American Horror Story:
AVC: How do you deal with the
popular mythology about freaks and the conception that sideshow was 100 percent
MF: Well, it’s the
“do-gooder.” Do-gooders who shut down the freak show had a huge influence, and
those do-gooders, the ones who talk about “inspiring,” are the ones who are
calling me up to do the life-story articles I won’t take part in. I’ll talk to
you, because you’re on message. I’ll talk to Jane Hash, who’s a disability
rights activist. I’ll talk to people who I trust, because I know you’ve got me,
I’ve got you, very good. However, when the monolithic corporations approach me
wanting my story, I know where it’s going. I know the power of the edit, and I
won’t do that. They won’t have me on Letterman, because I’m not bloody
Sarah Paulson—I’m just some new flipper guy on the block. “New crip on the
block!” I can only be sure I won’t be misquoted and misrepresented if I’m on TV
actually saying it, it actually coming out of my own mouth. At that point, I
will happily talk about all of the stuff people want to talk about, because I’ve
been doing this shit for 20 years. I’ve been practicing, and I’ve got quite good
at explaining it.
AVC: What sets performance apart
MF: It’s about agency. We
have control over our own decisions and then the exploitation is of a consented
nature and that renders it less exploitative, by making it consented to and
understood. All entertainment contracts have the word “exploitation” in them.
All of them. Contractual things with agents, managers, anywhere where people are
going to be getting percentages, they talk about exploitation. The very nature
of entertainment is exploitation. But people have control, you know, over their
own images, what they do, it’s harder to argue.
AVC: You’ve done extensive
research into the history of freak show performers—what did you find?
researched freak shows thoroughly. And, boy, I was coming from an angry,
disability-rights activist, political-actor point of view, so I went looking for
given that she was unable to communicate at an adult level and that she was
passed from one show entrepreneur/impresario to another from the age of what
looks to be like 13 until the end of her life, I think we can all agree that was
exploitation. I think we can only assume along the way that people who worked
with her were kind to her and didn’t make her work too hard and made sure she
was reasonably happy within her own structured reality. Again, we’ll never know
that, but for all the people that can be thought of being able to give a
mentally unchallenged point of view of their own life, again I found no examples
of people who did it against their will. No examples of people who were sold
into virtual child slavery by their evil parents, etc. I only found examples of
people who enjoyed the sideshow, who chose to do it and asked to be in it.
Exploitation is a double-edged sword if you look at it like that, right? I’m not
here to say that there was no exploitation—there was. When an impresario has no
creative talent, and merely uses capital to buy the services of a star, whose
creativity people want to see and the impresario takes a percentage of that, it
is, by it’s very nature, exploitation. But, if you’re that bothered about it,
talk to Simon Cowell.
AVC: The second you brought up
“manager,” I was thinking Elvis and the Colonel.
MF: So, the Colonel is the
perfect point. You know what’s interesting about the Colonel, how he started?
MF: He started as a carnie.
You know what his act was? Dancing chickens. Reality was he put two chickens on
a hot plate.
AVC: How did you end up on
American Horror Story?
MF: I got the
audition because of the
New York Times
review of Beauty And The Beast.
Unbeknownst to me, some woman went to see and she remembered that one of her
best friends was one of the four or five producers of this new TV show and she
called him and said “Hey, aren’t you casting for freaky-looking actors, because
I think I’ve just seen one?” And that’s how I got the audition. They gave me the
scene from the “Burned Man” from series one, and I did that scene of him warning
to leave the haunted house or something and the next day they offered me the
role. I said I needed 24 hours to think about it, which I don’t think they were
expecting, and we negotiated about titling, which is why I put out that
Jason the Illustrated Penguin
and Paul the Illustrated Seal, my character—who’s real, who’s fictional, and how
that came to be.
AVC: Why did they add the
MF: They had already written
the first four episodes before they cast the actual freak actors and they had an
idea they wanted a completely tattooed guy. They offered it to me and I was
like, “I’m a fucking seal. I’m the Seal Boy! Illustrated Seal Boy?” Well, I’m
thinking to myself, “Well, I don’t want to lose the gig. This is my big break,
this is my first chance at high-level entry in America, and what the hell—every
actor has a difficult makeup job in their life, I guess this’ll be my one.” I’m
in the makeup chair for two hours at a time and roughly 45 minutes to scrape
off. That’s the price I have to pay and apparently I look really badass with the
AVC: What’s it like working with
Jessica Lange and Ryan Murphy?
MF: I’ve had the pleasure of
doing a couple of scenes with her, and working with her has exponentially
improved my acting skills. I believe I’ve become a better actor doing this show.
It’s interesting and I will be honest, I had some misgivings at the beginning.
Like, “Really, four lines?” While I watched Evan Peters and these people do
these big, long speeches about how people don’t understand what it’s like to be
a freak—I don’t know if I can handle this. I had a very intense conversation
with the writing team pretty early on in the process and basically I stuck my
neck out—I could’ve been sacked for this—but I sort of worked it out how I felt.
Now I don’t know what happened, no one has ever told me, whether my part
increased because of that conversation or whether Ryan liked what I did.
Apparently, the first day on set I did my line and somebody went, “Hey, that guy
can act!” And I’ll never know what the reason was for it, but my part got
bigger, no question. Ryan decides that he wants to champion certain people, he
likes to work with certain people, and he thinks, “I want to see more of that
person.” And I’m quite lucky in that he may have looked at me that way.
AVC: What are you hoping your
next step will be?
MF: The outcome I want out of
this, besides more acting work, that’s the idea. I love playing the freak. It’s
kind of a no-brainer to cast me as a freak. How difficult would it be to cast me
as the father, the neighbor, the judge? I don’t know, but I’d fucking like to
The other thing is my projects. My
career goes like this in Britain: Every five years I get on TV and everybody
goes “Oh, it’s going to be the big time for you, Mat!” and I’m back on the stage
of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club naked and covered in fake blood as
But I have written a script. We are
looking at making a film in Coney Island, using the museum, the upstairs, all
the interiors. I have the cast ready to go, I’ve almost finished the script, I’m
trying to attract the producer. I know we can make this for $250,000, which is a
lot of money, but not in filmmaking. If I can attract a decent director to it,
we might up the budget, but we will be doing a Kickstarter. Oh my God, I would
love to make this film. So after this, my efforts are going to be try and become
a film producer and get this film made. I know that’s pie-in-the-sky, but fuck
AVC: Why not? Stranger things
MF: Stranger things have
happened indeed—on set! I wish I could tell you about the exciting parts of
episode six, but put it this way: You could have knocked me down with a feather
when I read it. I put the the script down part way through and I broke down and
I cried. Then I thought, why am I crying? And I realized the irony of the
following thing: It has taken playing a freak to be given a chance to show my
universal humanity. And that is just there as a fact.
The Lady Aye appears onstage as
Sweetheart Of The Sideshow,”
writes about pop culture from
her native NYC, and would make a charming talk show guest. A thoroughly modern
woman, she is also on the twitter