According to the dictionary, magnetism is a physical phenomenon produced by the motion of electric charge, resulting in attractive and repulsive forces between objects. It’s also the ability to attract and charm people. Out of the sea of modern day heartthrobs, Finn Wittrock has been brewing this insatiable force from the womb. Raised by a troupe of actors, he began his an acting procession from the basics, Shakespeare and from there he dabbled in the world of American Soap Operas. His incessant drive maneuvered him to work alongside some of the most important actors of our time: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the gang at American Horror Story which includes Lady Gaga, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Basset for which he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Golden Globes last year. This golden guy evokes the on-screen charm of an early Tom Cruise and Rob Loewe. At 31, Finn Wittrock is right where he’s supposed to be.
What’s the one thing that every actor must posses?
The more and more that I do it, the more I realize how important listening is. To be a good listener is to be focused on what you are receiving rather than just what you are putting out. It’s not only important for a scene to work well. It’s also important for your fellow actors to feel like you are bouncing back what they are giving to you energetically. Being specific about the focus you have to your fellow actors. If you look at a good actor, like Al Pacino – when he’s listening to someone – it’s riveting.
You can totally go to a scene where he’s talking to someone.
Yeah! He’s telling you part of the story in that concentration. When you’re with an actor who isn’t reciprocating, it can be very exhausting and unfair. I try to be generous in a karmic way and hopefully your actors will be generous to you.
The energy you put out is the energy that you will get back.
Must be one of the reasons why you’ve been so lucky to work with most of the living legends of our generation.
I’ve been very lucky in that regard and I take it as an honor to have worked with the people that I have. It’s always been a reason to do something. To keep a track record of people who are on the top of their game or in the cutting edge of this art form.
Do you set the bar up as you go from role to role?
That’s always been a goal and recently I’ve been trying to do something transformative from the thing that I have done before. I think I’ve said this before in interviews but lately, when I’m interviewed people say: “you just came out of nowhere and now you are everywhere!” And that is so not how it feels in my mind. In my head, these last two years have been really great for me. It feels like the culmination of so many years of work is coming into fruition. I haven’t gotten to a high level of fame. I’ve been able to be under the radar for a little bit and do parts that are really different without people pointing me out like “Oh, he’s the guy from that thing…”
This may sound snarky, but if a journalist tells you that, they certainly haven’t done their homework. You were raised in the theatre.
You have done your research! [Laughs]
I’m a writer. I like to investigate. It’s good. Your father is an actor. Did that influence your choice to become one yourself?
Yeah, I can’t imagine that it didn’t. There was a time in my teenage years that I didn’t want to, but as I get older, I realize how much I owe it to my dad and my unique upbringing. I grew up around all these wild actors, some of them raised me and I have a group of friends that I know since birth who are all the sons and daughters of actors. During the summers I would be the pageboy or the messenger child in plays and eventually we started doing Shakespeare. Starting in the theatre has certainly helped me shape into the actor I’ve become.
Who is this actor that you have become? If you could describe him…
[Laughs] When you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re exposed to a broad spectrum of human experiences. I hope I’m not sounding pretentious.
No, you are not. I played Macbeth in High School.
Macbeth, that’s some dark territory.
Yes, it was.
It requires a lot from you – physically, emotionally, verbally, mentally. It exercises your full capabilities as a human. Once you are exposed to that and you sink your teeth into that, you kind of crave it. You search for roles that will stretch you to those opposite extremes.
In the last year you’ve gone from a rising quarterback who finds out that has cancer to a bisexual vampire. The possibilities are endless.
There’s something for everyone!
Watching you in The Big Short and My All American you see this seamless transformation between characters and you forget the one you had seen before.
It’s great seeing your versatility. And then you jump to American Horror Story, which is insane. As a writer, I think it’s brilliant. Does it feel like going to a Toy Store everyday?
[Laughing] That is a great way to put it! Maybe that should be the next season. American Horror Story: Toy Store.
There you go! Tell them to call me.
I’m gonna tell Ryan. Being on the show is like being a foodie. The writing is like a delicious meal. Ryan lets you go places that you never really would’ve expected.
You’re also a screenwriter, so you get to see the scripts in a different way. Does it have a say in how you choose your work?
I think it does. Writing for me was a great creative task for when I wasn’t working as an actor. No one gives you permission to write. There’s so much waiting when you’re an actor; trying to get the job… just waiting for them to tell you to do it. You are at the mercy of so many other factors.You are not as a writer. I mean, eventually you do want to put it out. But, the act of writing can be very creatively liberating. I haven’t in a bit. But I have written more than what I’ve shown. Knowing scriptwriting does help you understand structure. It’s important as an actor to be specific in the moment and be scene by scene. But, if you have a sense of structure, of where the scene fits in a larger whole it does help your performance a lot.That’s the hardest thing about film. Tracking an arch when you are filming so out of sequels. If you’re trying to think of a broader arch and it’s after a scene that you haven’t shot or a scene before or you’re shooting the end of the movie before anything else, it can become a guessing game. Having a sense of the structure of writing helps you fit in whatever you have to do, moment by moment.
How long does it take you to memorize a script and prepare for a role from start to finish?
I change my method part to part. Before I get into it, I design how I am going to get into it. For Tristan, in American Horror Story, I was like “This guy needs to be off the cuff. A wild, rabbit animal.” I would walk around the crew, acting like him, fucking people around a bit. I listened to a lot of rock music and I allowed myself to be loose. For My All American, I was more centered. I talked to a lot of people beforehand, including his family, and did a lot of research. I was a little quieter on the set, just slightly more introverted. For Rudolph Valentino’s character in AHS, I developed an Italian accent. For The Big Short, there was a lot of heavy research involved.
The writing in The Big Short is so intricate and well done. It’s a great movie for our quick mind, short-tempered attitudes.
Or short attention spanned. That was the director’s (Adam McKay) idea, like “What if your pop icons from MTV told you really important stuff?”
The scene with Selena Gomez is brilliant. I hope they get a screenplay nomination at the Oscars. [The day after our interview, the Oscar nominations were announced and The Big Short is nominated for five awards, including Writing (Adapted Screenplay).]
Yes, I hope so too. Wrapping your head around all the jargon of what those traders do is a very esoteric thing to do, to just move money from place to place which are complicated forms of gambling, basically. There was a lot of work beforehand. The way Adam runs the set is that it’s so loose, so much improv. Lots of laughing, lots of fun. It was that thing that acting teacher’s say, “you prepare and prepare to get to that point where you can be free”. And it was so freeing, it was probably the most fun I had on set.
The movie feels like you’ve spent the weekend hanging out with all of your stoner friends.
Yeah! [Laughs] Or brilliant entrepreneurs…
Is there any political aspect behind your roles? You were also in HBO’s The Normal Heart. You’ve had pretty interesting choices in your work.
My ultimate goal is to make movies and be in movies that are socially relevant and have a political consciousness. It’s been mostly luck. I’m not at a point where I have a bunch of scripts in my agent’s desk and I’m like picking and choosing. Most of the stuff, I’m still auditioning for, but I do gravitate towards that material, specially like The Big Short, which was a really political film for me to do and for our time. I really believe in the story behind The Normal Heart. It probably isn’t some unconscious way. I probably do work harder to get those jobs even if I realize that I’m not doing that.
If one wants to become an actor, what’s the one thing that they must be willing to let go of?
In terms of the business, you have to adopt a sense of patience, which can be excruciating. You don’t have to let go of your ambitions, but you have to allow for your ambitions to not take shape in the form that you envision them. Because it will keep throwing you curve balls. It doesn’t mean that it won’t take you to the place that you dream to be, but it will take you longer than what you want and not in the route that you want. So you have to be [stresses it] flexible in a way.
Don’t assume your ambitions.
Yes. That’s a way to put it. You have to be nimble and know that you’re an actor for the long haul. It’s actually a sport you can do your whole life. It does take a lot of patience and dealing with rejection and kind of getting a tough skin. You need to pick yourself up when you’ve been knocked down and keep going.
This applies to all creative fields, whether you’re a writer, a musician.
Oh yeah, anything artistic. I mean, on all levels too, even people who are unemployed. Think about Lady Gaga. She has to deal with so many things with herself and every single thing she does there are millions of people who have an opinion about it and she herself has her own set of hard choices to make. There’s a resilience you have to find within yourself when you’re dealing in an industry that just wants to beat you down.
It’s interesting that you mention the word resilience. Yesterday I went to buy flowers and I told myself “I want resilient flowers, no more of the romantic kind.”
Yes! The ones that last. That’s funny.
They say that if you have “it”, there’s a fire inside of you that never really dies. Do you believe in this? Have you had any moments of quitting?
To be honest, I’ve never considered giving up. I’ve been pretty low before. But I have been very lucky. I’ve had periods of not working and rejection where I’ve felt very low. I’ve toyed with the idea of what else could I do, but it was never a really serious possibility if I was honest with myself. You have to pick yourself up and keep going.
Does being a Scorpio influence your work?
[Laughs] Yeah, probably! [Continues laughing] Scorpios are jealous, passionate and sexual, right?
Yeah, all of those things describe me.
I say that I have a Ph.D in Scorpios. That’s why I wanted to ask you.
Oh, really?? Ph.D in Scoripios. What?!? (And, in true Scorpio fashion, a challenge…) Who else is a Scorpio?
So many people!
[Still in awe] Specifically Scorpios?
Yes, yes. 90% of my friends are Scorpios.
I’m a Pisces.
Mhm… you’re a Pisces… my wife is a Taurus.
Scorpio-Taurus are a great mix. Solid couples. By the way, where are you? New York or LA?
I’m New York doing a reading workshop of Tennessee William’s play, Orpheus Descent with Marissa Tomei. Erica Schmidt is the brilliant director, who’s married to Peter Dincklage. We reconnected during the Emmy’s and she directed me in a play during my fourth year in Julliard.
Yeah. I like to keep myself involved in theatre.
You stay true to your roots.
I do. And doing a play is hard. It takes a lot of you. I live in LA and leave for 3 to 4 months to come do this and you don’t make much or any money, which is fine, but you really have to love being in a play if you have to do that.
Run me through the workshop.
We work from 11 to 5 and we are rehearsing the play as if we’re gonna do it, but we actually don’t. We’re doing a reading on Friday. We’ll see how it goes.
Catherine Deneuve said in an interview that she picks her characters because they are an extension of her. Does this happen to you? Have you ever been haunted by a character you’ve portrayed?
I guess, I do think that every part is an extension of you. But what I am interested in is extending myself as much as possible; exploring and seeing the parts of myself that I am not as aware of or comfortable with and exploring the uncomfortable, challenging thing. That’s one thing that I keep going for.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on set?
I’ve learned so much. I remember I was losing a lot of weight to do Unbroken. It was the last time I saw Phillip [Seymor] Hoffman. I wanted to pick his brain for this part, my character dies mid-movie, loses his mind in the raft, I was interested in what he had to say and also, I just wanted to see him. We talked about it and I told him that I was going to start really dieting. And he was like, “You don’t want that physical stuff to overwhelm your entire process.”It was an interesting thing. I think what he was referring to was that a lot of actors think about that physical transformation and that overwhelms the entirety of their performance or, quote-on-quote, transformation that they think that getting big or getting smaller or putting things on their face or their body takes so much work and so much focus away from the actual act of acting and people get kind of caught up in that.Basically, he was saying, you have to do what you have to do, but just remember the person you are actually playing. It was a grounding thing to hear.
He gave you a parting gift.
He did. He really did. I worked with him the year before he died and this was crazy and that opportunity was really transformational for me. Professionally, it was a big break, but also, artistically, it opened me up in a way. He was a very specific actor and the way he talked about it influenced me in a way that I cannot explain.