‘Ratched’: Finn Wittrock on His Character’s Traumatic Childhood, Connection to Mildred and Murderous Code


SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first season of “Ratched,” streaming now on Netflix.

Netflix’s new drama “Ratched” may be an origin story of the cruel nurse from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but it begins with a different violent offender: her foster brother Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). His massacre of a house full of priests gets him sent to a mental institution, and after years of trying to reunite with him, Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) finds a way to: by conning her way into a job there.

What follows in the eight-episode first season is a deep dive into the childhood trauma they both experienced, being bounced around the foster care system and eventually placed in a home where the adults forced them to perform sexual acts on each other in front of strangers. It also explores how their experiences shaped them, their relationships and their own adulthood manipulations.

“Ratched is exact, contained; she doesn’t really do anything before thinking through every single option. Edmund is the exact opposite. I imagine him like a wild animal, acting out of impulse and like at any moment he could explode. He’s dangerous. So it was this really fun dance — her containment and my lack thereof, even when he’s in a cell — and how that played,” Wittrock tells Variety.

But even though Edmund is dangerous, Wittrock notes that he is not a sociopath. He has the capability to love — and he does, not only his sister but also fellow nurse Dolly (Alice Englert) and some animals the facility brings in to help patients.

“I think there was a version of this guy who was maybe more openly malicious and sociopathic. And that’s fun, I would do that some day. But there were just enough hints of a deeper glow within him that I ran with more, knowing that the other stuff would take care of itself. You know, if you slit someone’s throat, that’s going to send a pretty big message, so you don’t have to act that all the time. You act the other stuff around it and it makes him more dimensional and interesting,” he explains.

Here, Wittrock talks with Variety about the twists of the first season, including Edmund escaping the facility — twice, finding Edmund’s “code” for killing and what the dynamic between the sort-of siblings will be in the second season.

The very last frames of the season layer Edmund driving away over a close up of Mildred’s face, which feels like the show is setting up more of a two-hander for the next season. So in the final moments of their interaction on the phone, how did you want to set up what was still to come?

With the addendum of, I don’t know exactly what’s to come, the conversation with Ryan [Murphy] was that cat-and-mouse is the right way to put it — but the idea is that we don’t exactly know who is the cat and who is the mouse. With that final phone call at the gas station, he’s expecting a big reaction from her about this latest massacre of his, and he doesn’t quite get it. Instead of a disappointment, for Edmund I think it was, “Oh here we go.” She’s the most worthy adversary [he] could imagine; she’s going to hunt the hunter, it seems like. I think that has to do with how well they know each other and how thin the line is between love and hate in some relationships. At the end they’re on different sides but they still have such a deep connection that the power dynamic is never going to be clear. I think it’s going to keep jumping back and forth.

She does say she is coming for him, and it’s not explicit to where he is driving. In your mind or in the script, was he actually driving to her in Mexico or trying to go off on his own?

To me, that ending does feel like freedom for him for the first time in a long, long time, and I think he’s got other things up his sleeve too, but he can’t escape her. The open road is a great analogy because literally from my own experience, so much of filming this was in this cell — solitary confinement — and then suddenly I was out in the desert and it was like, “Look out, world!”

Which is the exact right phrase, especially considering he’s teamed up with Charlotte, who is clearly not in her right mind, and Louise. What is it that makes him tolerate them?

They’re this crazy menagerie! To be totally honest with you, I think it’s just too much fun to give up. The possibilities of what those three will get up to is just too good. I don’t think he has a total master plan at the end, and I think he’s kind of into Charlotte; he’s fascinated by her insanity. There’s something too juicy for him to just get rid of them.

Do you feel like he’s trying to create a family in a sense? Early on, he did tell Mildred he wants to be normal.

That’s what he wants but because of the deep, deep scar tissue, he’s mentally really incapable of even knowing what a normal life is. He’s had absolutely no role models for that. So it’s a desire, but without any real way of knowing how to accomplish it. And he tries to do it with Dolly, but Dolly’s just as crazy as anybody — and in some ways, more. She has a bloodlust without having any experiences with it, and Edmund has had so much experience with it that it’s lost its romance. The Bonnie and Clyde thing — he knows the reality of it, versus the fantasy.

You mentioned how for much of the season Edmund was confined to a cell, which had to limit your own physicality as a performer. How challenging is that, especially given the state of mind he is in in those moments?

I thought of him as a wild jaguar put into a cage too small. There is a bottled-up energy that needs to escape and erupt. Some of my favorite stuff is the hardest stuff, but the scene in the second episode with the doctor — the long scene where he’s [impersonating] schizophrenia — that was the one where I had the most preparation for and was [mulling] in my mind for a long time how to do it in a way that was believable and specific. If you read the dialogue that I have in that scene, it’s like gobbledygook; it’s stream-of-conscious. I watched these videos of serious schizophrenics, and if you write it down it looks crazy, but from their point of view, it’s entirely logical: They have their own logic, and when they explain it to you it’s very forthright. I would say that is the biggest challenge.

Going back to the connection between Mildred and Edmund, the audience learns the details of their traumatic childhood late in the season, but is that something you knew early enough to be able to use to inform his reaction when they are first reunited?

I didn’t know the exact history from the beginning, but I knew they had had a close brother-sister-like relationship and had lived through a very traumatic youth. So I used my own imagination to fill those gaps before I knew the actual details, and the real details were horrific than I could have come up with. Sarah and I were pretty [much] on the same page about where they stood, but as you get new stuff, you keep re-editing the past a little bit and the way you think about each other. It’s fraught, and I think the thing to know at the beginning is that they haven’t seen each other for a really, really long time, so it’s so much unspoken stuff they haven’t gotten the chance to express to each other has been festering for all of these years. So in the beginning they’re tight and they’re close, but he’s always got his teeth bared at her a little bit.

Were you and Sarah able to sit down and talk through all of this stuff to see if the backstory you created matched up?

It’s a hard thing doing something that’s this labor-intensive because you don’t get to just sit around and talk about it, especially because she had absolutely no free time at all. So you talk about it as you go, but we each had our own versions of the past and would compare notes of what we were thinking. And then once we did know the truth, there was still so much time that passed from that amazing puppet scene — from [the time depicted] to now, there were so many years and we went in different directions and evolved so differently, so that was a lot of what we talked about: what we had been doing in the meantime.

They do have an exchange where he says she’s the only one who hasn’t figured out what he really is, but she contradicts him and says she is the only one who does know him. How much does Edmund believe what he’s saying, versus what he’s hearing?

There’s a lot of experimentation in that. I think in that moment he’s coming from having been told that he’s a total loser, awful person his entire life — since he was like, five. There’s also this whole level of self-loathing in Edmund’s mind. And she’s the one person who knows his redemptive side: She knows the stuff about him being in love with animals, that’s the boy she knew when they were little. So there’s a level at which that she has more belief in him than he has in himself.

The show really examines how cruelness is an attribute that is created, not born — for multiple characters, including Edmund, who seems to have a specific code for who he kills, when and why. Did you draw on any references outside of details from the script to set that code for him?

My process does harken a little bit to the book of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” because the nurses and the aides in the hospital are so dehumanized. So I thought the inmates’ idea of authority was that if you’re wearing a uniform — whether it’s a priest’s uniform or a nurse’s uniform or a doctor — somehow that dehumanizes you in a way; it makes you lose your innocence. So that’s when he feels no remorse about killing you. As opposed to the roster, who is a pure innocent soul.

Really all of the animals. He genuinely seemed to care about them, which shows he’s not a complete sociopath.

Yeah. Hopefully it’s clear that he’s capable of love. He’s not a sociopath in the way that he’s faking all emotion, but he has been so traumatized through his life that he does become a chameleon in every situation that he’s in, based on who he meets. He is hard to pin down, based on his personality; it is always shifting and morphing.

One of my favorite scenes was honestly the one with the animals in the barn. I was so excited. Animals are the best scene partners because they’re always in the moment. The pig did not want to move; he was like, “F— it, let me sleep.” But we had that scene where there was the chicken and a fake egg that the chicken had laid. But then, before one take this chicken actually laid an egg right in front of us, so I used that. It was a wonderful gift.

Speaking of shifting, he surrenders to cops in uniforms, rather than walking out of that barn, shotgun blazing like Dolly does. Was his experience with her a turning point at all? How did his experience with her change him?

Definitely, definitely. First I think it makes him more selfless. I think he really is, in that moment, ready to give it up: “Take me in. Put me in the chair. I’m done.” To be honest, I don’t think in the long term they would have made it work. There were sparks, there was electricity, but they’re deeply, deeply different people. She wanted the crazy adventure life of going off and being on the lam and everything, but he knows what that’s really like and it’s not like what it looks like in the movies: It usually ends in poverty or jail.

Or what it ended in here.

Or blood, exactly. When Dolly goes, his sympathy for people, especially authority, falls apart and then it’s pretty bloodthirsty from that point out.

He does seem genuinely pissed at Mildred after he learns of her plan to euthanize him and he passes her on the road out of the compound, and obviously there’s the eventual massacre to get her attention. But her idea was one of mercy, so can he see those layers and realize what she was willing to do for him?

I guess I shouldn’t say when Dolly dies the last vestige of sympathy has left him. He still has Ratched, and he’s resigned to death, but he thinks in his heart she’s one person who still cares. But then, with the scene with Bucket in the prison, even that falls away — even that is gone. So he just wants to wreak havoc.

Assuming this Mildred eventually moves to Oregon to work at a mental facility there, as in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” what do you expect or want to become of Edmund, who is not in her life at that point in time?

This is totally just my own thought process, but I’m not sure that he is going to make it that far. I think he’s headed to meeting his maker. He has it coming, don’t get me wrong. I feel like he’s a destroyer — he is going to head straight into some kind of destruction — whereas Ratched has a tenacity to her that can withstand a lot more and has a survival instinct that will take her further.

And soon you’re starting production on “American Horror Story” again. What processes were put in place that made you feel comfortable enough to say yes to filming?

Apparently. We were supposed to film the season in March and it couldn’t happen. I haven’t had those discussions yet, but I really trust that crew especially because they are just bad asses and I feel like they are going to pull out all of the stops to make it very safe. I am very curious what that’s going to entail. I’m actually more like, “What’s it going to be like to be on a set right now, not because of the fear of disease but because that is such a part of everyone’s thought process?” It will be so hard to be comfortable. Sets are supposed to be fun, creative places, and I feel like there’s going to be so much paranoia in the air that I’m wondering how to counteract that.

Hopefully if you were supposed to film in March then you have all of the scripts ahead of shooting now so you can at least feel more comfortable because you know where the story and your character is going.

That’s a no comment! [Laughs]