It’s easy to imagine that Cody Fern came out of nowhere. This 30-year-old Australian actor, who looks like the most well-dressed skate kid on a street style blog, is suddenly ubiquitous in Hollywood. First came his surprising turn earlier this year in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace as David Madson, one of Versace killer Andrew Cunanan’s former lovers and earliest victims. Then arrived another another Murphy collaboration, with Fern as Michael Langdon, the literal anti-christ in the current season of American Horror Story: Apocalypse. And now he stars as Duncan Shepherd, a shadowy and ambitious young political player in the final season of House of Cards, where Duncan and his even more influential mother (played by Diane Lane) will engage in a power struggle with Robin Wright’s icy President Claire Underwood.
In a manner of speaking, Fern did come out of nowhere. He grew up in Southern Cross, a tiny town in the Australian outback where his father was one of only two policemen and his mother did a little bit of everything, including running the local pool and the town’s tiny post office. “This was the real Australian outback, not that Crocodile Dundee shit,” Fern jokes, adding that the reality of his childhood is not what most Americans would imagine. He was a rough and tumble kid who says his parents kicked him and his brothers (he’s the middle of three) out into the wild with a packed lunch and instructions not to come home until dinnertime.
While many of Fern’s friends were hunting snakes out in the dusty terrain, he never liked killing animals. Instead he would take spiders and scorpions home as pets and then go “bush bashing” with his friends—they would tune up old abandoned cars lying around the dessert and get them into driving condition only to utterly destroy the machines over an afternoon of joy riding.
Though he did spend a majority of his time outdoors, Fern was not immune to the allure of the screen. He was initially inspired watching the weekly afternoon movies on TV that featured great actresses like Cate Blanchett, Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, and Cher. “That really got the ball rolling in terms of I know this is what I want to do," he says now. "I have a drive to do whatever she's doing.”
Since his family couldn’t afford to send him to school for acting, he got a scholarship to go to nearby Perth to study finance. After school he took a lucrative job at an accounting firm and was fast-tracked for management, but something didn’t feel right. “I just realized I hate everything about myself,” he recalls. “I hate the choices I've made, I hate the degree that I have, I hate the friends that I'm hanging around, I hate the place where I live, I hate the music that I'm listening to. I don't know who I am. I only know one thing, which is this desire to act.”
He left that job one day by never returning from lunch.
After being rejected from every reputable drama school in Perth, he ended up with an experimental theater group, leading to the lead role in the Australian production of the play War Horse. Still, Fern wasn’t really the star, which was the puppet horse of the title. “You could come off the stage and they would be like, ‘Were you in the horse?’ And I'd want to scream," he says. "That was a real big lesson in humility."
Eventually, he made it to Los Angeles three years ago only to live the actor life of serial auditions. But he wasn’t sitting on his ass. “I have to do this 100%, which means working 16 hours a day,” he says with the intensity of a flat white with three extra shots of espresso. “It means reading plays. It means going to plays. It means watching films. It means figuring out why they're good. It doesn't mean having a smoothie and going to the gym and bitching about your agent.”
He credits the writers and directors on American Crime Story for teaching him a lot, but the set of House of Cards was much different, especially after Kevin Spacey was fired from his role as Frank Underwood following allegations of sexual misconduct both on the set and off. “What's happening in Hollywood at the moment and what's happened to Kevin is a very necessary and exciting time because we're sweeping out the trash. Sweep it all out."
The way Fern talks about it, there wasn’t much mourning among the cast and crew. “They're very good people doing a very great job, and everybody is supportive and wanting to do the very best work and bring the very best,” he says. “Coming back to filming without Kevin, everybody is just so pumped to be behind Robin [Wright], who by the way has been the show since season two.”
Still, with all of these great parts coming for him—there all sorts of percolating projects, including something he’s very excited about but can’t yet announce and a film he’s writing, directing, starring in, and co-producing with cinema’s enfant terrible Xavier Dolan—Fern is still focusing on his writing and directing endeavors because he says he’d hate to be in a superhero movie or on a crime procedural. He has always had very clear expectations of what he did and did not want to do, searching for projects that really resonated with him. “I told my agent that I wouldn’t do TV unless it was Ryan Murphy, House of Cards, or HBO,” he says. “So two out of those three are down.” Guess all that’s left for this Outback kid to conquer is HBO.