Cody Fern Talks About Playing David Madison and crafting the role in American Crime Story: Versace
It’s one of those events that happened if you’re old enough to know where you were when Gianni Versace was murdered on the steps of his South Beach villa in Miami. Ryan Murphy takes us back to 1990’s Miami and explores what drove Andrew Cunanan to murder one of fashion’s most iconic designers in his latest series, American Crime Story: Versace. We explored his childhood, but the road that led to the murder. Along the way, we meet David Madison, a young architect, his whole life ahead of him, but then fate leads him to Cunanan who eventually murders the young man.
Actor Cody Fern talks about getting the phone call for the role, how Madison was perceived at the time and working on a Ryan Murphy production in a role that’s shining a much-warranted spotlight on the Australian actor. If you haven’t seen the series, the show aired on FX and can be streamed for all to see. Fern shines brightly in the series, pay attention because you might not know the name now, but you will very soon.
What was it like walking on to the Versace set for the first time?
It’s a little bit mindblowing, even still. I idolized Ryan and his work for such a long time, especially how he conducts himself as a human being and giving back to community stories that need to be told.
I got the phone call that I was going to be on the show and started screaming because it’s beyond your wildest comprehension. It’s this dream you hope of as an actor, but to get the phone call and to hear you’re going to work with Ryan is overwhelming. Arriving on set, the entire production was so precise and was so well researched by Maureen and then Tom and the team around it. Ryan picks the very best people to work with and they’re so meticulous and so knowledgeable.
I got to play David, he’s such an interesting human being, not just because of his tragic death, but the life he had been living before. I think that’s what the series deals with. He’s a very successful architect and this intelligent guy who is so compassionate. The police actually found presents in his house that were for Christmas. He had bought these gifts months in advance for his nephews, that’s the kind of guy he was. So, I felt a real sense of responsibility to that. I think with this series in particular because it threw people for a six because it’s not just about the Versace family, but the real purpose was to jump into this world that we didn’t know about these four men who were not as famous as Gianni Versace but were equally as important, who had value and their lives were cut short by this man, Andrew Cunanan.
It started with excitement and then it moved into the heavyweight. Arriving on set and knowing that everyone was at the top of their game and knowing that everyone was going to trust me to do what I was going to be doing which was so dark and so complex and complicated. It was a real work out as an actor. To also have Darren Criss who is so dynamic and such a surprising actor. I’d seen him in Glee but what he did in Versace was so layered and complex.
Your character was an interesting character, but also complex. How do you craft David when there’s not so much on him?
The first thing that is important to know, Tom Rob Smith is such a phenomenal writer. If I ever felt lost, I’d go back into the script and you don’t have far to fall if you’re being propped up by Tom. Obviously, there’s Maureen’s book, but really the jumping off point for David was, “Why didn’t he run? Why didn’t he stop the murder of Jeff?” It was really more about the former and that’s where I started to construct everything from.
At the time and with the homophobia of the time and how the police were investigating it, they saw David as a perpetrator. It’s very interesting about what happens when your best friend is murdered right in front of you and stabbed 27 times with a hammer in your apartment by your ex-lover and someone who has been a friend for many years. At this point in time, their friendship had been worn down. Friends and family say he was very compassionate and had a religious background, so these things began to fill in for me as a character who comes from compassion first and foremost. What we were exploring in the series is the shame that gay men carry around and how that shame manifests itself, particularly in this period fo time. That’s a dangerous cocktail because what I learned in playing David was that his compassion knew no bound and he really believed that Andrew was redeemable, even after that horrific act. He believed if they got to the authorities then everything would be alright. Of course, your personality goes out the window when something like that happens. The horror of the media was that they were painting him as someone who was involved in the crime and when you see something like that, your body shuts down. There’s this gay shame he’s carrying around and he doesn’t fit into society and society views him very differently. He must somehow be involved and there’s something sick about him.
One of the police officers in the media stated it was far more likely and it makes far more sense that Andrew and David conspired to commit the crime because gay men have had to hide in the closet for so long. They’re all inclined to dark and psychopathic actions and how that must have affected him growing up.
He was a fascinating character to watch and his arc. Was he fascinating to explore?
Endlessly fascinating. It’s hard to say I had a great time playing him because what happened was so dark. It was a very difficult time but it was very rich. We knew that this show was going to skew towards the victims and that was really important to see and that we were going to see their lives and who they were. To see how Andrew and David fell in love, to see how he had hopes and dreams. In episode four, the death for David, what was most interesting in playing that was how you build a character as an actor and what happens when everything changes in one moment. Jeff is murdered and everything that David has ever known is different. Whoever he thinks he is goes out the window and it becomes about survival. He’s been dogged by gay shame and he’s been hiding his whole life. He has one act and one final act of courage, he grabs the steering wheel and he’s going to stand up. There’s only one way that can go. What it must have been like to mediate Andrew at every step of the way and to know that at any moment he could be killed or anyone else could be killed. To be in public and you’re hiding. In the diner, they’re in there’s this fear. What’s interesting is that it’s not far off from what he would have been feeling as a gay man in that period of time.
I want to see you back on another Ryan show.
So would I
What did you learn from being on a Ryan Murphy set?
First and foremost, so much is said about Ryan as a genius and the word genius is really thrown around these days for anyone who has a hit of any kind. It should be reserved for Ryan. It incorporates something other than stereotypical interpretations. Not enough is said about how kind, how generous and how loyal he is. What I learned the most was not about acting, but it’s about family. The people he has picked and the relationships that he has cultivated. It inspires everybody to dig deeper and to push harder and to be better. There’s this real sense of trust from hair and makeup to the gaffers. Everyone is really together and you’re all ware you’ve been chosen by Ryan to be a part of his family. That means you all band together and you give everything and every moment your all. I think that show.
It’s the director, the crew and everyone is there to do the very best they can for this story. That was really inspiring to come away from. Ryan oversees it all and that’s really touching.
As a viewer, it was dark and sticks with you. Was it easy to shed David?
This was not easy to shed, there was a lot of residue. It depends on how you work as an actor. I try to make a clear distinction as to what my work and my home are. For me, my work is my life. IT’s where I’m most engaged in. With David, the mind knows one thing. The mind knows I’m playing this, this is what’s happening. The body doesn’t., there was a lot of fear, guilt, shame and anxiety. For the most part, there were terrible feelings and it took me a good couple of months to shed that. Also leaving that family behind. I just caught up with everyone at the Pose premiere in New York, to see everyone and to see us all band together was such a special feeling. I will say it shouldn’t be easy to shed the residue of what I went through. Getting`to know David was one of the greatest gifts of my life. To bring him back to life and to say he was here and had value and he mattered, that felt great.
Next we’ll see you in House of Cards. Going from Ryan Murphy into Claire Underwood’s dark world. How is that experience?
It’s been playing longer than I’ve been an actor. I started watching it and knew I had to be on that show. That and Ryan Murphy. I feel like I’m in a weird science fiction world, but again, it was incredibly different. The pace and rhythm have been different. The energy was always uplifting. Everyone is so excited to get behind Robin. It was great. The writers on that show are some of the best on TV. Stepping into the world of Claire Underwood was a real treat.