‘I had to find the bravery, emotionally and physically, to just be naked’: Finn Wittrock on mental health, nudity and starring Netflix’s no.1 show in the world, Ratched.
If you haven’t watched Ratched yet on Netflix, what are you waiting for? Ryan Murphy’s latest TV show traces the origins of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’s iconic character, Nurse Ratched, and it is one of the most horrifying but delicious dramas you will ever lay your eyes on.
Nurse Mildred Ratched, played by the iconic Sarah Paulson, places herself at the centre of the drama at a 1940s mental institute where the most infamous serial killer of the day, Edmund Tolleson, played masterfully by Finn Wittrock of American Horror Story fame, comes to reside after he kills three priests within the first five minutes of episode one in fact. Told you it was horrifying!
As Ratched becomes the number one show in the world on Netflix, I zoom into Finn’s getaway in a remote farm in New Mexico – having escaped LA with his wife, Sarah and their one and half year-old child – to talk mental health, body image, stereotypes and why talking about childhood trauma is so important…
How have you coped with the lockdownexperience?
It’s been hard. I haven’t worked since February and it’s been like a Groundhog Day experience – every single day is the same. Having a kid is good because it gives me a schedule, which otherwise might be bad for me not to have because I don’t know if I would ever go to sleep or ever wake up. But that is also hard because there’s no break.
Why do you think that Ratched has really struck a chord with people?
Good question. I think it’s criticized for having a lot of branching stories and not taking one linear path, but I think that’s actually maybe what people are responding to. There’s something for everyone in it. I think that people are responding to the twisty, turny, unexpectedness of what’s going to come next. I feel like I’ve been in solitary confinement a little bit, just like Edmund was. We’re all being in a mental hospital of our own creation. We’re all stuck inside, too.
It’s amazing to have a show that talks about mental health in various different ways. Why do you think that is personally important?
The whole premise is, what is ‘crazy’, what is ‘sanity’ and who gets to make the call over who is ‘insane.’ To prepare I found myself watching a lot of the people that you often don’t look at in a big city. I would look at homeless people talking to themselves, because actually, the thing about mental illness is it’s everywhere. Often, we do turn our backs on it, but especially if you live in a city it’s on every corner. My research often came from the ground in that way.
We are surrounded by mental health in many different ways. The word mental health, doesn’t necessarily mean you have ill mental health, it just means you have a relationship with your mind, doesn’t it?
Definitely! When I was living in New York I would look around at someone talking to themselves in Central Park, and be like, “that actually could just be an actor.” I would find myself talking to myself and rehearsing with people passing probably walking past me thinking I’ve got multiple personality disorder. The line is very blurry. As an actor, you have to go a little ‘crazy’ for every part you do, because if you are doing what Sophie Okonedo does, who plays Charlotte in Ratched, she brilliantly inhabits someone else, you have to blur the line of your own identity. That’s what acting school teaches you.
Did you find it therapeutic to play Edmund in Ratched in a way?
Actually, that’s so funny because everyone else has been like, “God, it must’ve been so hard to live with that guy.” And it was hard but there is a sense of exorcizing, like an exorcist you go to set, and you have this time to unleash those demons so that when you go home they’re out of you. You can then live a quiet, uninteresting life because you’re taking out all the passions that you might be withholding. That’s what you get to do with my job!
What do you think you learned about yourself through playing this very extreme character?
I think I’ve learned to trust my instincts instead of trying to plan everything maybe a touch too much or trying to have it all in order in a certain way so that nothing goes awry. With this guy, I thought the only way for it to work is for him to be dangerous, impulsive and me not to be able to know what he’s going to do next. Every choice is like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where it’s going to take you. I think it made me have to trust myself which is kind of scary.
How has your own relationship with inner, outer strength changed especially in terms of your relationship with body image as there is a lot of nudity in Ratched? We talk about body image a lot with women but not necessarily as much as we should do with men…
I’ll be honest, there was a time with some parts in Ratched where I was like, “Am I being a little bit objectified here? But if I am, it’s okay!” I think if I was playing a character that was maybe more put together, I might’ve been more anxious it or in my head about that stuff, but I had to find the bravery to just be raw, be naked emotionally and physically, as much as needed. I obviously worked out a lot but there’s something that I think male actors do where they really get in their head about their bodies. It happens a lot more than I think people realise with them counting calories, doing pushups and cutting carbs. I do that to a degree, but I don’t let that overtake me. I don’t look like an Adonis. Edmund isn’t watching his carb intake – he’s devouring every piece of morsel he can get. If you start doing that it is vanity overtaking a part.
What kinds of conversations do you want Ratched to start?
I want to start talking about what childhood trauma does to a developing brain. My mom is an occupational therapist and her specialty is zero to three. So, she works with a lot of babies with autism and other issues. She actually gave me a few really interesting books about child psychologists, explaining how your brain literally is being formed and physically shaped as you’re growing up. To have a violent or traumatic or neglectful time is actually the worst thing. Your upbringing affects you forever if someone doesn’t come in and intervene. When you get to episode six and you see where this monster Edmund has come from and suddenly, he becomes less monstrous and you can see why he would do this. Where so much mental illness actually comes from is in the really early formative years, which is rough stuff to talk about, but it’s true.
It’s so true, if you think back to your childhood everyone has little things they still carry around with them as adults…
Oh, definitely! I remember in middle school I was called faggot all the time. It was just what people said and you build up a resistance to it, but you look back on it and you’re like, “F**k, that was rough.” Seventh grade f**king sucks. I’m lucky I’ve had a very, very nurturing childhood and I grew up in Massachusetts. My dad worked at the Shakespeare Company, which I would go to. We moved away when I was young, though I would go back every summer and it was in the New England hills and it was this incredible way to grow up. I was so nurtured, artistically too. I was given so much positive reinforcement. But it’s not hard to imagine not having that and how different that would be. But it’s tough, it’s a lot to unpack.
Ryan Murphy’s TV shows always shatter stereotypes. What has your own relationship with stereotyping been like?
That’s a good question. Starting out as an actor, you start to notice very quickly that you are being put into a box of some kind. I went to Julliard and we played every spectrum of character imaginable, I played King Lear, I played parts I was way too young for and was way too wrong for. Then as soon as you go out into the world, you start to get put into very, very specific categories. I can’t even hardly complain, because I’m a white, straight man. It’s like, if I wasn’t any of those three things, it would be even narrower categories that the world would put me in. It’s stupid to complain about but I haven’t gotten a lot of the more interesting character roles because of the way I look. People always made fun of me for looking like a Disney Prince when I was young. That’s not how I really consider myself. But I think that if I’ve walked into a room sometimes, that’s the world that they’ve put me in. Ryan, he’s given me a lot more than that. He’s let me explore a lot of different horizons of myself.
Well he’s given you serial killer realness, which is definitely not a Disney Prince vibe…
Serial killer realness – I’ll take that!