Finn Wittrock jokes that he was raised with the sounds of “iambic pentameter ringing in my ears.” And indeed, theater first cast its spell on the Lenox native as a kid coming of age amid the hustle and bustle of the world-renowned Shakespeare & Company. Now 35, the actor who stars in the upcoming Ryan Murphy-produced series “Ratched” credits his youth spent in the Berkshires as the time when he caught the acting bug.
Wittrock’s father, Peter, worked as an actor and teacher at the company, and his mother, Kate Crowley, ran the education department. Though the Wittrocks moved to Chicago when Finn was 6, and later to Los Angeles, they returned every summer to Lenox. Until he was 16, Wittrock and his gaggle of friends — the children of company members — played in the woods, engaged in sword fights with sticks, sometimes trod the boards in small roles, and even started a DIY youth troupe, which they dubbed the Very Young Company.
“I have such idyllic memories of my years there. As kids, we were dropped off in the morning at the Mount [Edith Wharton’s estate and the longtime home of S&C], and the whole company was like our baby sitters,” he says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. “We almost had free rein over this beautiful New England landscape. It was an encompassing, nurturing environment. I would do these small parts and listen to the actors every night and watch them work. That’s where it all began.”
When he was 5 or 6, Wittrock vividly recalls being dragged up on stage by his father during the opening storm sequence in “The Tempest” as performers dashed around the stage. As he got older, he played pageboys and messengers, sometimes with a line or two. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that I wanted to be on the boards myself,” he says. “I wasn’t hiding it.”
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Wittrock boasts a flourishing film and television career. His latest professional high is the campy, sometimes gruesome period thriller “Ratched.” Premiering Sept. 18 on Netflix, the series tells the origin story of the infamous nurse from Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and its Oscar-winning film adaptation. Wittrock tackles the part of Edmund Tolleson, a killer who ends up in a mental hospital on the California coast in the 1940s. The character shares a close connection with a young Mildred Ratched (Emmy winner Sarah Paulson), who comes to work there.
To play Edmund, Wittrock needed to understand the roots of his trauma and flesh out his backstory so he wouldn’t come across as a one-dimensional psycho. “You kind of think he’s a monster at the beginning, but then you peel back the layers and begin to see things from his point of view,” says Wittrock. “He’s not someone who enjoys or actively seeks out destruction. He’s got some human motive for it, whether it’s either out of revenge or survival.”
Still, even Wittrock acknowledges that Edmund is hard to pin down and has a shape-shifting quality that he discovered. “I thought of him as a better actor than I am,” says Wittrock, who comes across as amiable and self-effacing. “He can transform himself and alter his personality in whatever situation he’s in to get what he needs. He had to do that all of his life because of [his childhood].”
As research, Wittrock read a book about childhood PTSD, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog,” given to him by his mother, an occupational therapist. “It’s written by a child psychiatrist who works with kids from broken homes, and it explains what trauma does to the brain and how it affects the shape and size and the firing of your acute mind. So that was a really helpful way into Edmund’s psyche, to understand how all that destructive behavior comes from the scar tissue of his youth.”
Wittrock first turned heads on Broadway in 2012 with a revelatory take on dumb jock Happy Loman in the revival of “Death of a Salesman” opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman. He lost nearly 40 pounds to play an Air Force commander who gets marooned on a lifeboat for 47 days in the Angelina Jolie-directed “Unbroken,” and then a man dying of AIDS in the film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.” He played an opportunistic investor in “The Big Short,” about the 2008 financial crisis, and fifth husband Mickey Deans in last year’s Judy Garland biopic “Judy.”
But it’s on the Ryan Murphy fright-fest “American Horror Story” that he’s made his biggest mark, appearing in four editions of the mischievously arch anthology. He made his most memorably macabre turn as spoiled psycho killer Dandy Mott, who enjoyed bathing in the blood of his victims, in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” in 2014-15. That role earned him an Emmy nomination.
Since then, Wittrock has become a core member of Murphy’s unofficial acting troupe — which includes Paulson, Jessica Lange, Dylan McDermott, and Denis O’Hare. He says the Murphy universe really is “like its own rep company. In that way, it brings me back to my youth.”
Paulson, who previously starred as the conjoined twins who tangled with the flamboyant Dandy in “Freak Show,” says that Wittrock “has so much heart and soul in his work, and it just comes pouring out of him and out of his eyes.”
“With a character so dark and complicated, who has questionable motives and behaviors, you need an actor you can’t just write off as some stock villain,” Paulson says. “So getting Finn to play that part automatically makes it feel like you’re going five levels deeper.”
Indeed, despite his leading man looks, Wittrock has established himself as a chameleonic character actor type. He can no doubt credit his stage training at Juilliard, which gave him the tools to unlock a character’s emotional baggage and psychological vulnerabilities and burrow into his darkest corners.
“I’m always looking to transform,” says Wittrock. “Of course I want to be recognizable as an actor because that’s what gets you more jobs. But I also want to be able to do parts that I can hide behind, where I can put on a mask and not have them see me.”