Eric Dawson has been Ryan Murphy’s go-to casting director for 15 years, starting with “Popular” and continuing with “Nip/Tuck,” for which he reaped his first Emmy bid in 2005 and “Glee,” which won him an Emmy in 2011. He has been nominated for each of the first three installments of the “American Horror Story” franchise. However, he tells us during our recent webcam chat that “Freak Show” presented a unique challenge for this veteran of more than 130 TV shows: find actors that fit a specific physical look who could also hold their own against series regulars Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters.
“That was an unusual task, I must say, and something I’ve never really done in casting,” Dawson reveals in our recent webcam chat (watch below). “Ryan came to me six months before the season began and explained what the season was going to be about. He said to me early on that he didn’t want sword-swallowers and contortionists and things like that. So it was a lot of online searching, a lot of dead ends, but we ended up with great people. But it was an interesting casting challenge.”
“We had a lot of our core actors who had prosthetics,” he continues, “like Sarah Paulson with her two heads or Even Peters with his claws, and we knew we had to round that out with real people who had physical differences. So obviously you’re going to be going into a group of people who have acted less.” Dawson feels he lucked out when he found Mat Fraser for the role of Paul the Illustrated Seal. “He’s a wonderful actor,” he says, “who I know had never been on television, but had done a lot of theater in London and New York.”
He tells us the role of Paul did not exist in the original script, but came about as a result of Murphy’s openness with the casting. “He said, ‘find me the people and then we’ll write the roles.’ And so Mat was one of those people that the role didn’t exist for someone who had deformed arms: it was actually written as a seal man. So when we found Mat, we adjusted it to take advantage of what he brought to the table.”
With each season, the stars of “American Horror Story” are able to show their versatility by taking on different roles, which Dawson considers to be a stroke of genius on Murphy’s part. “The people we have year to year, they’re almost playing the opposite of what they played the year before. I think that’s so refreshing because this industry starts seeing people in a certain way…and he’s really turned that upside down and basically said, ‘we’re going to go from both ends of the spectrum and show you the range.’ It’s like we have this acting ensemble that’s one of the best things to ever be on television.”
Watch our full interview below to learn more about this key part of putting together a successful show.