“I have the face of a pretty lad. A handsome face. Could you imagine this mug on a normal body? I could have ruled the world.”
So opines Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy in American Horror Story: Freak Show, currently in its final weeks on FX in the US.
British actor Mat Fraser (pictured), relishing his first American screen role, as Paul, contemplates the question. “Well, yeah, I can imagine that, actually. I would have been a complete arsehole. Some people probably think I already am one.”
Taking a day off in his apartment in New Orleans, where American Horror Story is being shot, Fraser, 52, splits his time between New York and his hometown of London. He has enthusiastically delved into the artistic weft of his temporary home, though, performing in the Dirty Dime Peepshow, a local monthly burlesque revue, between on-set duties. “It’s a really great city for freaks,” he says, smiling.
It’s a freakishly warm December day, and Fraser – handsome face and all – is basking in the vindication of a long-awaited role. “I knew that if I could tread water, someone would have the balls to produce a big-budget drama starring freaks. I’ve always visualised it.”
The dreaming started early, with art winning out over delinquency for young Fraser – “There but for the grace of my disability go I,” he muses. With forays into music, edgy cabaret and, occasionally, British television, he forged an artistic path revelling in the power dynamics of his appearance. His disability – phocomelia due to his mother being prescribed the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy – endowed him with a persona: Seal Boy.
While working in the actual Coney Island Circus Side Show in 2006, Fraser met his now-wife, the American neo-burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz. Their ongoing collaborative relationship helped him land the part of Paul. Fraser was spotted in New York in Beauty and the Beast, a racy reworking of the fairy tale that had already gained critical acclaim from a run at London’s Young Vic.
“A woman came based on these rave New York Times reviews,” says Fraser. “She called her friend, who was producing American Horror Story. I got a call to audition, which I did via my laptop, and was offered the job the next day. It’s one of those chance castings you don’t think really happens.”
Paul’s character was originally a lizard man, covered head to toe in tattoos. When Fraser brought with him the Seal Boy persona, they compromised, arriving at Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy.
“I fought against having tattoos on my face,” says Fraser. “My face conveys my emotions and I wanted to be recognised. I wanted people to be able to see me acting. To see me.”
Fraser suspects the “normal body” line was an empathetic leap by the writers: “If so, they were woefully wrong, but what can you expect from non-disabled writers?”
“I don’t blame them,” Fraser continues. “I wanted to do the lines. I’m not going to say, ‘I don’t think a disabled person would think that.’ I used to be like that. I’ve learned a lot about disability portrayal, and sometimes you have to let that stuff go. Yes, it’s important and in my own work I talk about it, but sometimes you just have to want to do the acting.”
Questions arose around the politics of casting able actors in freak show roles in American Horror Story. Fraser hears the arguments, but wants to evolve the discussion.
“You’re talking about using able actors to play disabled roles now? I was talking about this in 1997. I’m kind of done talking about it,” he says. Fraser also wants to get beyond trite narratives of overcoming disability. “I won’t do inspiration porn, I just won’t. Yes, we can discuss how difficult it is getting work as a disabled actor, but let’s talk about the acting and the work and the art, and not about if I was bullied as a teenager.”
Fraser sees American Horror Story as groundbreaking, particularly Paul’s portrayal as a two-timing lover.
“It’s profound,” he says. “Giving storylines like that to a deformed person is radical. We’re the first disabled people on US TV, but this is a show about freaks, so they see me and think ‘good casting’. A world where if even your teeth are wrong you don’t get gigs? It’s a tough nut to crack.”
As filming wraps up, Fraser is cheerfully pragmatic. “Friends encouragingly tell me this is it for me, but I’ve had enough dips to know its likely I’ll be back covered in fake blood at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club.”
Will his new profile inform future artistic directions? “There are some things I won’t do any more. I’m trying to obey the rules with the arched eyebrow of possibility and not the furrowed brow of cynical negative assumption. But you know what? Maybe some rules don’t apply to me. They’re rules of thumb. And you know what I haven’t got? Thumbs.”