Beyond stage and screen
Actor and activist Finn Wittrock reveals the lessons acting has taught him, how he uses his profile for a greater good and why he’s not afraid to divide opinion.
‘I’m confident with things that divide opinion; I welcome them if anything.’
When he’s not lighting up Broadway or attracting critical acclaim for his roles in Ratched, The Big Short and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise, actor Finn Wittrock can be found using his fame and social-media influence to promote organizations that are tackling the climate crisis.
‘You only have to do a little bit of research to see what an insane emergency we are in’, he tells us, as he explains his sense of relief that it’s finally at the top of the international agenda. ‘It just became so frustrating that it was not being talked about enough.’
Ahead of Earth Day, we caught up with the father-of-two at home over Zoom early one morning to talk about his hopes for his children’s future as well as his reflections on his career to date.
ON MAKING HIS VOICE HEARD
‘Climate change has been the one thing that I’ve tried to get behind rather than post about every new topic of the moment or express my opinion on every single thing – I feel like I need to put all my eggs in one basket if it’s going to make a difference. Now it’s hitting critical mass finally, but it’s been something that for the last couple of years the news hasn’t covered enough. For a while, I felt like I was yelling into the void or uncaring ears about it. You only have to do a little bit of research to see what an insane emergency we are in - it just became so frustrating that it was not being talked about enough. It’s hard to pinpoint when it first became a thing I became concerned about but if you’ve been paying attention, it’s been talked about forever. I first saw An Inconvenient Truth in 2004 and couldn’t sleep that night. If I was to do a deep psychosis into myself, I grew up in a very rural, wooded forest place and then moved first to Chicago, then LA. The city seemed so destructive to me as a kid, thinking about all the trees that had been torn down. The big thing I remember was because of light pollution the stars were gone, maybe that’s somehow been a thing inside of me, being aware of how destructive humanity is from a young age maybe made me make that my cause.’
ON THIS YEAR’S EARTH DAY THEME, INVEST IN OUR PLANET
‘Being a father is one of the most amazing things and also the most terrifying thing because you start to really think about the future in a whole different way; what the world is going to look like after you’ve gone or when your kids are your age. So ‘Invest In The Planet’ is exactly the right way to put it. The future is alive right now in our kids and to invest in them is to invest in the health of the world they’re going to grow up in. I really believe that parenting is so much leading my example and to practice what you preach. I think you emulate your parents more than you’re even aware of, so I do want them to see me helping the world as much as I can.’
ON HOW WE CAN ALL MAKE A DIFFERENCE
‘It’s hard, because I do believe that we’ve sort of been duped into thinking that our personal carbon footprint is everything. It’s a way that carbon-polluting companies have put the onus back onto the individual rather than their actions over decades. That’s the thing about social media – raising awareness [to a point] of critical mass where governments can’t look away because there are enough people clamoring at the door. Protesting, voting and divesting – where not to put your money – are all important, too. The book that I think everyone has to read is The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. It’s incredibly eloquently written but also devastating and galvanizing and just so thorough; the way he ploughs through statistics is stunning. Another is Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich; it’s about the moment in the 1980s when we almost did something. And then I read this one recently which may be a little controversial but it’s called How To Blow Up A Pipeline by Andreas Malm. It’s not as violent as it sounds, but it’s about what is needed in terms of protest and rethinking.’
ON HIS ACTING CAREER TRAJECTORY
‘My big break and one of the most fulfilling things of my life was [starring in] Death of a Salesman on Broadway with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield with Mike Nichols directing. It was a life-forming experience. Doing a great play is the best, most fulfilling experience in your life - and doing a bad play is the worst as there’s no hiding and it's not just done, you have to do it again!
I have been really lucky and have learnt from the best. To have Phil and Mike in the same room and for them both to be gone two years later is something I continue to reflect on. It was Philip Seymour Hoffman [who gave me the best advice]. He said ‘Always try to be the best actor you can be, even if what you are doing is not for you.’ His point was, that good work creates its own. Going in for an audition that you know you’re not going to get, the temptation is to half-ass it, but if you go in knowing you’re not going to get it and you still show up and be the best you can be, it will come around somehow. People will talk about it or it will create its own momentum, you just have to always be the best possible.’
ON CARVING OUT HIS CAREER
‘As an actor, most of your life is not making choices, but having choices made for you. I’m still in a place where I’m auditioning for things, but I’m starting to have more agency in the things that I can choose. That’s a real shift as an actor, especially because you just spend so much time saying ‘yes’ to everything and desperate for any job. Suddenly, when the option comes to say no to something, it’s really hard to undo your actor instincts to just to jump at everything. But saying no is how you craft your own career. I’d like to do something that gets under people’s skin in the same way as Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. I liked the controversy of it, how some people loved it some people hated it and the fight it brought on. It has a real obvious message, not a subtle message, so that’s what I’m looking for. I’m confident with things that divide opinion; I welcome them if anything. I worked with Adam on The Big Short when he was discovering that sensibility of combative filmmaking and letting things be messy. That’s what he loves and welcomes which is so unusual. Usually, every single moment of the film is crafted by the director – Adam’s more likely to make an actor come in too late for a scene so the others have to improvise. He likes the chaos of it and I find that way of working very exciting and would like to do again.’
‘Doing a great play is the best, most fulfilling experience in your life - and doing a bad play is the worst.’
ON INDUSTRY RECOGNITION
‘Accolades mean everything and nothing! It’s so nice to feel noticed and that your work is valued and at the same time it’s so not what it’s about. We’re here to try to make people aware of their own humanity and pitting people against each other for a golden trophy is the opposite of that. And it’s not the Olympics; you watch a race to see who wins, but there’s no stop clock on good acting or objective formula, so it’s so arbitrary. I find the Razzies so cruel, because no one knows how hard it is to make something. It’s hard to make even a bad movie! And no one tries to make a bad movie. I don’t judge movies as harshly as I used to because I know how hard it is to do it and make it good.
When you do get an award, it feels great, just when we put too much time and effort into that accomplishment, it becomes so self-serving and I don’t think the average person gives a shit. The best reward is honestly just people coming up to you and saying, ‘I love your work.’ It really does mean everything when I can tell that someone was truly moved by something I did. I remember doing a Romeo and Juliet kids performance and this kid came up to me afterwards and said, ‘How did you cry at the end? It made me so sad’. It was so pure and I was like this is the reason I do this.’
ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH CLOTHES
‘I’m very likely to wear the same thing for many days in a row and throw it on in the dark. I have a grey hoodie sweatshirt – which is the perfect layer – which was a Christmas present and I’ve probably had it for, like, 10 years. My wife jokes that I didn’t wear jeans for the entire first year she met me - I just wore corduroys that were hand-me-downs. I think I was more dismissive of fashion when I was younger. I thought it was all superficial and I remember from early on, I didn’t want to wear anything that said anything, I was always monochromatic and blank, because I didn’t want to advertise brands. Let’s say I don’t like bumper stickers! But lately I am trying to hone what I wear so I don’t have so many things but each thing is meaningful and I feel good in it.’
What film could you watch repeatedly forever?
‘It’s got to be Casablanca. It seems impossible to have made it. Every frame is so perfect and there are so many subtle things that go on.’
What would be your dream role?
‘I really want to play Constantine in The Seagull, Chekhov.’
What would you say is the soundtrack to your life?
‘My knee-jerk reaction is Visions of Johanna by Bob Dylan. I’ve been a fan for a long time and I played that album, Blonde on Blonde, over and over when I was in high school.’
Words by Scarlett Conlon
Photography by Tim Elkaïm
Styling by Clare Richardson
Beyond art & curation
Critic and curator Antwaun Sargent on showcasing a new art movement driven by Black talent
Christy Turlington Burns on instigating societal change and her greatest inspirations