If you’ve been watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story like I told you to, then you’ve heard of David Madson, the young architect who Andrew Cunanan considered the love of his life. While you’ll learn more about Madson in forthcoming episodes, it’s time to meet the Australian actor who plays him — Cody Fern, who is the Tracking Board’s Up-and-Comer of the Month this January.
Fern goes toe-to-toe with Darren Criss in Versace, and he has big things brewing in Hollywood. The rising star hails from a small town in Western Australia, where he grew up as the first person in his family to attend university. Despite his modest upbringing in a remote part of the country where few people forge careers in the arts, Fern went on to play the lead onstage in Romeo and Juliet, and he also starred in the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of War Horse.
Fern won Australia in Film’s Heath Ledger Scholarship in 2014, but his breakout feature role didn’t come until last year’s The Tribes of Palos Verdes, which unfortunately got caught up in Relativity’s bankruptcy and fell victim to the company’s downfall. Still, Fern didn’t let that setback hold him back, as he also starred in the award-winning short film The Last Time I Saw Richard, and helped director Bart Layton workshop his latest Sundance hit American Animals at the Sundance Director’s Lab.
When we spoke in mid-January, Fern had only seen one episode of Versace, but he had started getting positive feedback from journalists. He’ll watch American Crime Story unfold in tandem with audiences, who should pay attention to his impressive performance. Our chat runs the gamut and includes Fern’s take on why Andrew Cunanan killed Gianni Versace, so enjoy!
What sparked your passion for acting and made you decide to get into this crazy business?
That’s a long story, but I’ll give you the truncated version. I’m one of those people who has known ever since I had conscious thought. I grew up in a very, very, very small town in Western Australia called Southern Cross. It’s about seven hours outside Perth by train, and there was a population of just under 300, so the arts were never really something that [I considered] possible. I’d never been exposed to theater, and I didn’t see my first play until I was 22. I’d always known that I wanted to do it, but I kind of veered off into studying business. I did a degree in commerce, and then I segued into psychology. I thought for a time that I was going to be a therapist, and that could kind of numb, to a certain extent, my desire to be an actor, but I couldn’t get away from it. It continued to pursue me. So I kind of threw it all away at 24, just before my 25th birthday, so like, five years ago, now. I joined “the circus,” and here we are.
But I think my passion for it came from… it’s strange, because everyone talks about acting and everyone has their own philosophies on that, but I think for me personally, what I love about film, and what I love about plays, in particular, is getting to see stories that haven’t been told, and angles on stories through the lens of people who may not be as glamorous as most. That’s what really attracted me to it. I used to watch a lot of daytime films, and I used to sneak into arthouse theaters and watch French films, so I kind of fell in love with acting as a form of storytelling. Not just “once upon a time there was this,” but more cut from a deeply psychological level. It just gelled with who I am and what I do and the experiences that I’ve had.
Tell me about the audition process for American Crime Story and how Ryan Murphy discovered you for this role.
That’s an interesting one as well. I was in London at the time, because I’m developing a feature film. I was working with my producers Nancy Grant and Xavier Dolan, and I’d kind of been a little exasperated in LA because I was pursuing very detailed and character-driven stories that were particularly high-end, and I kind of refused as an actor to pursue anything that was kind of boy next door or one-dimensional. I’d been in theater before so I had the opportunity to explore intense stories and characters, and a range of different roles. And when I initially moved to Los Angeles, I was kind of exasperated by the stories being told. I going in for a lot of 16-year-olds. So with this audition, when American Crime Story came through, I kind of took it as an opportunity for a last hurrah before I went off and directed my feature film. It was a strange time because I was kind of mourning the acting that I wasn’t able to do at the same time as investing my creativity into writing and directing and acting in my own feature.
So I kind of just gave it my all in the audition. It was kind of like a send-off, like a little goodbye, and then a week later I got a callback. I think I was positive that the role was going to go to somebody in the Ryan Murphy canon, I just never assumed that it was going to be me. And then I met with the writer, Tom Rob Smith, who’s incredible, and the amazing producer Brad Simpson, and we had the callback from there. Ryan was kind of instantly like, “it’s Cody,” and three weeks later I was filming. It’s such intense material, so it was just a real opportunity to dive in. But from his end, I’m not so sure how he came across me. It was a wide casting call, and they were just looking for the right person. I’m just grateful that it was me.
Did you have to read with Darren Criss and Finn Wittrock to see if you guys meshed well together onscreen?
Actually, no, I didn’t read with them. When I first worked with Darren, we were kind of thrown into Jeff’s death. The murder of Jeff Trail, in the apartment. That was the first day of shooting. I hadn’t met Darren before. I’d seen him in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and thought he was brilliant in it, but we didn’t meet each other, no. I think Ryan decided based on the strength of the audition and then went from there, and Finn had already been cast. It was kind of a rolling freight train It just went. That was a particularly intense day of shooting.
Let’s talk about the actual show. Do you think that Andrew truly loved David, and if so, why didn’t David love him back? Can you talk about their relationship as far as you saw it?
I did some extensive research and obviously read Maureen’s book, and it’s such a fine piece of investigative journalism. She spoke to the friends and family members of David Madson, and I think their relationship is an anomaly in the life of David Madson, because David was a very kind, very generous, very vanilla guy, by all accounts. He was kind of very boisterous and happy and loving, but at the same time he came from an intensely religious background, so I think the collision into Andrew is an interesting one. I think that they did love each other at one point in time, but David ultimately broke it off with Andrew, because of exactly what plays out in the series. There was a sense of dishonesty that he felt coming from Andrew, and the fact that he was hiding something. He even had communicated to friends that he was afraid of Andrew at one point in time.
I think that it’s very clear that Andrew loved David, but I think for David, and I think what the series explores as well, is that Andrew loved the idea of David. He loved the idea of this wholesome man who had a life and who was comfortable and who could give him a sense of stability and real generosity. But I think that David didn’t get honesty from Andrew and that was something that was really difficult for him. Andrew was someone who struggled with the truth. In many accounts, Andrew had spoken to friends of David’s, especially when he was going out to see David and Jeff, and referred back to the fact that David is the love of his life, and he told many of his friends that. The proposal to David was a particular shock, I think.
What the series explores which is really interesting is this love gone wrong, and the story between David and Andrew in the series is really a love story. It’s about missed connections and missed opportunities, and I think it leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not it comes down to Andrew’s psychopathic tendencies or his inability to face the truth. It’s an interesting relationship, it’s very rich with complication, but by all accounts, yes, David as the love of Andrew’s life, it’s just that David felt the need for something more truthful.
And now for The Big Question: Why do you think Cunanan killed Versace?
From my perception, which I think is very much in line with Ryan’s, Andrew was a man who really craved attention, who really craved validation and craved to be magnificent in the eyes of others, so much so that he would go to extreme lengths to be somewhat famous. Versace was somebody who represented everything that Andrew wasn’t. He was somebody who was willing to work, and very hard, for what he believed in, and what he was passionate about, whereas Andrew kind of lived off the backs of others. He used and manipulated all these men to get his way. I think Versace took his level of genius and gave it back to the world, whereas Andrew always felt that the world owed him something.
So I think that the death of Versace, and the time that Versace was going through during that period, really synced up with Andrew in terms of Andrew’s downfall and Versace’s rise. Versace certainly was a truth-teller at that point in time, one of the most revolutionary truth-tellers, and when he came out in The Advocate magazine it was a huge deal. Andrew, although out in some circles, initially lived a very closeted life, and he told people what they needed to hear. So I think Versace’s level of truth threatened Andrew’s, and I think that Andrew was ultimately tipped over the edge and owed something that Versace had, and so he felt the need to take it, or at least to take it down.
What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career so far?
Ever since moving to LA, it’s been like that. I’ve gotten to work with extraordinary people. But I think for sure the biggest pinch-me moment was working with Ryan Murphy. Much is said about Ryan Murphy as a genius and not enough is said about how kind and generous he is, both as a creative and as a human being. The day I found out that I got this I was screaming. I was on the phone with my agent and managers and we were just going wild. I’ve followed Ryan’s work for so long and I’ve loved his work for so long. And I said when I moved to LA, I was hesitant about doing TV at that time because I didn’t want to be locked into a long contract, and so I said if I’m going to do TV, I want to work with Ryan Murphy, and so for that to come true… they say, never meet your idols because they’ll destroy your idea of them, but that’s not true with Ryan. He’s so kind and he’s so generous and he’s so giving and he’s so bloody brilliant, you know. It really, truly has been the biggest pinch-me moment to be involved in his world and his universe, the Ryan Murphy multiverse, is breathtaking. I’m still in shock.
Are there any actors who you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
I’d have to say Cillian Murphy. I think he’s one of the most extraordinary actors that we have today. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and more recently, Peaky Blinders. He’s a powerhouse performer, and I really admire the way he lives his personal life. He’s really about the work. You know who has been on my mind recently? Richard Jenkins, from The Shape of Water. I think he’s such a phenomenal actor. He’s always put in this category of being a character actor, and he’s so phenomenal and specific and precise in the choices that he makes, so I love following his work as well. And there are so many extraordinary actresses, like Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton and what Michelle Williams is doing at the moment. I love actors who are very specific in their work, who are very emotionally connected, and who are unafraid to take risks with either their physical appearances or the roles that they choose.
You wrote and directed a short called Pisces, and I know you mentioned that you were prepping a feature. Are you focused on acting right now, or are you looking to press forward with those directing ambitions?
I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive. I think that they can run in tandem. Writing and directing certainly takes up a lot of my time, but at the heart of it all, I’m an actor. It is what I love doing the most. I love acting. I love being able to tell stories in that manner, and so I’m very much pursuing acting. I just think that what’s interesting about writing and directing, the power is in your hands. As an actor you’re quite often waiting by the phone waiting and hoping that somebody else, to a certain extent, chooses you, and it’s very difficult, therefore, to continue to keep up your craft, unless you’re in class or doing self-tapes or whatever it happens to be. So I love writing when I have downtime from acting. As with all thing, the cards will fall where they fall, and I was very much going down the line of directing my feature and now I’ve been swept up into acting again, which I’m extraordinarily acting for. I’ll continue to write, definitely, and directing is on the horizon, but for now I’m totally focused on acting. I will say this as well… I think that they all influence and inform each other. If you write and you’re going through the process of rewriting and getting notes and specifying, you start to understand, really understand, what a good script is and what a bad script is and what good writing looks like. You can appreciate what people go through and it helps you as an actor, so I think they all inform each other.
I know you have social media accounts, but you’re not very active on social media. Is there a reason for that, or do you just prefer to be a little bit more private and guarded with fans?
I just recently got an Instagram because I certainly don’t want to ignore or turn away from any people who want to engage with the work or have something to say about it, but I’m not a social media person and I never have been. It’s not about being private or being secretive, it’s just a personal choice. I think it consumes so much of people’s lives, and I know that the industry is certainly going a different way, especially with actors, whereby the more fans you have and the greater reach you have, people think that it’ll lead to more work, and it may. But the type of work that comes from me having one million more Instagram followers than somebody else is not the kind of work that I ultimately want to be doing. I just find that I really like personal interactions and stimulating conversations, and I think that while social media can be a great way to stay connected, it’s also a really disconnected version of reality. You’re constantly curating your life for others, and what your life is, and it lends itself to the seeking of opinions and comments, and I think that can be dangerous for some people. It certainly is for me. It’s very depleting for me, because it raises my level of anxiety too high. It’s too tied to validation. And that’s not true of everybody. And I’m not saying anything against social media, I’m just saying something against social media for myself. So we’ll see what happens with the old Instagram. I like being able to post photos and offer my perspective of the world, but I’m not so keen on posting photos of myself. I find being behind a film camera very easy and intimate, and I find being behind a still camera very alarming and anxiety-inducing. I think I enjoy the veil of a character.
Do you have a dream role? Is there a part you’re dying to play?
There are so many. There’s such an intricate tapestry of roles out there. I love really complex, three-dimensional roles, and people who are flawed. I think that’s what I loved about David. In this series, we’re examining a victim, but we’re also examining somebody who is examining his own level of complicity in a tragic event. He’s asking himself questions about shame and hiding and repression, and he’s not a device in any way. I’d would really love to sink my teeth into playing Marilyn Manson. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful and interesting social provoker. I remember when I was younger, watching him on the rise, and no matter what people think about his music, he’s a great conduit for conversation, and he really engages with people on taboo issues. I love that about him, and I think his personal life is super interesting, in how he chooses to represent himself and engage with the world. Look, I love his music. For me, as a teenager, he represented such an era of rebellion and refusal and rage. I love all of that. I think it’s something that’s ingrained in me, especially as a teenager, and he was able to really reach into that and expose it.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually not allowed to say. I have a couple of big announcements to follow, but I’ll get in trouble. I’m sure you’ll be hearing very soon. I’m just super thrilled to watch Versace with everybody. This is all so new to me, in terms of this moment in time. People haven’t been exposed to my work very heavily yet, especially the public, so I’m really excited about that. I’m just thrilled to see what the response is going to be.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief