Set in 1964, the FX drama series American Horror Story: Asylum takes viewers into Briarcliff, a haven for the criminally insane, ruled with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun with a troubled past. Inside this locked down facility, danger lurks around every corner, whether it’s a doctor who loves to torture, flesh eating creatures in the forest, alien experimentation or the serial killer Bloody Face, and no one is safe.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Sarah Paulson, who plays involuntary inmate Lana Winters, talked about how she became a part of the show, her reaction when she found out what she would be doing this season, how traumatic it’s been to go through some of the emotional and physical aspects of the role, that however bad viewers think things are for Lana now, they’re going to get a whole lot worse, and how she would love to return again next season. She also talked about her role as the jealous wife of Michael Fassbender’s character in Twelve Years A Slave, the experience of working with director Steve McQueen, and how she’d love to play a character in the ‘70s. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
SARAH PAULSON: No, I didn’t know anything. I have worked with Ryan [Murphy] many times, over the years. I did a pilot for him, that never ended up going at FX. I was on Nip/Tuck. I met him socially, through a very good friend, years and years and years ago. He asked me to come on to do the part of Billie Jean, but I had no idea that I would be coming back for the second season. Once I knew I was coming back, I said yes without even knowing what I was going to be playing. I had no idea.
What was your reaction when you found out what the character would be and what you’d have to do this season?
PAULSON: What was so great was that, when we first got the scripts, we got four. We had the first four episodes. I have to say it was twofold. I was both horrified about what happened to Lana, and also so excited about what I was going to get to play, as an actress. I was honored that Ryan was entrusting me with the part of the sane person who was being tortured. Hopefully, if it’s successful, Lana is the character that the audience can latch onto because she’s the person like them. She’s the normal one. And anybody can imagine being in a certain circumstance where this kind of thing could happen and you have no recourse, which is really terrifying. We’re about to begin Episode 9 and what happens to her, I just don’t think you could prepare for it.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have explored themes of homosexuality quite a bit. Was it important for you, if you were going to play a lesbian, that it was such an important part of the story?
PAULSON: I don’t know that it was important to me. It wasn’t part of what was in my brain, as far as whether I would play a gay person or not. But, because it was Ryan, I just knew that it would be very integral to the story. It is why she’s locked up. Over the course of the show, a lot of what happens to her is because of that. I do think it’s very incredible that Ryan includes those stories in his story. The New Normal is all about a gay couple. I certainly feel that he is an equal opportunity storyteller. I do think it makes it very compelling, the idea that her gayness is what brings all this trouble upon her. That and her nose for news. She’s very ambitious, and that gets her into trouble, too, but what keeps her there is the fact that she’s gay. It’s a testament to his belief that gay people are people. Sometimes I think that we’ve come far, but it hasn’t been that far. When you look back, what happens to Lana Winters in 1964, would not happen today, in that way. It happens in other ways, but that would not happen today.
Is there anything you can say to tease where things are going with your story arc?
PAULSON: All I can tell you is that, if you think it’s bad now, it gets so much worse for Lana. That is the truest thing I’ve ever said. Things start to really go crazy for her, and it’s very dark. I can tell you that.
Even though you’re acting, you are still going through these things, to a certain extent. How difficult is it to shoot the restraining and the shock therapy?
PAULSON: I’m really not trying to be cheesy in this moustache twisty way, but it gets really bad. Things that you can’t even really imagine happen to her. Yes, there have been times, both shooting and at home, that have been [difficult]. When we first started shooting, which feels like 16 Christmases ago, but was really in July, the electric shock therapy scene was something that I shot on the first day of shooting. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe what I did with that body in that scene. Nobody was moving the bed. I did all of that with my body. I remember getting up out of the bed and the whole bed was soaking wet with my sweat, and I remember Jessica [Lange] putting her arm around me. In order to do that to your body, what is happening is that all your muscles are contracting, and I did it again and again and again and again, for close-ups and wide shots. It was hours and hours of doing that. My body knew that I was not having electric shock done, but muscularly and emotionally, my body doesn’t know that I’m not experiencing something very, very traumatic.
When you’re putting yourself in these extreme circumstances, particularly with the things that happen to Lana later in the season, it’s a very difficult thing to traverse that emotional landscape. I remember talking to my mom, the morning after I did electric shock therapy. She said, “How are you and how is the show going?” I said, “It’s good. I did electric shock therapy yesterday.” She was like, “Sarah, are you okay?” I was like, “My body is really sore, but it was actually really fun.” There is that part of me, as an actress, that loves having the ball thrown at me. I get to really do stuff that I wouldn’t get to do in other places. I have yet to do something like this in my career, and I’m 37 years old and I’ve been doing this for a long time. I feel very blessed that Ryan is giving me this much to do. I’m really not trying to be cheesy about it, I’m just telling you that you really haven’t seen anything yet. There were moments where I did go into a corner on the set and just ball my eyes out because it was just a very traumatic thing to play. You will really understand, really soon, what I’m talking about. So, it’s very grueling, but I can’t lie and not say that the actress in me is exhilarated by getting to do it.
PAULSON: If I told you that, I would be giving away a plot thing and I can’t tell you very much. One thing I can say is that I got to work with Evan [Peters] a lot. But, the main person that my story is truly linked with, I can’t reveal. I’m sorry. The other great thing about this show, for me, is that I have so many friends in it. I did two plays with Lily Rabe in New York. Zachary Quinto is a person that I’ve known for a long time, socially, and we’ve never acted together, so it’s nice to be on the same show. And Jessica [Lange] and I did Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 2005, and when I played Billie Jean last year, all my stuff was with her. That part of this has been really great. I’m on a show with people that I’m actually friends with, in real life. It’s a great way to spend time at work, when you’re doing such harrowing things.
Obviously, the way this show is set up, no matter what happens to your character this season, you could come back as an entirely different character next season. Would you be interested in returning again?
PAULSON: That is 100% right, and I’m very much hoping that that happens. That’s the genius of this particular way of telling the story, in the mini-series format. I just think Ryan is so brilliant at it. Everyone is just so perfectly cast for their part. He just has a real sense for that kind of thing that’s really great. I’m so happy that he sees me as Lana Banana.
What was it like to have the experience of making Twelve Years A Slave?
PAULSON: Oh, my god! That was similar to [American Horror Story], in the sense that some people’s stories were intertwined and some people weren’t because it takes place over 12 years. Chiwetel Ejiofor is at Michael Fassbender’s and my plantation for the bulk of the movie. It was another thing where, every morning in the make-up trailer, I was like, “Oh, my god, him?! Oh, my god, her?!” There were all these great people. I was very honored to be in that group of actors, which is equally how I feel about [American Horror Story]. Since Martha Marcy May Marlene, I have felt very lucky. And then, I did Game Change. I just have been surrounded by these people at the top of their game, and it only ups yours, which is really great.
How was Steve McQueen to work with?
PAULSON: When I was on the set, he kept saying to me, “She’s a doll. She’s a doll. It’s like you’re on the top of a wedding cake.” My clothing was so grand. Most of the images you see in the movie, certainly when it’s at our plantation, the slaves are obviously dressed in beautiful but tattered clothes that are hand-me-downs. When my character comes on, she’s a woman who basically never lifts a finger, all day. Everything about her clothing and her hair is just completely pristine and perfect. It really helped me to stand a certain way and have a certain kind of posture. It was all very helpful. Just like the institution gown on the show. Because of stunts and things, they have multiples of all of our nightwear and hospital gowns. I can always tell, whenever they set duplicate institution garb in my room. I’m always like, “I need the original.” I can tell. I know which one is the one that’s been made for stunts because there’s blood and things. So, that all helps.
Do you have a dream role that you’d love to do, if given the opportunity?
PAULSON: I work in the ‘60s more than I’ve done anything else. I did a movie, called Down with Love, in the ‘60s. I did a movie for HBO, about the Johnson administration in the ‘60s. Now, I’m doing the show in the ‘60s. And then, I did the 1800’s on Deadwood and again on Twelve Years A Slave. I don’t know. I’d love to be in the ‘70s. I’d love to have a big, long wig parted down the middle with flat-ironed hair and bell-bottoms. They’re actually very flattering for my figure. The wider the leg, the better for a person with a booty.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs on Wednesday nights on FX.