Finn Wittrock is well-known to fans of Ryan Murphy’s work from his performances HBO’s The Normal Heart and three seasons of American Horror Story, most notably his role as Dandy Mott in Freak Show.
But he’s never been as heartbreaking as he is on The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Wittrock plays the first victim (and former friend) to Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). Trail was also in the Navy during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era and was one of the first people to speak out about life as a closeted gay man in the military.
EW talked to Wittrock about the role and whether he’ll return to the world of AHS anytime soon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to play this part?
FINN WITTROCK: Well it was sorta kinda a story that kept opening up for me, I would say. At first I was intrigued by the way Ryan was telling the story and the way Tom Rob Smith structured the narrative. I didn’t know much about Cunanan and his downward spiral.
But then I just really became enamored with Jeff and the kind of guy he was and what kind of upstanding American and true Patriot he was. He loved his country and loved being in the military and just had this secret — he knew who he was and was trying to make himself at peace with that and find some self but also it wasn’t compatible with the life he was living at that time. I was just really, really intrigued by that dichotomy of a guy who’s just really all-American, does everything right but the fact that he was gay he couldn’t ever really overcome that because he was stuck living two lives. And how amazing and sad that it was not that long ago? It’s not like we were talking about the ‘50s — it was like 1996.
The final relevant thing for me was it was right around when Trump did the transgender people in the military ban. When I was reading it at first, I was like, “Well this is a good story but it’s a little dated.” Then, that happened I was like, “F—! This is not dated at all. It’s more relevant than ever.”
Did you reach out to Jeff’s family? Or what kind of research did you do?
I didn’t. I felt weird about that. We had some really good Navy help on set in terms of getting the technicalities right. And then there is that real interview he did. It really does exist. His face is in shadow but it’s like a 20-minute interview about him coming out amidst Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Often as an actor, you have one thing as your anchor. That was it for me. I kept that video on me at all times. It’s an amazing introspection and a really brave thing for him to do at that time. Then, we had Maureen Orth’s book.
What was it like shooting this because you start with your murder and it goes backwards? It must have been challenging as an actor.
Yeah, and the nature of the shoot was already out of sequence because of the schedule. We were shooting different episodes one day to the next so I sometimes lost track of sometimes which episode I was actually in.
What I did when I first got the script was, I just tore them apart and put them in chronological order. I had to kind of do that because the structure is really fascinating to read but as an actor I had to kind of re-adjust my internal compass. The nature of his and Andrew’s relationship erodes over a few years so to really kind of be specific and map that was a challenge and was a kind of on-going conversation, like, Where are we right now? What’s happened?
I spoke to Edgar Ramirez about this, but is it more emotional to shoot a death scene when it’s a real person?
It can be haunting. I find you tread more carefully, if that makes sense. It’s more precious. Like when we’re doing Horror Story, it can be really dark and torturous. But it’s also like we’re just letting our imaginations run rampant and just running loose. This you feel a little more obliged to take things carefully and watch your steps and realize the preciousness of the story you’re telling.
Did Jeff actually attempt to cut off his tattoo?
It’s a bit of dramatic interpretation. I know everything Rob wrote in that is from real accounts of guys who were gay in the military. It’s not all his necessarily but it’s based on factual stuff. There’s a lot actually we don’t know about Jeff.
What was it that drew Jeff to Andrew in your opinion? Was it that he was so open and charismatic?
It is still a mystery. He seemed like such an upstanding guy who really believed in a moral right and standing up for what you believe in and all these admirable values. Then it’s like, How did you become involved with this guy who was so obviously a sociopath? But that’s the thing about them is, they know exactly what to do to make you trust them.
I think there was something in Andrew’s freedom and letting himself loose that really appealed to Jeff at that time. We’ve all maybe had friends who at certain times of your life came in and were just what you needed and you had a great, fun time. Then, you kind of grow out of that and you kind of move on and they don’t but the level of the friendship is so strong that you can’t just disown them so you’re caught with this person sort of hanging on you. I think that was part of the downfall — Andrew did not like getting shaken off.
How was that final fight between Jeff and Andrew to shoot? How was it working with Darren?
I remember that being a hefty day. It was a lot of dialogue and a lot of heated stuff. We kind of played with the temperature of how much is it an all-out battle. He’s a very easy partner to dance with. He likes to explore it and try different ways and try one way hotter and one way colder. It was a fun conversation in that way. It’s really interesting to watch him work. He was kind of playful on set and I know from playing some f—ed up people it can be a survival mechanism to kind of stay light when you’re not in it because otherwise it can kind of eat you.
What do you want people to take away from Jeff’s story?
It’s sort of a warning about what happens when you don’t share your real self with the people you love. It’s also a warning about our society not letting people be who they are and the dark road that can lead people down.
Is there any chance you can return to American Horror Story?
I don’t know. I would love to. I am committed to staying in the Ryan Murphy universe as long as he will have me.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.