If you’ve been watching American Horror Story: Freak Show, you’ll recognise Mat Fraser, the British actor who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy with such relish and élan. Fraser is a long time London resident who now splits his time between the English capital and New York City, where he lives with his wife, the neo-burlesque performer Julie Atlas-Muz.
I’d met Fraser a couple of times at various dens of iniquity around New Orleans, where filming was taking place, and eventually got the chance to chat to him and find out what he made of the city. We’re shooting the breeze in his temporary apartment and I bring up the question of how he’s enjoyed his time here. He leans in, grinning.
“It’s…a very good city for freaks,” he says. Freaks like him and freaks in general - the layers of satisfaction with this state of affairs are left unsaid, but I get the sense it’s all been working out nicely for him.
“No doubt as people who have lived here a long time will tell you, it’s an extraordinary city,” he says. “I live in New York and London, and they are the best cities to live in for me, but the third place is New Orleans. It has this incredible atmosphere that you really can’t understand or describe unless you’ve been here for some time.”
I tell him I’ve lived here for four years, but have been visiting for 14. When people ask me why I like it so much, I tell them because it’s not like being in America, I say.
“It’s certainly not like living in America,” he says. “It’s like living in a weird bubble. You’ve got all that French and Spanish influence and it’s just crazy with the Creole and the Cajun and everything mixing up and then the free and easy, Big Easy attitude.”
“The fact that, unusually for America, you can walk down the street with booze, for instance. All of those differences make it very special and I’ve utterly fallen in love with its character and I’m as charmed and addicted to the place as anyone.”
Ah, the unconditional love of the first time visitor that I so fonldy remember. I tell him I especially like how you won’t get a Starbucks in the French Quarter and that there won’t ever be a TGI Friday overlooking Jackson Square.
“Yes!” he says. “You don’t have that identikit town look that you get everywhere else. I know Walmart is here, but for the rest of the city, everything just looks completely different to everywhere else. I haven’t seen a Starbucks in months. And it’s great. Why would you need one?”
I’d first seen Fraser at the AllWays Lounge in a show called the Dirty Dime Peep Show. It’s a show that I’m an occasional cast member of – not as one of the edgy neo-burlesque performers that they showcase, but as a pasty white guy telling jokes in between the good stuff. I wondered how he’d hooked up with that crowd.
“Well, I’m part of the international burlesque community and there’s a few people here that I already kind of knew as acquaintances, that I’ve been able to make better friends with,” he says.
“Bella Blue and her Dirty Dime Peep Show is as near to the club that I co-run, Sleaze, back in London. I like the raucous, drunken barroom, political end of burlesque. I like classic burlesque but I do like neo-burlesque more, and it interests me more.”
There’s a lot of burlesque in town, I say. It’s great that the scene can support both the classical scene and more edgy, arty shows like Bella puts on for Dirty Dime.
“My wife Julie is one of the most famous neo-burlesque dancers out there and that’s the kind I’m into,” Fraser says. “That’s why I like the Dirty Dime. And what’s nice about it is that there’s been a kind of marriage of scenes for me. The cast and crew of American Horror Story have been coming down to the show. I know they were recently all psyched that Gerard Butler was at the show but Angela Basset and some of the other stars came along and it’s nice that the two ends of my performance worlds have somehow connected in New Orleans.”
How is it, being locally famous, I wonder? I mean, you’re going to garner a fair amount of attention to begin with because of your appearance, and add to that being one of the stars of a locally-produced TV show. Do you get swamped?
“I’ve been out with some of the more famous stars in the show,” he says. “These are people that are massively famous to everyone here in town. I’ve seen them negotiate fame in terms of drunken tourists coming up to them and telling them that they love them. But I think in general, in New Orleans, everyone is much more laid back about that kind of thing. I’ve had a lot of people coming up to me but they wait until I’m leaving an establishment, not wanting to disturb people.”
Well, that’s polite enough, I say.
“Plus? They ain’t that impressed. And I like that. They’re not bothered.”
So you’ll be coming back?
“I’m already booked for first four weeks in April. I’m going to be doing a big show, co-producing with Bella. And also, you know, my love affair with the Country Club has grown to something quite profound. I think of it as my second home.”
For out-of-towners, this is a casual neighbourhood swimming pool and restaurant that recently – and controversially – had its clothing-optional rule revoked by the city.
“I got some of the good times,” smiles Fraser. “I really hope it gets it clothing-optional status back.”
So do we, Mat. Places like that, after all, are what keep the freaks coming back to New Orleans, and that can only be a good thing.