Sat. Aug 8th, 2020

Interview: Sarah Paulson – actress, almighty Supreme, dog mom – discusses ‘Mrs. America, ‘Ratched’ and her diverse career

You may remember her as passionate lawyer Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. You might know her best as the almighty Supreme of American Horror Story. Sarah Catherine Paulson has been lighting up our small and big screens for quite some time now but she’s just getting started. Born on December 17th, 1974, she spent most of her youth in Tampa, Florida until her parents’ divorce when she was five, when New York and Maine became her home with her mother and sister. She attended the famed LaGuardia High School and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the High School for Performing Arts. Although she made her Broadway debut in The Sisters Rosensweig and performed in the off-Broadway Talking Pictures, she first appeared on the small screen making a guest spot on the original Law & Order in 1994. Throughout the years, she’s co-starred in feature films like Down With Love, Carol, The Post and Bird Box. In 2011, all pop-culture hell broke loose with the new era of American Horror Story that altered the course of Paulson’s diverse career. 

Paulson has received many awards throughout her acting career. In 2013, she appeared in the film by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, for which she was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award in the category of Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. She earned three Golden Globe Award nominations and seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations, getting one of each for her phenomenal role of Marcia Clark in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story in 2016. Paulson has also received multiple nominations for her roles in American Horror Story from the Critics’ Choice Television Awards (she won three times) and Dorian Awards (winning one). I still thoroughly believe that she deserved an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Lana Winters in the second season titled Asylum. All the honors only prove and display her extraordinary talent. It manifests in all the incredible, deeply various roles of strong, multidimensional women. The characters portrayed by Paulson more often than not influence contemporary society and pop culture discourse. 

American Horror Story was one of the first (if not the first) series where each season provides a different plot, different time set, and diverse characters played by (usually) the same actors season after season. Although Sarah Paulson wasn’t in all of them, she’s one of the “veterans” of the series since she appeared in the first season and then every single one after, except AHS: 1984. The series has contributed to the disclosure of the unbelievable range of acting skills of the actress.

There is no doubt that the characters from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s production are well-crafted and exceptionally portrayed. I think that the phenomenon of American Horror Story has multiple reasons: an exceptional cast, reinvigorating plot, and the fact that it always adheres to contemporary society. Although the characters and themes differ, its storytelling symbolizes many issues in the world. In Murder House, for example, Murphy and Falchuk come back to the heartbreaking time of Columbine and take on the subject of guns and school shootings. Just as the story blows the minds of the viewers, the characters keep up with its pace. Sarah Paulson portrayed many various, complex characters in the show. She started in Murder House as a medium, Billie Dean Howard, then she was a journalist Lana Winters, further the mighty Supreme – Cordelia Goode, Sally McKenna, Bette/Dot Tattler, Ally Mayfair – Richards, and Wilhelmina Venable. The high prevalence of American Horror Story: Coven where Cordelia Goode manages Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Witches, in New Orleans led to the unexpected return of Paulson’s influential character in the eight season, Apocalypse. The phenomenal character development of Paulson’s creation and its meaning to the young women, as well as the subject of witchcraft, even started a rumor about the possible spin-off. Nothing surprising here, sign me up for some more witches. 

With the time where television is everything and films are delayed or directed to the digital release, Mrs. America is currently trending everywhere. The FX on Hulu limited original series focuses on the events that transpired in the 70s around the Equal Rights Amendment. “The most hated woman in America,” the staunchly conservative Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), leads an unexpected battle against the ratification of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and her women’s movement. Sarah Paulson’s role as Alice Macray is the only female character that is not based on an actual person that has had an impact on those events. Instead, Alice is a symbol of all women – homemakers and feminists. The director of the episode, Janicza Bravo as well as the writer, Joshua Allen Griffith, knew exactly how to portray the transformation of one woman who stayed close to her faith, but her mind and eyes opened. In the episode titled “Houston,” Paulson’s character, high as a kite, gets lost and ends up hanging out with a group of feminists. In the apogee of her state, she stands up and sings along with “This Land Is Your Land” at the top of her lungs before truly realizing the song’s’ meaning. The episode is trippy (literally!), and I fully believe it can land Paulson a place in the running for an Emmy in the Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Limited Series or Movie category.

While the world is on pause, television thrives more than ever. Although we have to wait for Aneesh Chaganty’s Run in which Paulson plays Diane Sherman, a mother with many secrets, we are all waiting for the upcoming Netflix Original Series, Ratched, created by Ryan Murphy. The actress will depict the titular role of Mildred Ratched, known as a despicable nurse from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But how did she become who she is in the film from the 70s? That’s what Murphy and Paulson will show us. 

While writing the article on Sarah and her diverse career, I had a chance to chat with her via phone on one Tuesday afternoon. She shared many things with me – the beginnings of American Horror Story, the challenge of portraying Marcia Clark, and more. We also talked about her character from Mrs. America, her upcoming projects, including Ratched, and our dogs, because why not. 

The interview below contains details from episode 8 of Mrs. America.

How are you doing, staying home? 

I’m trying to do my part to make sure that we’re protecting those who are immunocompromised. I’m trying to do as directed and stay as close to home as possible.

Mrs. America is airing now, and I must say – it is an exceptional limited series. Tell me, how was it working with such a diverse, talented group of women?

Well, this is my third time working with Cate and I have to say that it’s an extraordinary experience to have more than once. I’m very grateful to have been able to work with her as many times as I have. The list of extraordinarily talented women [in Mrs. America] goes on and on. It’s really remarkable to show up at work every day and find myself in the room with people I’ve always admired. Most of my staff was Cate, Melanie Lynskey, Kayli Carter and we were really separated from “the feminist side,” we didn’t shoot on the same days. Margo, and Ari, Rose and Tracy – whenever they were working, we were sometimes not working. We could go have dinner and they couldn’t join us because they were still on set. That was really the only downside to being away from home with all these wonderful people. I’ve known a lot of them from New York, so it was really wonderful thing to be able to be with them, it was very special. 

You and Cate Blanchett have such gal-pal energy, it’s always so hilarious.

[laughs] We really have a fun time together, we always have a hard time not laughing. Cate has much finer sense of concentration than I do. Sometimes when even tiny little thing doesn’t go as planned, I’m the first person to laugh.  When we were shooting the show, we worked many long nights, starting midday and ending in the middle of the night. Cate had so much dialogue and sometimes, she was just exhausted. Many late nights were spent with all of us just in a pile on the floor, laughing hysterically. You just get so giddy at the certain hour, because your brain stops working, but you need to keep working. It was a lot of fun. 

Let’s talk a little about your character, Alice. How it’s like to play a character whose views on the world of politics are so different than yours?

I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to try on another world view. I think we all could benefit from taking a moment and trying to see the other side of any story. When something doesn’t exactly align with our way of thinking, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean everything to the other side of the coin. I think it’s disrespectful to not expect everyone to, at the very least, have the ability to hear someone out and respect someone’s point of view. I was very interested in spending time inside of the character who didn’t see things the way I did. It was an interesting challenge. I think that if we’re not going to use the opportunity to learn more about human behavior, then I don’t know why we’re doing it. I think it’s enormous personal value. Let’s say that there is a young person who is a fan of American Horror Story, but doesn’t really know much about this part of our country’s history and they watch it, and they see me — an actress that they like, telling the story of a point of view that they also don’t agree with. When you are seeing an actress that you already are interested in, playing someone that is different than your particular point of view, it can sometimes, I think, help people understand and find their way into something that they otherwise might not pursue. That’s a nice set of responsibilities that we have as performers. It’s not interesting to only play people that you understand, it’s much more interesting to step outside of your comfort zone and try things on that don’t fit, and see how comfortable you can get. Or see what part of it you can understand, you know? Everybody is entitled to their point of view and everybody is entitled to their opinion. Why not see what’s that like when the point of view and opinion doesn’t match your own. 

It’s very interesting what you say about young people. They can have a chance to see the history, to see the events that transpired in the 70s in the United States. It’s especially interesting to me as an immigrant from Poland. Polish women still fight for rights to abortion and gay rights. What did you feel recreating this part of history?

I think it’s very amazing to walk around and see everybody in costumes. I think it was a real experience, I think, for all of us. We were reading these scripts and it’s like – “wait, I didn’t know that that happened, I didn’t remember reading about this in school”. It was a wonderful education. I kept thinking that there is a real value in this. I’m an educated woman to a degree and there were things about this movement that I didn’t know about. So I thought that if I feel this way, there must be many women who also didn’t know about this time in our country’s history and about this movement specifically, and about the women who were a part of creating it and the women who were trying to stop it. What an extraordinary time in our history that really deserves a look back and investigation. Like I said, I think that if you take a bunch of actors that people have attachment to, they might tune into something that otherwise might not interest them. It’s very smart to have people that are actors telling the story that young people can look up to. It helps them find a way into the story where they can really educate themselves about something they thought they knew about. I think that’s a really important thing. 

Your episode titled “Houston” was great! And your character, Alice Macray, transforms throughout it. She sees that women, on the other side, are no different than her. The episode was trippy, literally. How did you prepare for the role of Alice and particularly this episode?

Well, I knew with Davhi [Waller] along with Coco Francini, and Stacy Sher who are producers that it was very important to them, I think, to have an opportunity to have someone from Phyllis’ side all of a sudden have, you know… not a total awakening. It’s not as if Alice goes to Houston and ends that time there a feminist and a completely different person. Alice is still a woman of great faith, dedicated homemaker, wife and mother who is very comfortable in that environment. What Alice only had was one point of view and that was Phyllis’, and the only information that she had and what she learned about was from Phyllis. That happens a lot in our society today. We get one news source and that’s the only place we’re getting our news from. We don’t think to go outside our normal structures in terms of where and how we get our information to see what the other side is saying. What ends up happening is that Alice finds herself in Houston and all of a sudden she’s realizing that these women, these feminists, these people she deemed the enemy were, in fact, just like she was. They are human beings and they want fundamental things. They had passions, and loves, and family, and children, and lovers, and desires to be seen, to be recognized and to be heard which was the same thing Alice wanted. She wanted to be seen, and heard , and recognized as a person of value who are valuing her life and her home. She wanted that to be an equal value. What she realizes that the women on the other side were not, in fact, enemies and they were not, in fact, different than she was. They just believed in something else, they wanted something else, and they weren’t actually trying to take anything away from her. Which is what she had come to believe based on being in the environment that she was in. And so she ends this story with a new set of eyes. There is that thing where you can only know what you know ’til you know it. Once you know it, you know you can’t un-know it. Or something [laugh]. Alice walks around with a particular point of view and by the time she ends this series, she’s a different person. She’s not who she was when this series starts. I think that was really exciting to play. I didn’t have a great good fortune in the fun of playing someone like Gloria Steinem where I could study all the footage. But I was playing a different kind of extraordinary woman. A woman that was just essentially a civilian, who was an ordinary person. And by ordinary, I don’t meant it in a reductive way, I mean she was just like everyone else. She was just pursuing something for her own personal comfort. I just found it really interesting. 

Yes, it was a really interesting character. I love that it basically showcases the positive transition that a person can go through without hurting anybody. I was wondering if we can go back a little. In American Horror Story, you display such a fantastic variety of your acting skills. I’m so happy you’re back for the next season. After you joined this little family created by Ryan Murphy, did you expect it to be such a huge success? 

It’s funny because I really only believed that I became a part of American Horror Story because of my friendship with Jessica Lange. We had done a Broadway play together in 2005 and had remained close friends. I’ve known Ryan for a long time, I’ve been on Nip/Tuck, and worked with him in other ways. Jessica had moved out to LA to do American Horror Story and LA is not the town she spent a ton of time in, so we were spending a lot of time together and I had gone to this dinner where Ryan was and I haven’t seen him for a while. She just sort of surrounded around me and said, “Can’t you find something for her to do on the show?” And I was supposed to go to New York to do this play and the play fell apart. It was just one of those things when you look back and you think – what would have happened if that play had not fallen apart and I had gone to New York to do that play, and I had not stayed in California, and I had not been able to go to that dinner with Jessica, and I had not sat next to Ryan, and had not have that moment when he said, “actually, there is a part of a physic that’s your friend, you can play that part.” And that’s how I came onto the show. It wasn’t really until season two where I really got to sink my teeth into something really special with the character I loved playing, Lana Winters. Anytime you do any project and you’re having a wonderful time, and you love working with the people, and you love the character that you’re playing – that is the price. But then when you add on top of it, the way people respond to it, the fact that people are actually interested in it, and they want you to do more? And you can actually make a living out of it and work with people you’ve been enormous fan of your whole life and have been inspirations to you, and you find yourself acting alongside them, and it’s been become this sort of phenomenon that people love all over the world? That is just almost hard to even wrap your head around it. That you get to do something you love, you know, that’s not lost on me. Very few people are likely to do something that they truly love. It is a real gift and great good fortune when you’re able to find something that you love. And also to be able to sustain your life, put a roof over your head and help take care of your family. When everything lines up and all of that is possible, it’s very special, lucky thing. The fact that we all knew each other like we did and we’re all so inspired around each other, and then people even watched it. That was the most delicious icing on the cake. 

You have such an impact on young women because you’re characters are always such complex, multidimensional roles. You mentioned multiple times before that your most treasured character from American Horror Story is Lana Winters. Why is that?

Yes. Well, on some level, it was my first. I did play Billie Dean but I was only in three episodes in season one. It was something about Lana… you know, again, she’s not so different from Alice [from Mrs. America] in a sense that she starts the series one way and she ends it as an entirely different person. In the beginning, Lana Winters is a young, ambitious reporter, and by the end of the show, I ended up being a 75-year-old woman. She has lived this full life and escaped this institution, and became an enormous success as a reporter, journalist, television personality. She had a big relationship, you know, and it was a success. She’s been through a lot in order to achieve all of that. I had never played a character where I got to start it as a 32-year-old woman and end up at the time of my life I have yet to even experience. She was a person of such resilience, strength, and bravery. Her ambition somehow got her into trouble. She was headstrong and she had her love, too. Lana was complicated, she was a full-fledged character that Ryan gave me. It was just rich, complicated, and I’ve spent a lot of time being her. It was really hard to say goodbye to it. I’ve played a lot of good characters on American Horror Story that I have really loved but that one probably because she was really my first even though, you know, sometimes they say, “But Billie Dean, we love Billie Dean,” and I love Billie Dean. But the first character I got to really sink my teeth into and became really attached to was Lana Winters.

Yeah, I love her too. I think it’s partly because I’m a journalist. She was really strong and she went through the transition. There were also a lot of important subjects attached, for example abortion, or conversion therapy. 

Exactly, conversion therapy, abortion, yeah. 

And you had American Crime Story, which earned you Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. Your portrayal of Marcia Clark was absolutely phenomenal. What was the most challenging part about portraying her?

It’s always hard when you’re playing a real person and that person has a life, walks on this planet and has children, and you want to do right by them. I was very cognizant of the fact that this is something now because we were making this show, she was going to have to relive it. And it’s not particularly pleasant time of her life. People laid the guilty verdict at her feet and blamed her for the outcome. That’s a big, heavy burden to carry, especially when it isn’t true. And to be vilified the way she was in the press and all these things that a civil servant shouldn’t have to endure. I mean, nobody should have to endure it. It was hard because I was worried what Marcia would think about it. And again, I didn’t know Marcia when I started, I didn’t meet her until we practically finished shooting it. She was not a part of the making of it and we didn’t become friends until afterwards. But it really heavy thing to hold, because I didn’t want to cause her any further pain and I didn’t want to let her down. Probably the hardest part about it was letting it go. I did that for about six months and, you know, there is a lot to go into that. I watched her constantly, so much footage of her, I watched her in courtroom, so by the time it comes to the end of that road, I felt so confused, like, am I Marcia Clark? It was just hard to say goodbye. I remember the courtroom when we were done with shooting, and looking at it. The clock was off the wall, all the seats were turned upside-down on top of tables, and props were laid out, they were going to the different prop houses, and I just thought, this isn’t real. It’s over, it’s done. It was really sad for me. I hadn’t had that experience again until I finished Ratched. So it was Lana Winters, Marcia Clark, and my experience on Ratched. Those were the only three times I’ve had those strong, emotional connections. 

Actually, my next question was about Ratched.  Ryan Murphy called it “the performance of your life.” I know you were mentioning that the most challenging role was the one of Marcia Clark. Who’s right? Does the part of Ratched surpass the role from American Crime Story when it comes to the complexity and depth of the character? 

I don’t know what he’s talking about [laughs]. He’s a very nice man. It’s wonderful to have your boss have so much faith in you. But I don’t know, you know, I still have yet to watch OJ. I have watched Ratched, because I executive produced it as well. Ryan really let me do that by giving me all the episodes and asking for my notes, and that was the first time I’ve ever been in a position like that in my life. I took it very seriously and did the thing I haven’t been able to do in five years which is watch myself. That was really interesting. So I don’t know if I’m the best judge of these kinds of things. I hope people will like it and remember that the fundamental difference between this and [One Flew Over] Cuckoo’s Nest. This takes place long before that movie takes place. So you’re not going to see me with my hair looking like Nurse Ratched from the movie. There is a hairdo that I had that evokes the beginning of that look but if people tune in expecting it to be Cuckoo’s Nest, they’re not going to get that. This is its own thing and predates that story and hopefully the more episodes we do, the closer to that we will get. But all in due time. 

How would you describe Mildred Ratched that you’re going to play?

Mildred Ratched that I’m playing is just younger Mildred Ratched. We are learning about how Mildred became the Mildred that you see in that movie. How did Mildred’s life prior to that time, working in a hospital, shape who she became. That’s what the story is about. It’s after the war, and I think it’s ultimately the story about family, and about love. There are some potentially dangerous things that she engages with that are complicated and controversial. I’m excited about it, I’m proud of it. 

I’m excited to, I cannot wait to watch it and review it. I’m also super excited about your movie Run and I’m so very intrigued by the motive of mothers in film. What can you tell us about your character, Diane Sherman? 

That character was really interesting to do and I really wanted to work with Aneesh [Chaganty]. He made the movie Search, that was very interesting and incredibly well done. What an inventive way to make a movie that I hadn’t really seen before. I thought it was very clever and very interesting to have a movie be so moving and effective without a traditional look. He shot the whole thing on computers, and FaceTime, and it was just very interesting that the movie could be that effective without the things we’re traditionally used to. So I really wanted to work with him. And I really liked the idea of doing basically a movie about two people and their relationship. There are very few people in this movie besides myself and Kiera Allen who is a wonderful actress and this is her first movie, and she’s really going to amaze people. It’s a love story, motherhood and love story. And that’s all I can say. 

What woman inspires you every day and is your role model?

Oh, so many. I’m very lucky that I have such wonderful friends in my life, who are very special, they’re wives and mothers. Watching them and the care they have for their children, and the time they dedicate to the role of the mother is really heroic to me. Because it’s hard. I’m very inspired by them. Also my dear friend Diane Keaton is a big inspiration for me. I find her to be a true artist, the artist in the truest sense of the word. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at her Instagram, but it’s full of wonderful things. She just always reminds me, by example, of how important it is to have a good sense of humor. 

To close, I wanted to tell you a funny story.

Okay.

The other day I was scrolling through Instagram and saw your video of your dog, little Winnifred. The sound was on and my dog, her name is Clementine, actually ran to me and my wife, and was tilting her head just like Winnie, hearing your voice. And we were just laughing hysterically.

Oh, that’s so sweet! 

And you were asking your dog if she wants turkey, and I was like – Clementine, sorry, you don’t get to have any turkey today.

That’s so, so sweet. Thank you for telling me that, thank you.

Sarah, I hope I to speak to you again in the future about your projects. Have a great day, best wishes to your family.

Thank you, you too, and be safe! Thank you so much.

Mrs. America airs exclusively on FX on Hulu every Wednesday. Sarah Paulson’s “Houston” episode (#8) airs this week.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Zofia resides in Los Angeles and is a film and television critic. She has previously written for The Mary Sue, First Showing, Film Threat, In Their Own League, Film Inquiry, and more. She loves the Scream movies, CarolAmerican Horror Story, and Schitt’s Creek. Her Twitter – @thefilmnerdette


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