For The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the starry second season of FX anthology series American Crime Story, Finn Wittrock was asked to sit with the anguish of the ostracized, in his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan murder victim Jeffrey Trail.
A closeted gay man serving as an officer in the US Navy at the height of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” who struggled to reconcile his patriotism, his sexuality, and the brutal treatment of gays in the armed forces, Trail contemplated suicide before meeting his maker at the hands of the spree killer, in a tragic twist of fate.
After Versace and three seasons of American Horror Story, Wittrock now has each of Ryan Murphy’s American anthologies under his belt—and an Emmy nomination for each. A favorite in the mega-producer’s rotating stable of actors, Wittrock has demonstrated the ability to match Murphy’s wide range—gravitating between camp and real-world stories of significant social importance—executing every time.
In the case of Murphy’s latest hit, this meant seeking the truth of a real-life fallen person—a man who existed, out of necessity, in the shadows—bringing his humanity to light.
There’s a great unease to Versace in its final form. Reading scripts for the project, did that leap off the page?
Yes, definitely. I think the first time I read it, I found it very unexpected, the kind of turns that it took, to take as much time as it did with my character and really go into such depth in a storyline that’s kind of peripheral to the main narrative, but then brilliantly weaves its way into the Versace story.
I thought the way that Tom Rob Smith and Ryan juxtaposed these parallel storylines—for instance, when I’m coming out in that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” sequence, going with the parallel line of seeing Versace make the first public announcement that he was gay—the way that they were able to do that throughout was really fascinating.
There was definitely a sense of unease; a sense of dread I think, also. The structure, working it backwards like they did, it’s really the definition of tragedy. You know that this is not going to end well and yet you keep secretly hoping that it will, illogically.
Did Murphy approach you to offer up the role of Jeffrey Trail?
Yes, I believe he did. I don’t think it was necessarily written with me in mind, but I think I reached out to him at one point and was like, “Got anything cooking?” [laughs] And he was like, “Actually, I have something up my sleeve.” It kind of works like that with him. He will just approach you out of the blue with some very new and thorough idea that he’s already worked out, and then it magically just sort of happens.
What resources did you turn to, in order to figure out who Trail really was?
There’s this great book that I grabbed right away called Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth, the journalist for Vanity Fair. She wrote a very detailed book, mostly about [Andrew] Cunanan and the manhunt and Versace, but it then goes into my character and David [Madson] and everyone. Everything the show covers, it covers in even more depth, so that was a great continual resource, kind of the go-to bible whenever we had a question.
I also got a hold of the actual tape of that 48 Hours interview that Jeff Trail did with his face covered, talking about “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” So between those two things, it was like the book gave me the exterior details and then that interview really gave me the soul of it. Even though you can’t see him, there’s so much repressed pain and frustration—and also nobility, in some way—in his voice. So, that was really my way in. You’re always finding one trigger that inexplicably works for you as an actor, and hearing his voice, eventually I just recorded it, listening to his voice before every scene.
Watching the series, it felt like Trail had a kind of PTSD—not from Navy service itself, but from the treatment of gay men in the military.
Definitely, and a sense of injustice. He didn’t think of himself as a rebel outside the system; he believed in the system. He believed in his country—he was more of a patriot than I am—so I think that made the injustice all the more clear. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to take down the man”; it was like, “We need to fix this because I want to fight for my country.”
You noted the way in which telling this story out of order functioned in dramatic terms. Did it have a specific effect in the filming of the series?
It did. You already shoot out of sequence [in television], but then it’s written out of sequence, so to keep the storyline in your head was an added challenge. But it was also interesting because from the very beginning, I knew where it was going. When the first thing you shoot is your gruesome death, everything you do after that is working up to that point. It added a sense of doom, but because of that I think I tried to throw as many other colors besides doom in before that, if that makes sense.
Could you describe the experience of shooting those scenes documenting Trail’s painful history in the Navy? It must have been physically and emotionally intense.
Yeah, it was. I realized how easily you could hang yourself. I put myself up with that belt and let my weight go on it—not 100%, but a little more than maybe the stunt guy wanted me to—and it’s amazing how quickly my vision became spotty. I was like, “Wow, if I did this with just a little more pressure I would definitely be out.” So it was a big awakening in that way. Also, the idea of Jeff putting on his uniform, saluting himself in the mirror and then going to kill himself, it leads you down some dark territory.
Because again, it’s not like he was saying, “Screw you, American military.” He gets dressed up because in some complicated way, he believes in what that uniform represents until the very end. I thought that was very revealing. But then also, he can’t [kill himself]. I think he realizes in that moment that there’s still a lot more that he has to do in his life. So, yeah. It’s definitely never easy to face your own mortality for a few seconds, but it was what was required.
What was it like working with Darren Criss and Cody Fern on this material?
It was great. They’re both such talents, and they really went above and beyond for their roles. Between the three of us there was a lot of actorly discussion about blanks to fill in, in terms of what our relationship really was, because a lot of it happened off-screen. A lot is sort of left to the imagination, so we had to make a lot of that between us, and it was good because those guys both have so much imagination and are so easy to work with. Darren’s a self-described theater nerd, as am I, so we spoke the same language.
How does Murphy tend to work, in your experience? Have you typically gone through an extensive rehearsal process on his series?
Not really. There’s so much to shoot in so little time, so we kind of just jump right in there. The director in most of my episodes was Daniel Minahan, who’s just excellent. You prepare as much as possible beforehand and then once you’re on set, you just have to run and gun. But we had enough time between the actors to solidify what was going on between us; then, you just had to play and go for it. Darren was in every second of every frame of this thing, and it was not an easy shoot. So I was generally in awe of his sheer tenacity, just getting through the whole thing.
What do you enjoy most about working with Murphy?
First of all, you always know that you’re going to have the best team around you. The crew of his shows are the hardest working, most positive-thinking-despite-all-odds group of people, so you feel like you’re in good hands always. I feel like everything that I’ve done with him, there’s always some second layer of meaning that you might not see at first. Even shooting Freak Show—American Horror Story—there were these storylines that you think you’d got figured out that wind up surprising you, taking you to a whole new level of depth. I think that’s why the stuff that he produces is so successful. There’s this sort of subversive layer of empathy no matter who the subject is, even someone as crazy as Andrew Cunanan.
Why do you think Versace specifically has resonated so strongly, with its 18 Emmy nominations?
In some ways I do feel like sometimes looking backward [best spotlights] the most topical issues—like, looking back on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the gay scene in the ‘90s, and the repression that’s so recent but so seemingly far away. Also, there’s this theme I think [Murphy] keeps coming back to—“Monsters aren’t born; they’re made.” I think for some reason something that’s going on in our modern zeitgeist is really responsive to that idea. [laughs] Fill in the blanks if you will. To really get to the root of what makes a monster for some reason just seems to hit us.
Is there a particular moment from the set of this series that will stick with you?
The thing that I keep remembering is that interview—the first time I walked into the set within the set. I hadn’t rehearsed that scene at all before we shot it the first time, walking in and seeing this camera in my face and realizing that this was the moment I was going to tell my truth. I think you’re always looking for a moment when the line between acting and reality becomes a little blurry, and that for some reason was one of them.
Barry is just an amazing mind. I actually only shot one day on it, but packed in a lot of stuff in that day. He’s like a poet to me, just like James Baldwin. His movies are like beautiful poems, so I think that’s what this is going to be. I haven’t seen it yet but the script was incredibly, tearjerkingly beautiful, and it’s really close to the novel. I think even in the trailer you can feel that same passion for making something beautiful.
It’s remarkable that you ended up on this film shortly after working with Damien Chazelle on La La Land. The two biggest directors of 2016, both in the awards race again this season.
[Laughs] I know. That’s funny, right? That [Best Picture snafu] was quite an event. But that’s why you have live TV, you know? It’s unpredictable.
Do you have any specific career ambitions as you move forward?
I’m definitely looking to have something on my own shoulders that I’m the lead of, and try carrying a film or a show on my own. But in general I just want to keep working with the best people possible, telling stories that I think are somewhat important. I also have my own writing and directing ambitions, so that’s something I’ve got cooking.