Sarah Paulson played one of her most fascinatingly complex characters yet in Season 7 of “American Horror Story,” subtitled “Cult.” As Ally Mayfair-Richards, Paulson got to explore a fragile woman’s evolution from being scared of her surroundings to someone who takes control of their life in a powerful way. The actress is now in the hunt for her seventh Emmy nomination, with four under her belt for “American Horror Story” and a win for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” in 2016.
Paulson, who is also starring in the box office hit “Ocean’s 8” at the moment, recently sat down for a video chat with Gold Derby senior editor Marcus Dixon about “American Horror Story: Cult” and her future with the FX anthology series. Watch the exclusive video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Sarah Paulson, you are having quite the busy week, aren’t you? Your movie just opened, “Ocean’s 8,” the no. 1 movie in the whole world, and you’re actually beaming in from London to talk to us right now.
Sarah Paulson: I’m beaming in from London. It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve done a whole press junket day with all the girls. It’s been really wonderful. All the women. I always say girls, I don’t know why I do that. All the women.
GD: I saw the movie, it’s absolutely amazing. It’s so fun and the cast is just amazing, so great job. Keep up the good work.
SP: I just feel very lucky that they asked me to be in it at all. We did shoot this almost two years ago, so it was right after “People v. O.J.” So I can pretty much be assured that that had something to do with why they asked me to be a part of it. So that was the gift that just has kept on giving which is so amazing.
GD: Well thank you so much for squeezing in some Gold Derby time into your schedule.
SP: You’ve got it. Always, always.
GD: One of the best seasons of “American Horror Story,” “Cult,” which is eligible at the 2018 Emmy Awards. Even though it aired last year it is eligible now. People are voting now. So of all the seasons of “Horror Story,” this one in particular was very grounded. There was not a lot of ghosts.
SP: There were no fisheye lenses and stylistically it wasn’t creating a different world. Part of the horror and the scary parts of it was how close to home it was and close to the bone. I think there was a very serious effort made, even from a designing standpoint to make the rooms of the house smaller, to make everything feel more ordinary in a way, like any regular American citizen and how they might be living.
GD: And your character, Ally Mayfair-Richards, I heard a rumor—
SP: (Laughs.) I like the hyphen.
GD: Yes, you have to have the hyphen.
SP: I have to have the hyphen, yeah.
GD: I heard a rumor that her phobias and fears were kind of derived from your personal phobias. Is this true?
SP: It’s not untrue. I always worry somehow that the idea that they’re my phobias makes it seem like it was probably very easy to perform in a way. It’s actually the reverse is true, typically, I think. But yes, I do have what is called trypophobia. I’m not pronouncing it correctly ‘cause I’d like to try to distance myself from the word as much as possible because it really gives me a tickle in the back of my throat, which is a fear of holes and hollow spaces in things. I’m not great with bees (laughs). Clowns don’t scare me. I don’t know if there’s been some rumors around that I’m afraid of clowns. I don’t like them. I think they’re creepy as hell, but I’m not frightened of them.
GD: After “American Horror Story,” I love clowns now. I never had a fear or anything. I dressed up as Twisty for Halloween.
SP: You did?!
GD: I did, yes.
SP: That’s so cool.
GD: What was it like working with John Carroll Lynch again?
SP: What’s amazing is very, very early on in my career I worked with him. I did a pilot that did not sell called “Shaughnessy” and we were in it together. Both in “Freak Show” and then again in “Cult” I didn’t get to work with him. I got to be reminded of him daily when I would look at that comic book that my son was reading all the time and mostly just the extraordinary work of the hair and makeup department to create that incredibly scary character.
GD: Ally went through this whole transition from the first episode to the last, where in that final scene in particular — spoiler alert if anyone hasn’t finished it yet — she becomes kind of a cult leader in a way. I’d love to get your take on that final scene where she puts on the green robe.
SP: Yeah, which is the robe that the SCUM girls wore. Frances Conroy has it, I think Lena [Dunham], didn’t she wear it, too?
GD: I think so, yeah.
SP: Yeah. I think it was a big conversation that Ryan [Murphy] and Tim Minear and we all had towards the end of the season of how interesting would it be to have a person who had been victimized terribly and horribly at the hands of the cult leader and lost her family, her wife, everything that she held dear, everything that made her feel safe in the world and had it all stripped away. And that when she rises again and comes into her own, she herself becomes some version, albeit one with not so many murderous tendencies or self-aggrandizing tendencies, but still one of power that she’s seeking, that it would be very interesting to have some kind of mirror of that, of becoming what you’re most resisting. We just thought it was very interesting, to leave it a bit murky so the audience can pull from it what they wanted, which I always think is an exciting way to watch something, when you’re not entirely sure what the… not what the purpose was, ‘cause there was a very specific point and reason behind it, but that you have to wonder what it means. I personally like to watch things where I walk away going, “Wait, does that mean x or y, or, oh, does that turn everything that we’ve been thinking for the whole season into something else?” I always like that kind of show, personally. So I was really happy with how it ended, story-wise.
GD: Yeah I love the ending ‘cause different people saw different things in it and what it meant.
SP: Yes, it’s mysterious. I just love something that makes you walk away really thinking about it.
GD: Would you like to play Ally again in a future season to see where she is now, what she’s become?
SP: Well I feel that pretty much about all the characters I’ve played on “American Horror Story.” Because of the anthological nature of the series, you end up leaving this story that you’ve been entirely immersed in and then you’re doing the show again but you’re not connected to that character at all. So it’s a confusing feeling because every year we are starting from scratch. You’re not putting on the familiar clothes even though you’re at the same studio where you’ve been shooting, you’re working with the same department heads and the same crew and you’re shooting “American Horror Story” but nothing that identified it to you in the past is still happening so it’s kind of wild and I really feel that way about Cordelia. I think any of the characters I’ve played that have had a full 180 by the time the season’s over and have become other people than they were at the start, Lana Winters, all of them, especially where you leave them. We leave Cordelia at the moment at the height of her powers. What does she do? Does she become like her mother? Has her own newly-found power, has it turned on her in any way? Has she become heady with it? What has happened? I’m so curious about whether she used it for good or whether her own ego… so I feel the same way about Ally. For the first time in her life she has real ownership of her experience and she’s not letting anybody dictate what that is and that is very new for her and I wonder if like it happens for most human beings, you get a little taste of something and sometimes you can take a wrong turn with it and I just would be really, really interested to see what that would mean for her.
GD: We have to talk about Evan Peters. He has always been great on the show, but “Cult” was, I think, the pinnacle for him as an actor.
SP: I think he’s one of the best actors working. I think people who watch the show and know his work would always agree with that sentiment. I do think this year he was able to showcase… and one of the most terrifying and also magical and exciting things about being on “American Horror Story” is that these scripts are being written as we’re going, so Evan doesn’t have three months prior to starting this season knowing that by Episode 5 he’s gonna be playing David Koresh or he’s gonna be playing Charles Manson. He doesn’t have months of time to immerse himself in research so all this has to happen so quickly. So for him to digest that knowledge that he’s gonna be doing that and then two days later turn around a performance that is so nuanced and fully realized I think is a real testament to how extraordinary he is. I often think about that in terms of the actors on the show because everything is happening in real time. By the time you’re watching the first episode, we’re still… I mean I remember during “Coven” we shot the finale episode of “Coven” two weeks before it was on the air.
GD: Oh wow.
SP: That’s how behind it is. Two weeks. And we were all going, “Oh my god, are we gonna get this done?” And the hours were crazy and we had to leave New Orleans. We were finishing the season, it was very crazy so sometimes that happens on “Horror Story” because we start out ahead, we’ve got all the episodes going and then slowly as we’re starting to shoot the season things start to slow down, stories are gonna change, plot things are changing and so then all of a sudden we’re not ahead of the game anymore and before you know it we’re on the air and you’re sort of going, “Are we gonna be able to get this done on time?” So I think part of what’s so extraordinary about the people who work on “American Horror Story” is you can really see they get their mettle tested. It’s like you have to be able to think quickly and create something quickly, although I think sometimes that’s an exciting way to work where you get your brain out of it and you don’t overthink it and you just take action and you do. Sometimes I think it gives the most alive, visceral responses.
GD: I don’t know if the fans truly appreciate what Ryan Murphy and the writers do each season, which is just create this whole new world with new characters from scratch each year. You’ve done this for seven years now. Going into Season 8, he must be just completely wiped out.
SP: Wouldn’t you think he’d be so tired? And he’s not. He’s got a lot going on right now work-wise and with “Pose” and “9-1-1” being such a success and “Versace,” it’s just been a really, really wild time, but I think like any very creative person I think you almost thrive on that kind of feverish work. I think everything’s flowing, all your creative juices are going so it lends itself to the kind of work he’s doing, I think. Although, I do worry about him. Sometimes I wonder if he needs to take to his bed just for a couple of days.
GD: Right. You got to work with some brand new actors in “Cult.” Billie Lourd was a favorite of yours, I think. Based on your instagram you guys were always posting photos together.
SP: Well I’ve known her for a very long time because I knew her mother and so I knew her when she was eight years old, so it was a slightly maternal but more of a big sister feeling of just wanting to make a lot of space for her where we were. I think she’s a wonderful actress and she’s a great person and a real team player and she was a wonderful addition to our cast, I think.
GD: And Billy Eichner, too, which was kind of a unique casting choice because he’s known for doing these crazy comedies and the street show where he’s just running down New York accosting people but he really gave this dramatic—
SP: Wasn’t he amazing? I thought he was amazing. There was a couple of scenes we had to do together where he had to get so emotional and so volatile so quickly and take after take after take I was just like, “Wow.” I personally think people that can be that funny, if given the opportunity, they can probably just wipe the floor with all the dramatic actors in the world, really. Comedy’s, I think, the hardest thing to do. He’s another real genius person I’m so glad we have on the show.
GD: It’s about this time when you go back to film again, right? It’s usually in June.
SP: I start on Wednesday.
GD: Oh, you do? Do you know anything yet or are they keeping you in the dark?
SP: Oh no, I know things. I know things.
GD: Are you going to tease us at all?
SP: I can’t say anything new, but I can confirm now that I’ve read it, all that Ryan has said publicly about the hybrid nature of the tone, of it being a real combination of earlier days of “Horror Story” in tone mixed with the newer version of things. I think he’s really do something again where he’s reinventing it, and it’s exciting. My character is something I’ve never done on the show before.
GD: And Kathy Bates is back, right?
SP: Kathy Bates is back. I missed her so much. I’m very excited about that.
GD: I miss her, too. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder though, ‘cause when she comes back now, I’m gonna be so happy.
SP: It’s true. It was something I think we all felt. I mean, I miss Jessica [Lange]. I do. It’s been so long now. She did 1 through 4, right? So we’re going into Season 8, this will be as many seasons as she hasn’t been on as she was on. But I feel like she was “American Horror Story” so it will always feel a little strange not to have her around.
GD: Are you going to be directing an episode in Season 8?
SP: I believe so. That seems to be where it’s headed, yeah. I feel as excited and terrified as I’ve ever felt about doing anything, because as much as I think I can imagine myself doing it in terms of from a performance standpoint, in terms of knowing how to help an actor, not necessarily that I would be able to do that but at least knowing the language to speak or how I would like to be spoken to about approaching a scene, but in terms of where to put the camera, I don’t know about that (laughs). I don’t know. But I’ve always wanted to do it and I do think having the safety and security of a place where I’ve worked that is like my second home, a place where I’ve worked for so many years, that I feel like I will be held in a proper way, that if I make mistakes, no one will make me look too bad. Hopefully.
GD: Ryan Murphy, he’s won an Emmy for directing so he’s a great teacher, I’m sure.
SP: He’s a great teacher, and the great thing about Ryan and this can also be helpful, too, in this environment is that we have a shorthand with each other. He can communicate something to me that I understand because of our working history and I think I could maybe do the same thing with Evan, and he could do the same with me when he directs. We have a real understanding actor language with one another that I know I could say something to him that would be helpful to him and vice versa. We do that for each other anyway, so that part is exciting. Where to put the camera part is still totally terrifying.
GD: Emmy voting is going on right now and I’ve always wanted to ask you, you’re a voter. What do you look for when you go to mark your ballot? What kind of performances, you don’t have to name names, unless you want to, but what do you look for as an actor voting on an actor?
SP: For me, it’s not even just from a voting standpoint but for me, I feel like I’m just looking for the thing that feels the most honest and I’m looking for a lack of vanity in a performance. I think sometimes it’s very hard not to worry about your likability as a performer because we spend so much time hustling and trying to get another job that part of your job sort of feels like it’s to be charming or to be likable or to be liked, or for someone to find you attractive or appealing, all these things that really have nothing to do with acting, and so it’s really hard to not let that infiltrate your brain and affect you as a performer. So when I’m watching something, the thing I’m always struck by is when I can see that that vanity and that need or desire to be liked has not got in front of telling the truth as a character, and also somebody who’s there to serve the story. Somebody who’s not doing a performance that may be brilliant but that feels very much like a “look at me” performance and that has to do with wanting to impressive or trying to impress rather than being there as a means to telling this story from the director or the filmmaker or the writer, that you are just part of a larger picture and that it isn’t all about you. I think sometimes in performances you can feel those things and so that tends to be what I spark to.
GD: I asked Matthew McConaughey that similar question about Oscar voting and he said “I look for truth, man. It’s all about truth.”
SP: I think that’s true. You can feel it. The other thing I think is people look for flash. They look for extremes and sometimes I think there’s nothing harder to do in the world as an actor than to just ask someone a question, as naturally and as honestly and as genuinely interested or not interested in the answer, whatever your character’s want is, I think sometimes the simplest things are actually the hardest to execute with real truth and honesty. Sometimes the extremes, you have more freedom because nobody knows exactly what would be permissible if you’re playing a crazy person so anything you do kind of works. So yeah, “the truth, man.” I’m gonna go with what McConaughey said. “The truth, man.”
GD: Before we sign off, is there any final thoughts you have Ally Mayfair-Richards? She was a character filled with anxieties at the beginning and she ends in a very powerful type of a position. I loved her whole wave of emotions from beginning to end and the power she came up with by the finale was great to watch as a viewer.
SP: I think any character that you get to play where you get to have an arc and where you start is not where you end, is always exciting to play. And I think in the beginning I had a chunk of episodes, the first three or four, where it was me crying and running and screaming and being victimized, and also feeling like I was going mad and I’ve said this to you before, your body doesn’t know that it’s not actually happening to you so it was a kind of wonderful thing by the time we got to Episode 6 or 7 when the tide starting turning and Ally started to become wise to what was going on and then takes the power back and poisons her wife and finds a way to protect her son and herself. It was a very vindicating experience, and also one of those things that makes you feel like there’s a funny blurred line between your acting reality and your own reality, because you have taken this full journey with this character and you hope that the audience has the same response. But when I began the season, Ally was not the woman she is by the end so when you finally say goodbye to that character you think, “Oh.” She really felt like a real person to me. It’s like, you’re not just playing one little section of someone’s life but over the course of those 11 episodes, how ever many we did last year, I really felt like I tried to inhabit a fully realized person with so many flaws. That’s the other thing that I love about her and about so many of the things I get to do on “Horror Story” is that I don’t think I’ve played too many heroes. It’s not that I haven’t had heroic moments in different roles on the show but I really love that Ryan does that. He gives actors opportunities to play real people who fail and you can still root for them and you can still want them to succeed even though they’re behaving in ways that may be despicable. So I relish that and I feel very lucky that I get to continue to play over there. Like I said, they’re gonna have to drag me out of there kicking and screaming, dentures.
GD: So you’re gonna be doing “American Horror Story” when you’re 80.
SP: I would like to. People may be really sick of me by then, but I would like to. There are many people who keep saying to me, “Don’t you wanna move on from that?” People really do ask me that and it always is such a head-scratcher to me because I feel like, as an actor, to have a job that is consistent, that you can rely on, that still challenges you and you still get to work with some of the best actors in the business, on something that is incredibly creative and changing at the time, I’d be hard-pressed to find that almost in any other environment with this kind of consistency, so I can’t imagine. I’m not kidding, they’re gonna have to drag me out of there. I’ll try to take all the furniture (laughs).
GD: And it allows you to do things like “The Post,” which was nominated for Best Picture and “Ocean’s 8,” the no. 1 movie. You do have your time to do these other projects.
SP: I have been very lucky, partly because Ryan, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t be able to make the concessions that he makes, and because our cast is so large sometimes he’s able to move things around and make things possible but yeah, I have my freedom to do the things that are other than “American Horror Story” that create a wider reach of opportunity for me from an acting standpoint, which is wonderful, but I have this home base that I get to come home to with actors I love and material I like and feel challenged by. It’s like being in a long marriage or something. I’m still in love with my job and I don’t care how long it’s been. Why would you wanna leave a place that’s so good to you?
GD: Right. Well Sarah, thank you for chatting with us. Have fun in London.
SP: Thank you. Thank you for doing this, I really appreciate it. I know you’re up really early, so thank you.
GD: Oh, it’s okay.
SP: Okay, well. You look good.
GD: (Laughs.) Thanks.
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