The upcoming year is going to be the year of Finn Wittrock. Not only is he one of the most talked-about actors on FX's American Horror Story, playing killer-clown protégé Dandy Mott, but also he's coming to a movie theater near you in three new films.
In Angelina Jolie's Unbroken (which will be released this Christmas), Wittrock plays Sgt. Francis 'Mac' McNamara, stranded at sea with former Olympian Louis Zamperini after their plane goes down over the Pacific during the height of World War II. You can also see him play Longhorn legend Freddie Steinmark in My All American from Hoosiers and Rudy director Angelo Pizzo. If you're not impressed yet, Wittrock stars in The Submarine Kid, a film he also co-wrote (!), which will be making the festival circuit next fall.
Wittrock was kind enough to sit down with Extra Mustard to talk about UT football, surviving at sea and, of course, his favorite sandwich.
Extra Mustard: How long were you guys on the water for the stranded-at-sea scenes?
Finn Wittrock: We actually shot it kind of in two chunks, because we shot the second half first, the emaciation half. That was about 10 days. And then I went away, I ate a lot, I got fat, and then came back and did the opening. And that was about another week. But we were mostly in a water tank; we only had a very few days out on the open water.
EM: Oh man, I just wanted to give you guys some ChapStick.
FW: Ha, yeah, we had a great makeup department. There were kind of four stages of skin deprivation from the sun. First you get kind of blistery and puffy, and then you get old-man crinkly and gross and dehydrated.
EM: How long did you have to spend in makeup for that?
FW: A couple hours every morning. We had pretty early call times because Roger Deakins, who is the brilliant cinematographer, has a very specific view of how he wants the light to be, so we'd have to be there at dawn. So we'd have to show up on set for makeup at like 3 a.m.
EM: I was going to ask you about the emaciation scenes. You looked pretty rough.
FW: Yeah, yeah, they really aged me.
EM: How did you train for that?
FW: Not eating helps. (laughs). I was kind of on my own at first. I was in New York City at the time. Just basically cutting calories in general. Lot of coffee. And then we had a really good nutritionist who came on and basically gave us a protocol, and that was a big relief because then I had a healthier way of doing it, with protein and lots of vegetables. And once we were in Australia, every meal was provided for, so there wasn't the war of willpower. When you're in New York, it's hard to resist the urge to eat pizza.
EM: Because your movie My All American is in post right now, right?
EM: Which did you shoot first?
FW: Unbroken was first, and then My All American shot this summer.
EM: So did you have to bulk back up to play a football player?
FW: A bit, yeah. There was another movie, The Submarine Kid, in the middle. I played a marine, so I did have to bulk up for that. But, you know, it's a lot more fun to gain weight than to lose weight. (laughs). I was playing a defensive guard in My All American who is a really fast runner, so a lot of my training was running. I wasn't too worried about bulking up, because he was supposed to be on the small side.
EM: Did you train like a football player for that?
FW: Yeah, I had kind of an intense football boot camp.
EM: What did that entail?
FW: It was basically what you do in high school football practice. I had never played football, so it was a real education for me. I have never been more sore than I was the first day after that. It was really intense. A lot of footwork, learning to run backwards, sprinting, that kind of stuff.
EM: Right, because you went to acting school, correct?
FW: Yeah, I went to Juilliard.
EM: And your high school was also an arts school, so you probably didn't have that high school sports culture.
FW: Right. I played baseball growing up, second base, and then when I got to high school it just didn't exist there. So training for that movie was my first time really playing sports in a long time.
EM: You were also a writer on Submarine Kid, right?
FW: Yeah, I was one of the writers.
EM: How do you find that your writing informs your acting, and vice versa?
FW: I started writing when I started acting professionally, because with acting there's so much time when you're not working, and there's so much rejection and so little you have control of. Writing is something that you can do and no one can tell you not to.
I think in some ways, acting and writing are the same. You're getting inside the skin of someone else; you're creating their language and their actions. As a writer you have to see the whole picture and the structure, and you have to understand every character.
With acting, it's your job to play one character from that character's perspective. They're kind of part and parcel of the same art. You know, comedians are actors and writers at once. So I think there's no reason that you can't do the same thing if you're interested in drama.
EM: One of the most surprising moments in Unbroken is when your character, Mac, beats a shark back into the water with an oar. Up until that point, he'd been nearly catatonic. What do you think happened?
FW: I think after he has his moment of panic and eats their rations, which is his sort of tragic downfall, I think he went into an inward spiral of guilt, and that actually deteriorated his body. The other guys were keeping their minds sharp, they were trying to stay active, stay hopeful. They were quizzing each other on World Series statistics, talking about everything to keep their minds sharp. Mac started to lose his mind. There were days that he just wouldn't talk at all.
Once his mind started to go, his body followed. I think that's a big part of the movie, that Louie never lets his mind go, and that allows his body to somehow stay resilient. I think at the end of his life, [Mac] found, I think from Louie's example, he found this inner reserve of strength to fight back the sharks and actually save Louie's life. Louie even said later that they couldn't have patched up that boat with all those bullet holes and fended off the sharks, which would surely have killed them if they only had two guys. They wouldn't have made it. Mac saved their lives, and it ended up costing him his own, because I think that was literally the last bit of energy in his body, because three days later, he was gone.
EM: And he knew. He said he could feel it.
FW: Yeah. That's a real thing. He really asked Louie, "Am I gonna die?" And Louie felt like he couldn't lie to him. He owed it to him to tell the truth, and not fake hopefulness. So he said, "Yeah, I think you are. What do you think you need to do?" If he had something he needed to do or say, or peace he needed to make. Yeah, that last scene is, I think, pretty accurate to what really happened.
EM: The whole movie seems pretty accurate to the book.
FW: Yeah, it is.
EM: How do you begin researching a real historical character like that, especially when you can’t talk to them?
FW: We had the great gift of having a book that was exhaustively researched. It's so thorough. It was a constant reference point and source of inspiration. Whenever I was in doubt, the answer was in the book 99% of the time. And I had the great fortune of getting to meet Louie.
EM: He passed away this year, right?
FW: Yeah just a few months ago, actually. But he was around before we started, and we got to go talk to him. It becomes a whole lot more real when the guy that you're playing died in front of the man you’re talking to. When you're talking to a guy who watched your character starve to death, it's really mind-blowing. The sense of having to do justice to his spirit was really strong.
EM: How did the process of preparing for Mac compare to the process of preparing for Freddie in My All American? Because he's also a real historical figure.
FW: We were fortunate again because a lot of the people from his life are still around, you know. A lot of people who played with him, the Steinmarks. It really wasn't that long ago, just the '60s. It was also a lot of pressure in a way, of wanting to do justice to him. There's actually more info on Freddie, because he's very well-documented. Mac was like an orphan. There's very little information on who he actually was. So I had sort of an infinite reserve of info, but that can be dangerous in itself, because everyone's got some preconception of who he is. Everyone's like, "Oh Freddie was the best guy I ever knew." That's what everyone always says, "He's the best guy I ever knew." So then it's like, how can I possibly play the best guy anyone ever knew, you know? (laughs) That's tough. It's a lot. So I was a little more…. You know, no matter what you're doing, you're always trying to use your imagination to connect to the person, trying to make it as human as possible.
At UT, Freddie Steinmark is like, a legend. They still touch his picture with the horns before they go out and play. The rest of the world doesn't know it, maybe, but when you go down there, you talk to players at UT, and they're like, "Oh man, you're playing Freddie Steinmark?! Don't mess it up!" (laughs)
EM: No one outside of Texas ever got into UT at that time, so for this guy from Colorado to come to Austin was pretty unprecedented. I learned a lot about the Longhorns in 1969.
EM: What role would you love to play someday?
FW: I'm really jonesing to do a play again. I really want to do Long Day's Journey Into Night. I'd like to tackle Hamlet one of these days. I'm very lucky, I haven't gotten pigeonholed yet, so I've been able to do very contrasting parts, and I'd like to keep doing that.
EM: All right, our time is just about up, so let's end with the traditional Extra Mustard question - what's your favorite sandwich?
FW: Haha, pastrami! Pastrami on rye.