Cody Fern for The Last Magazine
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Cody Fern for The Last Magazine

Gianni Versace gets title billing in the current season of Ryan Murphy’s anthology series American Crime Story, but the story belongs to his murderer, Andrew Cunanan. A serial killer who targeted gay men, Cunanan was already being pursued by the FBI in connection to four murders before he shot Versace in the head outside his beachfront villa in South Beach in July 1997, and while the season opens with the famed designer’s death, it quickly spins back in time to track Cunanan’s bloody path to Miami. In last week’s episode, Cunanan, played by Darren Criss, killed Lee Miglin, a closeted married man who was a longtime client of Cunanan’s escort services, and tonight introduces David Madson, Cunanan’s ex-boyfriend and second victim, who is portrayed by the Australian newcomer Cody Fern in his television début. “If you know Ryan’s work, you know that Ryan is not going to just give you the assassination of Gianni Versace,” Fern says. “That doesn’t interest him so much as the context around it and how it got to this point. He finds ways into stories that nobody else does. I don’t know where it comes from, but he understands human nature in a way that most people don’t.”

Coming off the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first season of American Crime Story, which aired in 2016 and took home a batch of Emmys and Golden Globes for its incisive investigation of racism, sexism, and the media circus of the Nineties, The Assassination of Gianni Versace dives into the era’s homophobia and what Fern describes as “how men treat men and especially how gay men treat gay men.” One of the through lines of the season is the police’s repeated bungling of the case—in the very first episode, a car trunk is shown stuffed full of Wanted flyers with Cunanan’s face that no one took the initiative to distribute—and the prevailing attitude that, until Versace’s death and the media attention that followed, dismissed Cunanan’s killing spree as a “gay” problem. “People might not say it as crassly as that, but essentially what it came down to was like, ‘Let’s just let them have at it and we’ll go about our normal, straight police cases,’” Fern explains. “The series really explores gay shame and what it meant to be a gay man in the Nineties coming out of the AIDS crisis. My character is dealing with an intense amount of gay shame and it’s a really subtle, but sad, look into his psyche.”

Cunanan’s first victim, Jeffrey Trail, played here by Finn Wittrock, was found wrapped up in a carpet in Madson’s apartment, and Madson was originally considered an accomplice until his body was found a few days later after Cunanan shot him multiple times. The days between the two deaths were, Fern says, the hardest to portray, given the extreme situation in which Madson found himself. “You can go through the facts and be like, ‘Ok, they arrived at this gas station and it’s logged here and then his body is found here,’ but nobody can tell you what it’s like when you’ve just seen your best friend murdered in your apartment and then you’re on the run with this person who has a gun,” he explains. Along with Maureen Orth’s nonfiction book on which the series is based, Fern relied on the testimony of Linda Kasabian, a star witness in the Charles Manson trials, to try to understand his character’s mindset. “I looked at her testimony and pieced through breaking down the psychology of what it must be like to fight for one’s life knowing that if you push the wrong button at any point in time, you’re dead.”

Stepping into one of the buzziest shows of the year seemingly out of nowhere might seem like high stakes, but Fern is already used to taking big risks. Raised in the town of Southern Cross (population: three hundred) in Western Australia, the twenty-nine-year-old actor studied management and marketing at university and was working a corporate job at Ernst & Young when he decided he needed a change. “I hit twenty-two and I just realized that I hated my life,” he recalls. “I hated everything about. I hated the music I was listening to, I hated the city that I was in, I hated the people that I associated with. It was one of those moments where you have either a breakthrough or a breakdown and I had to ask myself some really serious questions about who I was going to be.” He quit his job and joined an experimental theater group, performing in front of a handful of people a night. “I’m sure I was terrible in it, but I got great reviews and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be an actor,’” he laughs, “but I’d secretly wanted to be an actor since I was five or six.”

A few years later, Fern landed the lead role in the Australian touring production of the Tony-winning play War Horse, as a teenage boy who follows his horse off to fight in World War I. His performance earned him notice in Australia and offered him a “master class” in stage acting as he traveled with the production from Melbourne to Sydney and Brisbane over the course of a year. “By the hundred-and-twentieth performance, sometimes you have these moments on stage where you’re like, Where the fuck am I? What line am I up to? Who am I? What day is it?” he laughs. “I loved that. I loved every moment of that because you have to find things within yourself to push through to re-engage with the work and to reconnect with the audience.”

In 2014, Fern received the Heath Ledger Scholarship for rising Australian actors, which offered mentorship and ten thousand dollars in prize money and allowed him to move to Los Angeles, where he now lives. “I knew I needed to get to America because Americans are so big in their ambitions and they’re so unabashed about it,” he says. “There’s something great about the American Dream. Obviously, it can be debilitating, but there’s also something really great about this philosophy that you can do anything that you want to do if you just work hard enough. That was intoxicating to me.”

Fern made his feature début last December opposite Jennifer Garner, Justin Kirk, and Maika Monroe in the independent film The Tribes of Palos Verdes, playing a teenager whose troubled home life encourages a downward spiral into drug addiction. The role is strikingly demanding and intense, especially for a first time out, which was exactly what Fern was looking for. “It’s kind of masochistic, but you look at that as an actor and you’re just like, Oh my god, what a feast,” he says. “You get to start off as this young, innocent, hopeful, ambitious kid and you get to wind up a meth addict. That really fascinated me.”

With American Crime Story now airing and a number of other projects in the months to come, Fern’s acting career is clearly on the upswing, but his ambitions extend to writing and directing as well. He’s currently at work on a feature that was already postponed when he signed on to play Madson and he says that he has known for a while that he has wanted to spearhead his own projects and push himself in new ways. “I cared about craft and I cared about really working on constructing something that wasn’t dependent on whether not somebody liked me and that wasn’t about my personality,” he explains. “I hate doing work where I have to act like myself. I don’t know how to act like myself on camera.”

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story continues on Wednesdays on FX.

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