After 20 years of touring the world as an acclaimed actor, disability advocate, and cabaret and burlesque star, Mat Fraser is about to be an overnight sensation in America. His role as Paul the Illustrated Seal, one of the freaks on American Horror Story: Freak Show, is sure to raise some eyebrows—as well as some conversations about the display of those with “radically outsider bodies.” Fraser recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his American Horror Story experience, touching on “inspiration porn,” exploitation in entertainment, and what it’s like on set.
The A.V. Club: One of the reasons we were interested in talking to you is that we were waiting for the backlash to the show casting actual freaks, for someone to say, “This is exploitation and unfair and not right…”
Mat Fraser: I haven’t been looking at the media, to be honest. Have they started doing that?
AVC: We haven’t seen much of it, but it’s probably coming, given the material.
MF: Yeah, I’ll tell you what else is coming: I’ve already turned down two offers from really mainstream people, too fucking mainstream, to do a life-story interview, because I am not interested in “inspiration porn.” I won’t, unless it’s edited together really cleverly by Ryan Murphy.
AVC: Some people might think American Horror Story: Freak Show isn’t authentic to sideshow history—and it’s not. But no one said, “That’s very poor mental health care,” about Asylum or, “That’s unfair to witches,” about Coven.
MF: Now suddenly everyone’s like, “That’s exploitation of freaks.” Well, Sarah Paulson was saying to me, “I was worried about Letterman. What if he asks me about disability? I’m not qualified to speak on behalf of blah, blah, blah,” and I said, “But you are qualified to speak as the über-bitch of 12 Years A Slave?” African-American actors are very happy to be in portrayals of the history of their own oppression, i.e., slavery. Then what the hell is wrong with using people who would have been in those sideshows as the actors portraying them?
AVC: You’ve talked publicly about how the display of different bodies is still considered profane. Do you think American Horror Story is going to usher that display into the mainstream in a new way? What do you think the reaction will be?
MF: I’m not worried, because it’s not my problem. Reality never reaches the limits of my dreams and hopes, really, because somewhere along the journey it’s an improvement. Here’s the thing: Disabled people—save for Peter Dinklage—are 100 percent absent from television screens in America. Things are a bit better in Britain, where the BBC has a policy of only casting actors with the impairment that is described by the writer for a particular character. But that’s only been in operation for the last four or five years. We’re not used to people with “radically outsider” bodies like myself, so visibility is the number one thing.
Number two: We know we’re not allowed to play ourselves in contemporary dramas, because apparently those are reserved for able-bodied actors who want to get Oscars. Statistically, and we know this is a fact, the quickest way to an Oscar is to play a disabled person. So all the choice roles are earmarked for fading actors who want one last stab at the possibility of getting an Oscar. Of course, that comes across as sour and bitter—I am being ironic and sardonic!
AVC: What’s the reaction to your work been so far?
MF: The reaction’s been 100 percent positive. I’ve had a lot of 19-year-olds tell me I’m hot, which, bless them, is super. But what can I say? They go, “You’re really, really hot” and I go, “Thank you. You’re really, really 19.”
I enjoyed being stalked by a nervous goth 11-year-old at the New Orleans airport, who nervously asked for my picture with her. It was sweet. Teenagers that feel misunderstood, if they feel a little bit more understood because they identify with the outsider, however that manifests, that ain’t no bad thing. I’m happy to talk to anyone. I always have, why would it change now? What I don’t dig is people telling me, just because I’m disabled and think I have a right to equality, that should make me inspiring. And it’s my own fault for some of those things, like the interview that Ryan artistically edited together. I’m saddened that that’s what it takes to inspire people. However, I have to take it on board. If people feel inspired by me, then go for it, guys. I’m happy to help, but I’m not inspiring just because I’m disabled and want equality. I should be called “normal” for that—and you guys should want the same thing, too.
AVC: How do you deal with the popular mythology about freaks and the conception that sideshow was 100 percent exploitation?
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 from exploitation?
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?
MF: I 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 that exploitation. Schlitzie Surtees, 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 statement about 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 tattoos?
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 tattoos.
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 find out.
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 fucking usual!
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 me…
AVC: Why not? Stranger things have happened.
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 “The 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 @theladyaye.