Interview: Sarah Paulson chats about ‘Ratched’, Mildred as an LGBTQ+ character, ‘American Crime Story’ and more
This past year has been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us. Thankfully, the existence of streaming platforms that still continued to serve us new shows and films, certainly helped us in these trying times. One of these shows was Ratched, a Netflix Original that premiered on September last year. The series that explores the past of Mildred Ratched, known from One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest, has officially become Netflix’s most watched series in 2020. Within its first 28 days of release, Ratched, created by Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky, was streamed by 48 million viewers.
There are many components that go into the overall success of the series – stunning costumes, direction, five-rated cast, and, most importantly – the main character, so wonderfully portrayed by Sarah Paulson. When I chatted with Sarah last year, she admitted that she and the character of Mildred have strong, emotional connections. It certainly translates into the series where we can discern Paulson’s immense passion and love for this character.
I recently had a chance to chat with her on a Saturday afternoon. We talked about the importance of Ratched being a part of the LGBTQ+ community, the influence that her childhood had on the character’s present actions, and, briefly, about the upcoming American Crime Story, and of course, American Horror Story.
The conversation below contains spoilers about season one of Ratched.
Zofia Wijaszka: Hi, how are you, how are you doing after over a year of pandemic?
Sarah Paulson: I’m okay, you know, lucky enough to be working and, so far, everyone I know and love has been healthy and safe, so I consider myself to be extraordinarily lucky. That is for sure. How about you, is everybody okay?
ZW: Yeah, everything is okay. This past year has definitely been a wild rollercoaster. I was actually checking the last time we’ve talked, because I’m doing the interview for AwardsWatch again. We chatted almost exactly a year ago.
ZW: Yes, I think it was around May 12 and today is May 15. It’s been crazy for sure. By the way, I love your Instagram livestreams. You probably made people’s day for sure. One time I was scrolling and you were on and my wife’s little cousin was enamored, he didn’t want me to stop streaming it [laughs].
SP: Oh, that’s so sweet!
ZW: It definitely was. I wanted to talk to you about Ratched today. I loved this show. I love how well you portrayed Mildred. The older Mildred from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest has been deemed a villain for as long as I remember. I was wondering, how did your perception of her change once you explored her past with the creators?
SP: It changed, really, when I re-watched the movie which I wasn’t going to do, because I didn’t want to try to emulate what Louise Fletcher did so brilliantly, it was such a towering performance. There was nothing I was going to be able to do to better it, that was for sure. I thought then that the best thing to do is to watch it as a way of honoring what she had done. Ultimately, I was only able to play the part because of what she did so gorgeously. There was so much mystery that made people, I think, be interested in what could possibly have been contributing to her behavior and her manner. It wasn’t so much something that I discussed with the creators but it was more something that struck me when I re-watched the film. She’s a famous villain whether you’ve seen the movie or not. People think of her as a villain. But to me, what really struck me is that I actually thought she was more of a victim of circumstance and of patriarchal infrastructure that was that hospital. And at that particular time, we were having a second-wave feminism. I’m quite confident that Mildred was not on the front lines of those protests. I think she was a product of a different kind of upbringing – the movie’s version of it, before we even got into her backstory in Ratched. She’s the woman that really seems to abide by the rules and seems to believe that what the doctors were suggesting should not be challenged. That was a particular kind of worldview that she had. What was interesting to me is to try to figure out how did that world view come to be. How did it solidify within her? What would have had to have happen in her life for her to not ever feel empowered and to not ever allow her compassion to meet her intellect. It was really interesting to me to try to get inside what would make you be a person who would push all of your emotional impulses to the side and to only lead with sort of tunnel vision.
ZW: Yeah, I remember I watched the movie before, but I didn’t really remember it. So I actually watched it again before watching the show. And I was watching it and I’m thinking, “Really? I don’t see her as a villain at all.”
SP: I mean, she does some things that you wish she wouldn’t do. I think it really speaks more to people reviewing the movie at the time and the mindset and the culture at that time. The idea that a female character would be anything other than maternal means she has to be a villain. There can’t be anything about the character of Ratched that would be complicated or perceived as complex, or rich, or deep. It has to just be put in the box of villain because she wasn’t soft. She didn’t lead with her emotions. She didn’t like taking the patients to her chest and stroke their backs and tell them that everything is going to be okay and give them a spoonful of medicine. In any portrayal of that at that particular time could only be determined to go into the box of cruelty, as opposed to a woman who was really adhering to and abiding by rules that were set forth, that she obviously believed in. What’s more interesting is to wonder why she is a person, not just a woman, but would do the thing that, let’s say, most women tend not to do, which is to have their emotions be left of center to not be part of her.
ZW: This character [in the show] has also a very unusual way of looking at the meaning of mercy.
SP: Ha, yes [laughs].
ZW: It’s one of the most intriguing parts too, you know, how she sees it. How do you feel about her way of “showing” mercy to others?
SP: During the war, Mildred found herself to be able to be of use. And a lot of women after the war had to go back into the margins of society, where they had been so much a part of, of helping to make the war efforts. It became a part of the fabric of their daily lives. And then we’re sort of relegated back to out of the workforce and out of the service and going back to tending to their families and their husbands and their children. I think, for Mildred, she saw the way they were being treated as, sort of, being lied to. And Mildred was lied to a lot in her life and didn’t ever trust anyone. The people who were responsible for caring for her had only disappointed her and caused her great emotional trauma. What she perceived as mercy was to tell them the truth, give them the truth. And if they want it to be put out of their mercy, she would help them do that. Now, what she ends up doing, you know, with Mr. Salvatore (Daniel di Tomasso) for example, is like, yes, she is helping him do something he does want to do, but she’s doing it for selfish purpose, which is to find a way to infiltrate herself and become a person of trust for Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). She’s essentially blackmailing him. But again, she makes these choices that are sometimes, I think, very abhorrent and downright questionable, but she’s doing them for what she perceives as a greater good. And certainly when she was a nurse to war heroes and they were in tremendous pain and they knew they were never going to live a life they wanted to live, she wanted to tell them the truth. In her mind, what they were saying to her was “save me and kill me”. She was wanting to do it because it represented something honest. And I think Mildred had been fleeing from dishonesty her whole life. She was trying to do something that she perceived to be noble. When in fact, you know, you can have a lot of views about that, which I understand.
ZW: Like you mentioned, Mildred’s past had a significant influence on her present actions and the relationship with Edmund (Finn Wittrock). We see her in the show and she’s an adult already. And because of her horrific childhood, she’s manipulative and basically a master of lies to the point that she actually believes in them. I was wondering, what moment, do you think, forces her to realize that there is no help for Edmund anymore?
SP: Well, he forsakes her, they have a whole plan to escape the hospital to be together, to be reunited. She risks everything for him, and he leaves her there, and goes with Dolly (Alice Englert). Not only is it humiliating, but it’s a huge rejection. And, I think, once that happens, it’s very, very hard for her to understand how she could have been doing everything she’s done in her life to write what she perceives to have been a real forsaking of her brother when he was a young boy. Leaving him there after he did commit a horrible act, but had been after years of horrible, indefensible abuse. Mildred was terrified and she ran and because she ran, he had no one there to defend him, and no one there to bear witness to what had happened. His life was irrevocably changed because of her choice to run away. So she’s trying to do everything she can to save him and risking everything. And then he ends up completely just blowing her off and leaving. There is also that scene that I have with Rosanna Arquette, you know, who had been our social worker [in Ratched]. And she explains to me all the things that Edmund had been doing in the time that we had been separated. Even though she feels terrible guilt about it, I think she starts to realize that there’s nothing she could have done to save Edmund. And that he was always going to do what he is doing and he would never be capable of doing anything else. And so that the most humane thing to do would be to get him out of this mystery. Except that it didn’t work.
ZW: That’s right. I believe it was in the first episode, first or second, when Mildred says, “Edmund was not born a monster but someone turned him into one.”
SP: That’s right.
ZW: It reminded me that I once wrote a paper where I was to check and see, based on selected films and shows, if the evil is born or if it’s made by different components. When a person is growing up, there are situations happening that influence our upbringing. I think that it’s a very interesting polemic to have and I quite like this angle that’s presented in Ratched. Do you agree with the words that Mildred said about Edmund?
SP: Listen, I do think you are born into the world who you are in a lot of ways, but there is no doubt that your circumstances play such a huge role. Your environment plays such a huge role in your sense of self, your sense of worth, value, your place in society. You know what your responsibility is as a human being to your fellow man. These things are all part of normal, healthy child-rearing and parenting. None of which Edmund or Mildred had. That can absolutely affect the way you move through the world. So I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that monsters are not born, they’re made or vice versa. I don’t believe in anything too extreme in a black and white kind of way. I really believe so much of the world in life lives in the gray. And we’re looking for a lot of absolutism and a lot of certainty where there can never be any. If we could just sort of acknowledge that most things operate in and live in and are born from the middle ground, the gray part, the part that’s a little bit unknown to us, I think it would benefit everyone. So I don’t know. But there’s no doubt to me that that the way someone is raised, if you are shown no love and no compassion, and you have no stability, or structure, or mentorship, or guidance, or friendship, or affection, you are liable to be a very different kind of person than a child who was well-loved. I’m sure a psychologist could go in very great depth about all of it. If you struggle mentally with anything, no amount of love can sometimes write a chemical story that’s happening in someone’s brain, you know?
ZW: Yeah. I really liked what you said about the gray area. I feel like if people thought that way, I think it would be way better for all of us [laughs].
SP: And I understand why people want certainty. We all want certainty. We all want things to be clear-cut and not confusing. And it’s much cleaner when, you know, something is very clear. I just don’t think that’s very often the case. I think mostly it’s a gray area and you have to kind of figure out what the best thing to do is, but from inside that place, looking for certainty in any environment is going to lead you astray because it’s so rarely there, I think. It’s also subjective, you know.
ZW: Yeah, definitely, I see what you mean. In Ratched, we’re going from the episode to the episode, and the most surprising thing transpires where we find out that Mildred likes women. I think it was really heartbreaking for me to watch how she suppresses all the feelings that she has and things that they are wrong. And then she tries to be with detective Wainwright who’s played by Corey Stoll and trying to push all the feelings aside until she meets Gwendolyn. This past year, despite whatever happened, was rather lucky for the LGBTQ+ community in regards to characters’ appearance in television and film. As a part of this community, I was very excited to see Mildred letting herself be happy for once. How important was this for you, playing this LGBTQ+ character who’s, at the end, getting a happy ending?
SP: Well, we’ll see is she gets one [laughs].
ZW: We will, that’s true.
SP: I think it was very important to Ryan that he casted Cynthia [Nixon], not only because she’s a brilliant actress, but the idea of having two openly gay women playing these characters is a very powerful example of representation that is valuable and important, and meaningful to a lot of people. And a lot of people who responded to the show responded to that component of it really, really ferociously. And I think it is a point of pride for both Cynthia and myself, that that was the response to it because it was important to us. And it was important to us that there also is, like you said, a happiness for them. There’s oftentimes in stories about, you know, two women together or two men where there’s a lot of trauma that happens traditionally. And it’s not that this was without it, it just, as you said, when we end this series, this first season, they are together and they are happy. I don’t know how long that’s going to last. I don’t know what the second season will bring.
ZW: Oh nooo!
SP: [Laughs] But it was very beautiful and very moving to me that the place where Mildred was finally able to sort of exhale and live inside a moment of happiness was in this love story. And I think it was very meaningful to people. And I know it was meaningful for Cynthia and myself, and to Ryan. It was important to all of us.
ZW: Yeah, I remember I was watching, and then, you know, we first find out that she has feelings for Gwendolyn and I was just so happy. And then we see Gwendolyn getting shot…
SP: I know, and then you’re like, nooooo!
ZW: Yes! I was like, “oh, my God, what’s going to happen now?!”
SP: I think we didn’t know at that point. I think there was a moment where, I think, Ryan has talked about this, nurse Bucket was supposed to die, then my brother was supposed to die, and Gwendolyn was supposed to die and then, it sort of changed. And now all of them are alive. I wonder what that will mean for the future.
ZW: I was just so happy that Gwendolyn survived, because I did hear that Ryan Murphy said she was supposed to die. And then we find out that she’s sick and I’m like, “great, she’s going to die” [laughs].
SP: No, no.
ZW: Phew! There is also this one scene that really broke my heart. It’s when Ingrid’s character begs Mildred to boil her to death and she talks about how she pushed her true self so far down that she doesn’t feel like she wants to live anymore. I don’t know what you think, but in my perception, that’s when Mildred realizes that running away from her true self may end up rather badly. When do you think she realizes that?
SP: I think you’re exactly right. That moment with her was very much an awakening for her, how desperately sad she was and that to see someone in that much pain who wanted to end their life because they couldn’t live their truth, I think, was something Mildred had never really processed before, because she’s so committed to pushing everything aside in a way that she wasn’t even dealing with any of that. And all of a sudden, there’s this woman in her face filled with such sadness that, I think, woke her up to not wanting to live a life like that, you know, if possible. It made her feel obvious and that’s why she goes out of her way to sort of help them escape and be together, you know?
ZW: I love the fact that, at the end, everybody just sort of accepts their relationship.
SP: Yes [laughs]!
ZW: You know, we have the first part and we watch them being very homophobic. And then we have the brutal hydrotherapy situation happening, which just broke my heart, but I know that’s how it was in that time. But then, you know, there’s a second part where Mildred accepts herself and she does want to be happy with Gwendolyn. She even tells Huck, the male nurse, and he just sort of accepts it and understands it.
ZW: And at the end, they’re hanging out with nurse Bucket in Mexico, just talking and having a good ol’ time. Was that a deliberate goal to make it this way that, you know, they sort of accept them?
SP: Well, you know, it’s interesting because I remember when we were doing that scene of the boiling of Annie’s [Starke] character in a hydrotherapy and, you know, remember nurse Bucket wasn’t sort of suggesting that she thought this was a good idea. She, too, was doing what we were talking about in the beginning, what she was told to do by Dr. Hanover. She wasn’t speaking about it. I mean, she obviously made a few derogatory comments, but I think she, too, was met with her own discomfort, participating in that kind of therapy because she saw the trauma that it was causing. So I think, at the end of the day, it’s like you have these lonely characters who meet one another and feel less lonely in the world. And I think that happens for Betsy Bucket too. So she’s just happy to have a friendship and maybe let some of those preconceived notions fall away in the spirit of having found real people she connects with, friendship-wise. And I thought that was lovely, although it did occur to me that it seemed like a very progressive way of being for nurse Bucket at that particular time.
ZW: It was just so nice at the end. And I remember that she did say that she couldn’t believe she was doing that stuff. But also the series is different for you too, because you are actually a producer of Ratched. How different was your work on this production in comparison to other ones?
SP: I was, sort of, doing this before I had the title, on [American] Horror Story and all these other environments where I worked with Ryan. He was like, “you were always very vocal about your opinions, what you hope for, and protecting the actors, and looking at the schedule and, you know, you were doing these things anyway”. And I didn’t have permission to nor had anybody been asking me, but then all of a sudden I had an opportunity to do it in a more direct way with an actual communication to everybody on the set, because my name was on the call sheet as an executive producer which was nice because then I felt, you know, very empowered to communicate my opinions all over the place, which was a nice change. But like I said, I tend to express my opinions pretty clearly and add a volume. So that adjustment wasn’t really new to me. Although I probably thought about doing it in a way that was more palatable than just me screaming from my trailer, “why are we doing it this way?!” I would try to think about how best to communicate it so that people could hear it without wanting to kill me [laughs].
ZW: Oh man [laughs]. I wanted to ask you about one thing, that scene with the peach.
ZW: That scene is just hilarious. I love how you are just so serious and you just repeat, “that’s my peach.”
SP: That, I will tell you, was when I read the second episode, I got so excited because I just thought that scene was, forgive me, but delicious. And it was infinitely more exciting to me because I knew, at that point, that Judy Davis was going to be playing it. I have long admired her, I have long worshiped her from afar. So the fact that I was going to get this sort of ratatat-tat scene, where we were going to be arguing over a peach, I just thought this is going to be probably the greatest day of my acting life. And it certainly was up there because she’s just the most fun, available, responsive, present actor to work with. It was so fun. But, you know, what I also liked about it was that it was so in character for Mildred to be truly incensed that someone would dare to open up a paper bag and take food out as if it were theirs! Even though Bucket claims it was just loose in there. It wasn’t, it was in my bag and she took it out of it and ate it. And it just, I don’t know, I could really understand the indignation one might feel about someone taking their personal property and it mattered not that it was something as simple as a peach. Mildred doesn’t have a lot of things that belong to her and it was also just the principle of the matter.
ZW: It was just so great! And I have just one more question. Is there anything you can tell us at all about American Crime Story and American Horror Story? Anything at all?
SP: I’m still shooting American Crime Story. I was shooting Horror Story and Crime Story at the same time, but I have finished my work on Horror Story. So I’m now just doing Crime Story. I did that also when I played Marcia, I played a character on the other installment at the same time. So I’m not unfamiliar with the feeling of being very, very tired. I just feel so lucky that I have an opportunity to do both. I didn’t want to give up my Horror Story life just because I was doing the Crime Story thing. So Ryan was very generous and let me do both. But what can I tell you? I mean, you know this game, I can’t tell you shit.
ZW: Dammit [laughs]!
SP: I’m sorry. I don’t even know when Horror Story is coming on. I know when Crime Story is coming on but I can’t tell you that either because it hasn’t been announced. I can tell you that, I think, the scripts, the writing on American Crime Story is special. We have several writers, but really led by Sarah Burgess who’s a really, really wonderful writer and someone I feel desperately lucky to be working with. And I would like to try to steal her and have her write things only for me until the end of time [laughs]. These scripts are really strong, I’m playing a very, very complicated woman and that is always a very thrilling opportunity for me, playing a real person with all kinds of flaws and strengths. And it’s been something to experience and it’s one of those ones where I will be very sad when it’s over, because I have loved playing her as challenging as it has been for many, many reasons.
ZW: Yeah, I cannot wait for it. I saw a few photos of you, being Linda Tripp. It’s just mind-blowing. I can’t wait to watch it and possibly cover it.
SP: I’m glad. I hope you think it’s good when it’s time to talk about those things.
ZW: Oh, I bet, I bet. Okay, that’s all the questions I have today.
SP: Thank you so much.
ZW: It was amazing to talk to you again.
SP: Thank you, I always like talking to you.
ZW: Hopefully we will get to talk again, maybe again at the same time, maybe in a year [laughs].
SP: Thank you so much, bye!
Season one of Ratched is available for streaming on Netflix. Sarah Paulson is Emmy eligible for Lead Actress in a Drama Series and, as an executive producer, Outstanding Drama Series.