If you saw American Horror Story’s Halloween episode, you’re familiar with Mat Fraser, whose character said he was “tired of being called ‘seal boy.’” But Coney Island sideshow habitués are already fans of the performance stylings of Mat “Seal Boy” Fraser. Fraser has phocomelia — his mother was prescribed thalidomide while she was pregnant —resulting in foreshortened arms and no thumbs. A drummer, actor, and performance artist, he regularly hosts burlesque shows around the city, and when he’s not performing in London or shooting AHS in New Orleans, he lives on the Lower East Side with his wife, the endearingly disturbing downtown darling Julie Atlas Muz.
Fraser and Muz recently produced Beauty and the Beast on both sides of the Atlantic, which got rave reviews from Ben Brantley and the Guardian. He played with Coldplay at the Paralympics in 2012, and has been experiencing a serious popularity surge with the Freak Show season of AHS. With Fraser’s role in tomorrow’s episode promising to be “stunning,” we caught up with him via phone to see how all of this is settling in.
Being an actor, or being a burlesquer, on stage, the energy is similar. The discipline, and certain things you need to get right are quite similar on stage — anything on stage. You should be connecting with the audience, it’s about the audience’s enjoyment, getting them to believe what you’re doing and all those things. But on film, it’s a completely different job. I have always known that, but I’ve never been reminded of it so strongly as on this job. The stakes are so much higher. I’m working with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates and Michael Chiklis, and these are big actors, you know? They’ve been around the block lots of times.
No, but it’s very typical of what happens on this show. So we were all in the special effects makeup trailer on day two, and [co-creator/writer Ryan Murphy] was in there. Someone was talking about what I used to do before this and I was like, “I was a drummer,” and he was like ‘a drummer!’ and I’m like “Yeah, I last drummed with Coldplay.” And then I got script 3, which was like 5 days later and suddenly I was drumming in one of the scenes. And that’s purely because he heard me say I was a drummer. That kind of random stuff just seems to happen on this job.
Dude, it’s nuts. I expect that the places I hang out, there’s a larger percentage of people who watch the show than maybe would do in straights-ville. But I can’t fucking move. Every single place I go, the shoe shop, the store, the pizza place, at least one person from every single place I go to comes up and name-checks me, and if it’s a bar or if it’s in the evening then everybody wants a photograph. It’s kind of nuts. I have had this before in Britain, but obviously the scale is so much more. Ten million people watched the first episode. Those are not figures I’m used to in Britain.
The point at which celebrity – for want of a better word – overcomes disability, in my experience, is usually the second time you’re on TV. “Wow, look at that weird dude with those arms” becomes immediately “hey, isn’t that dude on TV?” The arms are not mentioned. They’re just absorbed into the experience.
It’s really fucking weird and as a lot of disabled people might tell you, we’re public property to most people. It’s completely normal for someone to think it’s okay to come up and ask me how I masturbate or wipe my ass or something – one of those kind of entitled questions that able-bodied people often have of disabled people. The second you’ve been on TV they think they haven’t got the right to do that, it’s so crazy. And I can’t say it’s not pleasurable. It is pleasurable. It’s nice to be name-checked for something other than your flagrant body.
Wow, I’ve never heard that. But I think it’s interesting that people now would easier expect it to be reallyclever CGI than an actual disabled person. Because the expectation of using disabled people in the film industry is clearly zero for most people — you know whose fault that is. Fucking Hollywood. Hey, I’m happy to help shift people’s perception.
I think what’s been difficult for me, though, and I will be honest with you here, it’s been hard for me to stand on the sidelines of a portrayal of my own history, listening to able-bodied actors get all the big speeches about how hard it is to be a freak. Nobody understands it when they can just take the bit of plastic off and go home, but I live that shit and always have done. I wonder how the black actor would have felt with the white black-faced actors doing those lines about how “you don’t know what its like to be black.” I was a little pissed about it for the first three episodes. I know people don’t quite believe that, but you know me, I’m a political motherfucker.
But when it comes to episode six – I can’t really talk about precise plot development – but what they’ve got me doing in episode six is so out there in terms of using the disabled actor in a classic role. Your classic roles would be the leading man, the leading lady, the violent criminal – there are all these classic archetypes. The archetype they’ve got me playing, without any acknowledgement of my disability complicating that – it’s stunning. The stuff we’re doing in episode six has never been seen on American TV before.
She’s an extremely generous actor, and of course always knows exactly what to do. The way she looked at me on set, with her kind of fiery, “Whatcha got ?” I was like, shit, I’m gonna have to Clark Gable this. I’m gonna have to come in like an old-fashioned guy. Anything else won’t match her grande dame character, and maybe she won’t respect it. And I REALLY wanted her respect as an actor. I just had to remember, I’ve been doing this since 1997, and not let her incredible charisma and energy overwhelm me, but instead use it to rise up. When we did these scenes, it felt right. I THINK she was happy, the director Howard Deutch certainly was, and I just hope to hell it looks OK when it comes out [in episode six].
Interview has been edited and condensed
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misstated the date of Fraser’s appearance with Coldplay.