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Tuesday
Jan072014

Interview: Sarah Paulson's 12 Years of Breakthroughs

There are few things in cinema more satisfying than watching those with true gifts prosper and develop. Overnight sensations are exciting but watching careers that build slowly, continually showing new facets and amassing fans piecemeal is a richer experience. Such is the case with the actress Sarah Paulson. With her key role as Mistress Epps in the likely Best Picture contender 12 Years a Slave and her starring role on the anthology series American Horror Story (returning to TV tomorrow night), it's time to get our appreciation on.

I first noticed her in that undersung fanciful homage to 1960s romcoms Down With Love (2003) though her carer stretches back into short-lived television gigs in the mid 90s. When we sat down to talk recently, I confessed to Paulson that I had been completely intimidated by her when I met her at a party for Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). I had no explanation for this - at the time she hadn't played anything as scary as her plantation wife. "You had an inkling," she mused suggesting I had seen Mistress Epps coming.

But who could have? Who knew she had that in her?

Herewith our conversation...

NATHANIEL:  12 Years a Slave is a big moment in your career but it's not your first "breakthrough" really. I'm wondering about how you experience these things internally. When did things change for you, personally, as an artist? 

Sarah Paulson & Jessica Lange. They've got history

SARAH PAULSON: For me as an artist? Probably when I got The Glass Menagerie, which I did on Broadway with Jessica Lange in 2005. I played Laura Wingfield in the most recent revival before the one that's playing now. I won that role against, at that time, people who were significantly more famous than I.

I just remember --  Jessica Lange was the actress I had most admired and dreamt about having a career that would be like hers, or get roles like hers or kind of go to the same emotional places that she was able to go. And so there I was rehearsing with her for six weeks and acting with her for five months. It was just an extraordinary time. I had just turned thirty years-old. I had done some things prior to that, of course, but it just... that was the moment for me as an actress where I felt like 'Oh my god, you’re an actress on Broadway doing Tennessee Williams playing Laura Wingfled with Jessica Lange. Do you really want to pinch yourself right now, I bet you do!'  That was a big moment and probably after that was Studio 60 because it was the first time I did something where people started paying attention. I was nominated for a Golden Globe.

NATHANIEL: I first noticed you in Down With Love. Just loved that! 

SARAH: Film wise it was probably Down With Love. That was another. Renée Zellweger had just come off Chicago, Ewan McGregor had just come off Moulin Rouge!, David Hyde Pierce was at the height of Frasier success and there I was this girl that nobody knew. I won that part in a way that was unexpected. I was really young. I was 26 -everyone thinks I’m 40 in that one! It was a character thing and I love doing [affects voice] Fantastical Character. I can’t believe how brave I was to go to the audition and do that. Because I think now -- I’m scared now. It was my naïveté that I just sort of walked in. I had a prop cigarette. I had a wig. I just went for it. That’s probably why I got it. They were like 'damn, this girls got balls'. Now, I would never do anything like that.

Sarah Paulson on her Down With Love audition

That was when things were supposed to really change and then the movie didn't make any money and nothing happened.

You cross mediums all the time: Stage, TV, Film. How easy do you find the transition? Not just the scale and that you have to be a chameleon but the stylizations and the tonal shifts. Not everyone can do style and tone but I think that's so important.

Yes! And I do think that’s like my favorite thing to do is style, things that have some kind of style. American Horror Story, there’s a style to that. Down With Love, there was a style. Martha Marcy... there was a style. Studio 60. I don’t know. I used to think part of it was a curse because there was something about me – I still think this – that is not entirely identifiable. But the older I get and the more I work, the more I think it’s going to work in my favor. That’s my hope.

Yes, less with the typecasting.

You won’t have some attachment to the one thing I do that you associate me with and then you wouldn’t be able to imagine me being anyone else. The thing that makes it hard for me to stand out is maybe the thing that will help my career be long?

That makes sense. But TV can be a danger in that exact regard.

Yes, but the thing about American Horror Story is...

Every time you...

I play a different character. It’s the best of both worlds! Getting to be on a show for more than one season and every time I get to play something different. That is an extraordinary thing that never happens.

And you get to work with Jessica Lange again, coming full circle. Now with 12 Years a Slave. Your section of the movie at the Epps plantation is the strongest part, when everything comes together. The thing that I really loved about you and Fassbender together -- it's kind of sick but the scenes play like they’re all about the marriage, rather than slavery, and these other people are just props or toys to both of you, pieces on the chessboard. But you know them as people and then you have to act these horrible scenes with them. How hard is that for you? I mean I know it's acting but...


It is acting but still, you know, you are a human being playing a person who behaves this way. You can’t divorce yourself from yourself entirely when you’re working. So it’s hard. Especially because you’re asked to bring parts of yourself to something but when you’re playing a woman like Mistress Epps-- I don’t really have a lot of places I can connect to her.

I had to think about her motivations and why she was behaving this way. I had conversations with Lupita that were very brief. It was kind of an unspoken thing. We would look at each other on the day I had to throw something at her or claw her face. Whatever it was – you know we would have a kind of silent conversation. Sometimes a sentence or two. ‘I’m sorry I have to do this today’.

Mmm-hmm.

Steve really made it clear that he didn’t want me to apologize for her; this was who this woman was. If I tried to soft pedal it or take my foot off the gas, part of the story about Solomon and Patsy -- you have to understand what they had to endure on a daily basis. If I don’t do my part to show what that was, in all of its horror, some of the impact will be lost. This was a woman who was deeply insecure, a slave to her own jealousy, desperately afraid of losing her husband to another, much less a woman who was their property. I just keep saying over and over again -- I don’t think Mistress Epps has the capacity to challenge what she’s been taught. She’s been taught to be a racist. She’s been taught that she’s better than everyone else. Because she’s not a self-reflective person, she can’t challenge anything she already believes to be true.

She's also been taught that she’s married down.

Even though it might be the other way around.

Michael Fassbender & Sarah Paulson as Master and Mistress Epps

NATHANIEL: We’ve covered your preparations with Lupita. But how did you prepare for Fassbender?

SARAH PAULSON: Fassbender? I just looked at him and thought 'I want to have sex with you'

[Laughter]

And then I thought, 'Well, that’s probably what Mistress Epps wants to!’ And he’s not interested in her. He doesn’t want to sleep with her.

I would just watch him. He was a lit match, just constantly sparking. and none of that spark is thrown in her direction; he’s so indifferent to her... and yet she has a certain power over him.

You’ve played a lot of supporting roles but this one is so key to the narrative. So it must have been a pleasure in a way. Do you feel the size of a role when you're working on it?

Well, sometimes I wish I had more to do. And other times like with this, I felt very content, very honored to be a part of it. And you know there were a lot of fancy girls who wanted this part! An extraordinary thing about Steve is he didn’t give a shit about that. He wanted the girl he felt was the most right. If there were more people like him around, maybe I’d work more. [Laughter]

This is a business. It is about money. If an actor puts an ass in the seat they’re more likely to cast them. Sometimes I feel like if half these people that got offered jobs had to audition for them, they wouldn’t get the part.

So much is happening for you now. 12 Years a Slave, American Horror Story, Emmy nominations, world domination...

[Laughter]

... so what kind of role would you like to do that would show us an unseen part of what you can do?

The part I wanted to play so desperately that I’m too old for now is Abigail Warren in The Crucible. That’s the part I want. If I’m lucky I’ll get to play Goodie Proctor. If I’m lucky. But this movie [12 Years a Slave] is something people have never seen me do. I’ve never played anybody this vicious. I’ve never been given the opportunity to do that ever. So this feels like something I’m showing that I’ve never been lucky enough to do.

Is the reception what you expected?

It’s not what I expected but I’m so... I’ve been doing this for a long time and this is the first time I’ve been in a movie that’s had this much buzz about being nominated for Best Picture. To be 38 years old and to have been acting in supporting and tiny and larger roles for as long as I have and to never have had that experience is a testament to how rare it is. It’s pretty great.

American Horror Story returns to FX on Wednesday January 8th. 12 Years a Slave is currently playing in movie theaters and you should see it again.

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Reader Comments (26)

I first noticed Paulson in the US remake of Cracker (also with Josh Hartnett in one of his first big roles).. She had a two ep arc and I expected to see her in everything after that.

I thought she was excellent in 12YAS. Difficult part, but so layered. Could have just been a villain but she gave the woman a certain humanity. I felt sorry for her despite her actions.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Great interview Nathaniel. It's so unfortunately that Sarah has not been nominated once in any of the critics circles or guilds. She was fantastic as Mistress Epps. And on a side note, I hope a Fassbender Oscar nomination comes through - he gave the best Supporting actor performance of the year. He had the toughest role.

and yes, I know, I'm biased.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimone

She's such a good actress and fun in interviews!
I do think maybe she shouldn't ahve said that about McQueen not caring about casting stars. I mean, Brad Pitt.. I know maybe Pitt himself pushed too hard but still..

One thing the movie made me think about (and I've talked about it on my blog) is how it also works (not willfully) as a display of how we treat animals, especially today. The feeling that one group of people (or creatures) is superior to and owns another group of people (or creatures). I'm not a fan of the movie but it does say correct things about assumptions people make and how badly (there are various degrees depicted in the film) we behave based on those assumptions.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

@James: Pitt is the producer. He had to be cast in order to please the financiers. Sarah's point is Steve's not interested in simply casting the most well known if he feels strongly for an actor without marquee value is right for a role.

I like her interviews but I fucking hate her character, and when people say they feel sorry for that bitch, I question their priorities.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

James, a few of the other actors in the movie talked about McQueen being willing to take a chance on them as well. The woman who played Solomon's wife has only worked in soaps & was surprised that McQueen didn't even look at her CV before casting her. That's not the way directors typically operate. McQueen didn't hesitate to cast Taran Killam, though as an SNL star, you wouldn't expect him to show up in this type of movie. McQueen has said that he's never seen SNL so it didn't bother him what Killam was known for. He just liked the rapport Killam had with McNairy.

I think Pitt really was the aberration.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate

She gets to play the most interesting character: Scarlett O'Hara meets Marquise de Sade.
I would definitely read a book or watch a movie based entirely on that character and that marriage.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

god, peggy sue, that sounds like the most dreadful idea for a movie. unless you're a complete masochist. which you may be who knows.

but i love sarah paulson. great in 12 years, great in ahs: asylum (haven't seen the other ahs). hope she starts getting some big juicy roles along with her pal lupita.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterxander

I first saw her on the short-lived Must See TV Thursday NBC show Leap of Faith. Thought she was better than the whole show. Then she reappeared in Deadwood and Down with Love, I was floored by the different styles she was pulling off in both. Then she disappeared and I saw her reappear in those Times ads for The Glass Menagerie play only to watch the Tonys and see her the gf Cherry Jones acknowledge her when she won the Tony. I just exclaimed, 'She's alive!!!! And gay!!!! Good for her!!!!!'

It was such a shame Sorkin used Harriet in Studio 60 so much for his target practice of women who annoyed him. She deserved better. Ryan Murphy, I run wildly hot (well... lukewarm) and ice cold on, but one of the best things was making her a regular on AHS after getting a somewhat minor role for the Murder House season.

What I really like about 12 Years a Slave is, despite being a pretty tight, disciplined, singular character narrative, it is probably the most probing about the sexual politics of the slavery period. McQueen and Ridley really put a feminist touch on the film when I am pretty sure most directors might have ignored. If you've read enough female slave narratives, so much is right there- albeit very subtle. We hear Eliza's testaments about her hope for freedom to the Master who fathered her child only to be put back to slavery because the Master's daughter hated her and the shame of having a biracial sibling. Mistress Shaw is like an aberration that is almost a surreal construct with the film. We see Paulson's Mistress Epps be jealous of Patsey because she knows her husband is enchanted with her, albeit it in a non-consensual, objectifying, self-loathing way. We see that moment where Edwin Epps is holding hands with a young black girl, seemingly down with Patsey. Epps has child-like wonder in his body movement, his voice is lighter, but it is one of the most disturbing images of the film- we know where that young girl's future likely lies. A lot of this film says about women and black and white women can be seen as the patient zero for why black and white feminists are often at odds and why black feminists feel like they are pushed to the sidelines with no intersectionality for their voices to be heard.

Anyway, I loved both Paulson and Fassbender in this. I am completely at odds with people who don't find the two characters and performances fascinating and multi-layered. You could make a whole movie on that marriage. To me that's a beauty of the film. There could be so many different movies about so many different characters just based on what we know about them.

Pitt's a producer but really he was the only casting that felt off. Giamatti, the other recognizable 'face', was quite good and otherwise the castings people have complained about are mostly TV actors that are virtually unknown outside North America. Let's ignore the Cumberbatch fandom who ruined the 12 Years a Slave tag on Tumblr because they just ruin everything.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Does anyone else remember the show Jack & Jill? That's where I first remember seeing her. I loved that show and since then, she's had a special place in my heart.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLori

@3rtful - I got her point and I agree but it's better (for me) to not mention it since there's a glaring exception to that rule. And, as I said, I get that Pitt is a producer but (and I don't mean to be impossible) McQueen chose to get Pitt's money. Kudos to him for choosing the best (in his opinion) actor for each role but if you don't want to say the whole truth, don't say anything. Still, I get that I'm being harsh and it's certainly not a major point.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

She gets to play the most interesting character: Scarlett O'Hara meets Marquise de Sade.
I would definitely read a book or watch a movie based entirely on that character and that marriage.

Oh Peggy Sue! I LOVE this!

I think that Lupita is getting all the attention but Sarah Paulson truly made a mark in this terrific movie! I hope that she gets bigger parts in the future. Go girl!

More directors should do as McQueen: audition for the part please

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

"Pitt's money"

Um, Plan B Entertainment is one of the more important production houses going on right now. Not to be cynical but yes, if Pitt having 2 scenes for that character helped get the film off the ground, so be it. He was not up to the role in trying to underplay when Ejiofor and Fassbender were doing the most in those 2 scenes. Still, 2 scenes. Get over it. It's not like the role is glorified as a white savior and it's suddenly his movie. He's never seen again and it plays to the abruptness bookends of the story where you are taken into and out of hell.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Yeah, i think we all need to respect Brad Pitt. He really is a fine fine producer with good taste in material. i'm assuming he agreed to be in it strictly to help with the financing.

January 7, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@CMG - Not that your post deserves an answer but whether Plan B is a respectable producing company or Pitt wanted to help or whatever, it's still casting for reasons other than what the role needs (and I didn't even say I disliked him in it) and, theoretically, McQueen didn't have to do that. But he gets credit for not doing it more which is only semi-fair. Also, are we sure the other famous actors were all the best choices for their roles? Again, I'm not complaining for the result. But, really, response or not, I think I'll end my part with this comment because, really.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

@3rtful-My priorities are to appreciate an excellent performance in a difficult role. It is a testament to McQueen and his principal cast that every one of them displayed both positive and negative qualities. They are all victims, to some extent of the society and point in history in which they lived, as are all of us. Mistress Eps was trapped. Just as much if not more so than the slaves. She can't leave her husband (not without living the rest of her life in shame), she can't please him (which is obvious to everyone, slaves included which is a major humiliation), she has no children--the greatest shame a woman could suffer at that time as a result of her husband's lack of interest which is what the gossip would be among everyone--"that there is something wrong with her that she can't please him", slaves included, she has no friends and has to face the object of her humiliation every day and even though she is supposedly superior to Patsy in the eyes of society, Patsy is still the winner.

None of this excuses her actions, but the only way we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past is to be realistic about their existence and how easy it is to make excuses for them. By reducing her character to "evil bitch cypher" is to dismiss that she was a real person in a heinous situation and none of us can say with certainty that we wouldn't behave exactly as she did if we found ourselves in the same place. Paulson gave us a real, if flawed and despicable person while keeping her from just being another d movie baddie. The film would not work if it was populated by only good and bad, black and white characters. That was last year's "slavery" movie.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I think Paulson was completely great in 12 Years, and I was half expecting her to get the traction for a supporting nom. She's gonna be nominated for a Marsha for sure.

After Lange leaves AHS, I hope they make Sarah the queen bee. Wouldn't it be great if they made her the surprise Supreme this year on Coven?

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

Nathan, such a great interview. I so hope the movie gods bring her an Oscar nom April 16.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@Henry: You're making excuses. Society made the white characters the way they are. Bullshit. White people had a choice everyone else (non-white) didn't. White people invent the gun everyone else lines up to their superiority. It's honestly so simple that to miss how we got here proves what's really wrong with us collectively, and very much why we're still in conflict over these things and everything else.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

"Let's ignore the Cumberbatch fandom who ruined the 12 Years a Slave tag on Tumblr because they just ruin everything."

"Fandoms eventually ruin everything." -old adage

I didn't like her much MMMM (maybe it had something to do with the fact that she didn't bear any resemblance to Elizabeth Olsen, in my opinion, and non-sibling resemblance in movies always bothers me), but she was absolutely terrific in Game Change. And I'm a huge AMH fan and boy is she kicking ass this season.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

I love Sarah and I love her in 12 Years a Slave, IMHO she's more deserving of an Oscar nom than Nyongo, but both would make the cut if I had a ballot.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMartín HM

"I was 26 - everyone thinks I’m 40 in that one"

now that she's mentions it, i've always thought of her as being around 40 in everything i've seen her in

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

What really makes me laugh is that still of Paulson and Fassbender, i can totally see "i want to have sex with you" on her face.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

What an eloquent, down-to-earth lady. I think I'm a fan now.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I just LOVE her. Even Harriet Hayes, there was a sincerity about her that didn't make me want to hit her like I do with... well, name female Newsroom character. I'm sad she didn't get traction for this, because maybe if there was an Oscar nod she would some great roles from now on, but I'll keep watching her.

Hell, I've even seen Fairheaven - which is crappy and she doesn't do much in it at all.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterth

Called it! Supreme! #fourtimeoscarnominee

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

In 12YAS he gave the best performance by an Actor (Male or Female) this year. Plus her work on AHS is so perfect, it position her as one of the best in the business if you ask me...

February 1, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

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