Matt Fraser is a self-proclaimed “freak.” He is also starring in one of the most popular television shows of our modern moment, “American Horror Story: Freak Show.” The fourth installment of this award-winning series showcases a circus filled with dozens of socially unacceptable outcasts searching for a home and a paycheck. Fraser just so happens to identify as a freak both on and off screen.
Phocomelia is a congenital malformation that means “seal-like limbs,” according to Fraser. His mother took a pain medication called Thalidomide to offset morning sickness during her pregnancy and this caused the defect. Fraser began acting in the 90’s and slowly began to embrace his body as part of his craft.
“For me, now, after 15 years of exploring it, freak means a radically different person onstage entertaining with their radical difference. I cannot help but exploit my physique when I’m performing,” he says in his interview for the upcoming season of AHS [watch below].
“I always knew that one day a high budget drama would come along, and they would have the balls to actually cast real freaks in it.”
There are three other actors on the show whose physical differences are also authentic on and off camera: Rose Siggins, who is living without legs, Ben Woolf, who was born with pituitary dwarfism, and Jyoti Amge, who is 23 inches tall. Fraser talks at length about the power of the body onstage in his interview:
“The first weekend I worked at Coney Island in the freak show, I thought of myself as an actor doing artistic, cultural, research. I stood there and everyone was looking at my arms and I had 110% of the audience’s attention and they had to listen to everything I said and I was like ‘Wow, this is not what I thought it would be.’ And the same way I would say to any actress, ‘Be a stripper for the weekend,’ not saying you’re going to enjoy it, but you will learn so much about the control and power of the body onstage that you cannot but inform your future acting work.”
Whether or not I agree with women exploiting their bodies in order to test their power, I think that the brave work of the actors who have spent their entire lives learning to live in a society where they were othered is admirable and noteworthy. I think that it is even more exciting that there are roles on a mass produced series for them to gain exposure. However, the next step would be for these men and women to play parts where they’re just human beings, not necessarily circus freaks. Isn’t that what art is for? To help us all identify how our humanity intersects?
For now, I’m happy to watch somebody like Fraser, and his fellow cast members, embrace who they are for all of the netflix bingers to see.
“Of course these are different and they’re interesting to look at, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m powerful and awesome and I have these. And I’m a freak and I’m an actor, and I’m a freak actor playing a freak, and it’s awesome.”