Alumna Naomi Grossman tells students to create, not just wait

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April 21, 2015

School of Communication alumna and American Horror Story star Naomi Grossman (C97) stepped onto the podium on the stage of the Helmerich Auditorium in Annie May Swift Hall wearing purple and said, “My character, Pepper, is a fan favorite and has been made into street art, but when Northwestern called, I knew I had arrived.”

Hosted by the School of Communication’s Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services, Grossman, a breakout star of the critically acclaimed FX series, was back on campus to talk about living in Los Angeles after graduation and what it took to reach mainstream success. “I loved my time at Northwestern,” Grossman said enthusiastically, “but I arrived in LA pretty unprepared and I’d like to share my journey for those of you headed into the entertainment industry.”

It was always going to be Los Angeles for Grossman. She grew up in the west (Denver, Colorado), wanted to get into television and she hated the cold.  And, her boyfriend was moving there, too.

“I was very naïve,” Grossman said, “I thought my diploma from NU would get me my own sit-com.”

Unfortunately her relationship didn’t last long. “I had no job, no place to live, no friends, no sex life and no sit-com,” she said. She took a series of “ding dong” jobs to get by including driving cars, modeling for art classes and waitressing on Rodeo Drive and at a nightclub. 

“Everyone was snapping at me for lattes and cocktails,” she said, “but nothing was happening on the acting front. I had my share of agents but all that was available were wallflower roles like Nurse # 4 to the Left to support the star. I didn’t think I was that.”

Five years after arriving in LA, while teaching Spanish, (she had spent her high school senior year in Argentina), her acting dream still very much alive, she had what she calls “a epiphany.”

“I decided to write my own stuff,” Grossman said. She began to write comedy sketches that became the basis for her solo show “Carnival Knowledge” that would earn LA Weekly’s Pick of the Week and entrance to the Fringe Festivals, Off Off Broadway and tour internationally. Many of the sketches found their way on YouTube and became part of her Red Meat Entertainment series. “Producers need to have something to Google,” she said.

Then came her big break. When her agent sent Grossman to the audition for American Horror Story, the role of Pepper was described as “four foot tall, possibly malformed and childlike.” At the audition, “there was a sea of little people,” the short-statured Grossman recalled.  It was a rather unorthodox audition, she said. The casting folks played ball with her, inspected the bridge of her nose and asked questions like “Are you claustrophobic?” And “Would you shave your head and wear prothetics?”

Pepper was “a perfect storm of a character,” she said. “ I was about to give up and I thought this might be a throwaway role. But it’s not up to us to cast. The producers know what they are looking for. It could literally come down to the shape of your nose.”

“If they wanted a freaky looking person,” Grossman said, “they could easily find her. But who knew it would be me?”

For an audience of mostly theatre and radio/television/film students, Grossman offered ten ways to make it in Hollywood:

  • Love what you do.
  • Stick with Plan A.
  • Get rid of a deadline, but quit when it stops being fun.
  • Stay in the game. Showing up makes you successful.
  • Don't wait. Create. Create opportunities to feed your artists’ soul.
  • Surround yourself with like-minded individuals.
    Grossman identified the Northwestern University Entertainment Alliance as key. “It’s the mafia and you are a goodfella,” Grossman said. “We take care of our own. There are peer group meetings, showcases, networking, panels, film nights, booking rooms, auditioning workshops, actors salons and many other free ways to stay creative and keep your tools sharpened.”
  • Do yoga. Make time to be yourself.
  • Have a life that makes you more interesting at cocktail parties.
  • Create work that you are proud of.
  • Don’t micromanage the universe.

Grossman also provided tips for acting students while they are still at Northwestern: Make friends with film students and collaborate and get yourself on tape, she said. Take classes with “kick-ass” professors—she took classes with Tony Award-winning artists Mary Zimmerman (C82 GC85, GC94), Frank Galati (C65, GC67, GC71) and John Logan (C83) while at Northwesternbut don’t only take acting courses. Finally, she urged, manage expectations, and search your soul and go after what you really want to do.

-Ellen Blum Barish (C81, GJ84)