Finn Wittrock is having a good fall. After stepping into Ryan Murphy’s orbit in a devastating death scene as Albert, Bruce Niles’s (Taylor Kitsch’s) boyfriend on The Normal Heart, he’s in two high-profile roles: first as the sociopathic brat Dandy in American Horror Story, and then as U.S. soldier Francis “Mac” McNamara in Angelina Jolie’s World War II epic Unbroken. Wittrock, looking ruddy and freshly shaven, sat down with Vulture for an interview in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during Unbroken’s press junket. We talked about working with Jolie, comparing rib bones with Matt Bomer, and where Dandy stacks up in the American Horror Story universe.
Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a World War II veteran who, among other things, survived 47 days at sea and torture in a Japanese POW camp. He died earlier this year at the age of 97. Did you get to meet him?
I did get to meet him. It was amazing. [Angelina Jolie] got to show him a cut of it in the hospital, I believe, on her laptop a few days before [he died]. But in typical Louis fashion, they gave him one week to live and he lived eight more. How is that possible? I got to meet him, and we talked about Mac, and it becomes a whole new world of real when you’re not just playing someone that a writer made up off the top of their heads. When someone tells you, “This guy died in front of me, I saw him starve to death,” it becomes a whole new level of responsibility for you to pull off.
What did Louis tell you about Mac?
He told me that he was always after stimulus. He was always eating desserts, always off drinking and smoking and chasing women. He was eternally a child. Louis had to be paternal towards him. If he would criticize him at all, Mac would crumble. So he had to take care of him.
How do you see your character Mac fitting into that story?
I’ve been thinking about how Louis has a continual inner resilience in him, that he’s somehow able to keep standing up every time he gets knocked down, again, again, and again. He somehow finds this mental persistence and tenacity. You need Mac in the story to contrast that, to show that once your mind goes to despair and you’re convinced you’re going to die, your body follows. It really is mind over matter. He and Louis and Phil all had the same lack of food and the same amount of exposure to the elements and everything else, and one guy’s body just couldn’t make it because his mind unraveled.
Were the conditions difficult for you?
We were mostly on water, so that was difficult. We were so thin, our body fat was very low, so I’d get cold very quickly. The storm scene, they were just throwing water on us, and I was literally shivering. I have to say the crew did a really good job of taking care of us. We all knew we were going to some dark places, and I didn’t have to touch the prison camp, thank God. I got to stay on the raft.
How much weight did you have to lose?
I secretly felt like Mac had to be the worst off, so I pushed myself. I think I lost like over 35 [pounds].
Do you literally just have to starve yourself to look like you’re starving?
Before the nutritionist came on, before I met him, I was basically just starving myself. I was just pushing through: a lot of black coffee. I’d eat something but would keep the calories really, really low every day. And then when he came on, he gave us a much more healthy, conscientious regimen, which basically is just protein and vegetables.
Because we did the second half of the raft first, we did [the part from] day 18 emaciation first. I got to go away right before the holidays and eat myself silly and, you know, come back to the beginning. When your job is to gain weight, it’s a lot more fun.
I bet the holidays were awesome.
Yeah, last year’s Christmas was probably the best Christmas since I was 5, I would say.
You’ve had some brutal death scenes in your career already.
Yeah, what is that? What is that about? Why do they all want to torture and kill me so badly?
Any tips on how to die well?
That’s one thing: I die well. It’s like anything. It’s scary, you know, to actually think of that, that thing that’s gonna happen to all of us. You just try to put yourself there. Anyone can relate to it. It’s universal. It’s going to happen to all of us. But as soon as you do, it’s not hard to imagine what it’s going to be like.
Your death scene in The Normal Heart was just brutal.
I don’t know if you can tell in that that I’m skinner, but I did the airplane scene right after I finished the raft scenes in New York.
Oh, so you didn’t have to go gain and lose weight again.
No, amazingly, the timing worked out so I was already thin. I just stayed thin a little longer than I wanted to.
I know that Matt Bomer also had to lose a ton of weight. Did you compare notes?
Well, I saw him when we were both low. He was lower at that point. By the time I had gotten there, I gained a little bit. He was at his lowest. We compared ribs.
Like how many you could visibly see?
Yeah, and we compared what we were doing. We were doing different things. He was on a broth diet. I was just like, I’m not doing that. I need some fish, at least.
Angelina was on The Daily Show recently, and she said that she was really unsure of herself. Did it seem like that?
I didn’t see an inch of that. She always has such grace in everything that she does. I knew that it was a big undertaking for her. I knew that there was pressure on her from the studio but also from herself. Because as sprawling and huge as this story is, it’s a personal film for her because her relationship with Louis was really sincere and it was a real friendship. There was a lot riding on it, for sure. She was our fearless leader.
It looked like you all were really chowing down on some of that fish. How did it taste?
It tasted like fish. [Laughs.] Everyone’s like, It’s like sushi! And it’s like, No. Sushi has a lot more done to it after the fish is dead. There are scales and bones. And at that point in shooting, we had to replicate our facial hair, so we had fake facial hair, so we were passing [the fish] to each other and seeing this little artificial — that’s actually yak hair — on top of it and it’s like, Oh, it’s my close-up, I can’t back out now. I gotta dig in!
I think the shark liver was a piece of prosciutto, which was good. And that was when we were hungry, so we were really happy that day. The things you take for granted.
Mac seemed especially into eating.
He has a childish impulse which makes him eat the chocolate out of a sort of panic. And that sort of seals their doom in a way. And that guilt unravels him. Lack of faith. I say more lack of hope. Some of us just aren’t built with that inner resistance, that inner fight. We all want to think we’d be Louis in that situation. I think Mac is actually maybe a little more common.
I’m pretty sure I’d be Mac.
That chocolate is mine!
Speaking of people who are eternally children …
There is that connection. Good segue!
You’re looking quite dandy.
This is a very dandy suit. He would have a vest, though, and a bow tie, probably.
Or an ascot.
Definitely an ascot.
It’s funny because Twisty was sort of a red herring in American Horror Story: Freak Show. I assume when you first got the script …
Yeah, I didn’t know.
That Dandy would evolve to become the real villain.
Yeah, I think you’re diverted by the clown. And John Carroll Lynch was so good in it, and the design of the clown was so scary and terrifying. I think that they wisely realized that it’s better to keep it short and have the clown be the scariest clown you’ve ever seen and then move on, you know? And, yes, Dandy revered the clown, he puts him on a pedestal, he wants to be him, and then he basically becomes him. I mean, he becomes his own version of him. He’s still Dandy. I think he inhabits the clown’s spirit and that liberates him to do all the nefarious things that he does.
In the last scene where you’re bathing in your mom’s [Frances Conroy’s] blood.
Yes. Yes? Like you do.
I was really sad that she died.
Dandy was, too. I think he just knew she had to go. One of them had to go.
How do you think Dandy stacks up in the American Horror Story universe?
He’s definitely in the top three, right? But I can never think of him as a villain. I can never think of him as evil. I just have to keep getting under his skin. But he realizes that his purpose in life is to kill. It doesn’t get more dangerous than that. Because I actually found that the killing is not out of hatred. He kind of likes the people that he kills. He wanted to be a performer, and somehow that’s transformed into murder, so he thinks of it as a performance, like he’s fulfilling his destiny.
That’s a good way to think about it. Were any of the murders hard to shoot?
Well, it was hard to be covered in blood in my underwear. Because it was very sticky. But at least I got to cut off Matt Bomer’s arm. It was sad to see Patti go. I will say that. She’s pretty awesome.
There are some who think of Dandy as a repressed gay man. What’s your take?
No, no, definitely not. He just likes girls with two heads, you know? One head’s never enough.