was its own particular beast, but I had Darren [Criss] to act opposite. He’s so unhinged and so brilliant. I never knew what he was going to do or what choice he was going to make. It was a wonderful experience, but it was also incredibly difficult.
The way the show is structured, you basically have to create your character backward. Like we meet David at the breaking point of his relationship with Andrew, and in tonight’s episode we see the beginning. That must have been a great challenge as an actor?
I actually preferred it in a strange way because what we see of David is somebody who’s at the end of his rope in his friendship with Andrew. Pretty soon on, Jeff is killed, so you have a character that is thrown into complete emotional disarray. So you get to explore the extremes of what David is feeling, the end of what he is as a human being. It was easier to find the crystal of who David was and what he was willing to fight for. Episode 4 really explores the arc of shame and his feelings of complicity in this murder, and he has been in the closet for so long and thought it was a sickness that brought this about. At the very core, David is fighting for what is right and what is good. Finally, fighting for his life in a way that says, “I’m not going to go down for this thing just because you say I am.” It meant that working backwards, I knew the very essence of who David was as a person. Then you get to form chemistry as actors, between Darren and myself. We became such good friends. We went through such extreme things together.
It was just announced you’re joining House of Cards.
I’m over the moon. I’m thrilled. House of Cards I’ve watched since the first day. I was shaking the first day meeting Robin [Wright] because she’s such a powerful figure to me in the course of who I’ve become as an actor. It’s thrilling.
Can you tease anything about your character?
There have been rumors about who my character was. I read an announcement saying I was the lover of Kevin Spacey’s character, which is completely inaccurate and false. That’s not the case. But I can also tell you I’m NOT a good guy.