[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” Episode 5, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”]
Here’s what it meant to Finn Wittrock, the first time Ryan Murphy called to offer him a role: “everything.”
As the Emmy-nominated star of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” told IndieWire, “at that time, it was like my head exploded. I was like, ‘I’ve made it. It’s over. I can retire.’
“I had never really been offered a part before, before I was offered ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show,'” Wittrock continued. “And [Murphy] sort of offered it to me without, in my mind, my having proven that much that I could play a psycho rich kid. I was a male model in ‘The Normal Heart’ who died of AIDS tragically, but nothing at all like what I ended up doing on ‘American Horror Story.’ But he trusts his actors, and he sees something in them that I think even maybe they don’t see themselves.”
Since then, Wittrock’s working relationship with Murphy has led to ongoing offers in additional projects (not to mention his second Emmy nomination). “It’s been the gift that keeps on giving. Ryan has just continued to keep me in the fold, and always finds challenging, interesting new stuff for me,” he said. “And so, I feel very, very lucky to have found myself part of this family. And he’s so insanely prolific, that it’s sort of like, what new surprises will he offer up to the world?”
This year, Wittrock’s showing up for the Emmys after playing the tragic yet fascinating Jeff Trail, one of the victims murdered by complicated serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) in “Versace.” The show’s backwards plot structure meant that Jeff’s introduction into the narrative was more complicated than usual.
“It was very exciting to get four new scripts in your inbox hot off the press of the first four episodes of a new show,” he said. “But then, I die in the first few scenes of Episode 4. So, it’s like, ‘Oh, I wonder when Jeff shows up.’ And then I showed up and was immediately executed. So it was like, ‘Boy. I hope there’s more to do in Episode 5.'”
And in fact, the fifth episode of the series, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a true spotlight for Wittrock’s character, who’s revealed to be more than just an acquaintance of Cunanan, but a Naval officer who left the service after his fears of being outed as a gay man proved all-consuming.
Wittrock was able to watch the original footage we see filmed in Episode 5, of the actual Jeff Trail being interviewed by CBS’s “48 Hours” about being gay in the military in the mid-1990s. “The stuff they did in the show is a pretty close reenactment of what really happened — like, his face was in shadow,” he said. “That was an early thing that I got before I really knew that much about it. And that’s been my go-to bible to figure out who this guy was.”
This is in part because Wittrock chose not to try to speak with Trail’s real-life family and friends. While he said that the team didn’t lack for resources while researching their roles, it was “a very sensitive subject and it sort of seemed … I don’t know. I love going to the source, but sometimes it seems like disrespectful in some way. And I didn’t really find that I really needed it. I felt like there was so much already given me, that was enough for my imagination to start rolling.”
The other big hurdle the actors faced on set was how wildly out of order every scene was written and shot, to the point where, in order to keep the timeline straight in his head, Wittrock created a physical version of the script which was in chronological order.
“I actually rearranged the script. I took it apart and put it back together in my own chronological order. So that I could figure out where I was at any given time and what had just happened,” he said. “They send you these watermarked scripts on an actual paper. So I would take it apart. And when I would get a new script, I’d put that at the beginning of the old one. Everything has its own process, but that was a really helpful process for me. And a fun art project.”
When asked if he found it daunting to getting offered roles, because of what those offers might say about his persona, Wittrock said he wasn’t worried. “That is a fear, that you get type-casted as something. But I think there’s a way to keep yourself working on varied, different projects, and exercising parts of your acting muscles that you can avoid that trap,” he said.
And as he noted, “AHS: Hotel,” did switch up his persona. “I was picked as another drug-addicted model, I guess,” he said. “But a very tortured, different kind of guy who’s secretly in love with Denis O’Hare, you know — and aren’t we all?”
“That’s really not acting, that’s just living your life,” IndieWire observed.
“That’s just being a human. Yeah,” Wittrock agreed.
But Wittrock noted, beyond the jokes, that his focus remains on “leaning towards leaning into material that is relevant, that is current and on the pulse. I think that’s part of the reason I am so into doing Ryan’s stuff, just because he’s always finding some way to talk about something very topical and alive, even if it’s not the most literal way of doing that.”
That said, he noted, “a good superhero movie is also fun.” Would he enjoy the opportunity to play a caped crusader? “Put me on the record as saying yes, I would not mind.”
In fact, when it comes to what he might want to do next, he seems open to everything. “I love doing comedy and I would like to find more ways to do that. And I also do like well-crafted action movies. And I rarely have had the chance to really dig into one of those. So all of the above. I’m hungry for everything. I’m up for anything. Bring it on.”