I have to admit that I’m loving American Horror Story: Coven, not just because it’s the season of the witches, but because it’s also very much the season of the bad-ass women, with the likes of Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Patti LuPone joining Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. With Marie Laveau (Bassett) unleashing her wrath on Madame Lalaurie (Bates), Fiona (Lange) adding to the body count, and Cordelia (Paulson) being attacked, the secrets, lies and mysteries are mounting, and there’s just no telling where things will go next.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Sarah Paulson talked about her thoughts on how Asylum turned out, the extraordinary women who are on this season, being less physically and mentally exhausted this time around, how challenging things will get for Cordelia, that her attacker will remain a mystery for now (she has speculated about who it could be, but has no idea), the involvement of the Council of Witchcraft, and just how much crazier things will continue to get. She also talked about the Oscar buzz for 12 Years A Slave, which she’s very proud to be a part of, and her hope that she’ll be able to continue to find a balance between working in film, television and theater. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
SARAH PAULSON: It’s one of the heartbreaks of my life that I don’t get to continue to play her for the rest of my life. It’s one of the heartbreaks of my acting life that I had to say goodbye to Lana Winters. It’s the beautiful and terrible part of American Horror Story, from an acting standpoint. Every year, you get to try something completely different, and it’s an entirely new story. Artistically speaking, you just never get that lucky. If you get on a TV show that’s successful, odds are that you’re playing the same character for as many years as the show is running, which can be its own blessing, but it can also be a curse because you’re playing the same thing and that can be tiresome. With this, you get to do something entirely different. The bad part about it is that you have to say goodbye to a character that you may have come to love like crazy, and you only got to spend 13 episodes with her. We spend a lot more time shooting it, but from a viewing perspective, you only get 13 weeks to experience that story and that character. So, like all great things, there’s the blessing of it, and there’s the horrible part, too.
After everything that you were put through last season, did you ever think about taking a season off to recover?
PAULSON: My god, are you nuts?! I’d rather be on American Horror Story than on anything I could think of, ever. If you’re in the group of actors that Ryan Murphy wants to write for, you count your lucky stars. Going anywhere is not ever going to be something I’m gonna be looking to do, unless he’s decided that he’s had enough Sarah Paulson. When he’s decided that he’s had enough Sarah Paulson, I’ll go on my merry way, but I won’t go quietly into the night. I’ll be screaming and banging on his car and sending him scary notes that say, “Don’t do this to me!”
This is the season of the witches, but don’t you think it’s also really the season of the women?
PAULSON: I was just in the trailer with Patti LuPone and she said, “The thing I love about this is that it’s the season of the vagina. There are so many amazing women.” And it’s true. There are so many extraordinary women. They’re wonderful actresses. Ryan has always been so interested in telling the female story. He writes wonderfully for actresses. It’s where he tends to gravitate. And being a woman, I’m very grateful for that, I have to say.
PAULSON: Yes and no. It’s not as mentally and physically exhausting as it was last year. The story became Lana Winters-focused last year. I was grateful for that, but boy, was I tired. I was running away from crazy serial killers, getting into cars with madmen, and then ending up back in the arms of Sister Jude, so I was tired. This year, there are so many people on the show that everybody has just enough work to do and we all have a little bit of downtime, which is a very nice thing. So although I am tired, having to do all that stuff that is grueling, at the same time, that’s what I signed up for. I didn’t sign up for a week at a spa.
Now that Cordelia’s eye sight will clearly be effected in some way, after what happened to her at the end of Episode 4, how challenging has that been to deal with?
PAULSON: The most interesting thing to me about having some of my sight taken away is that all of my other senses are so much more heightened. I can hear conversations that are further away. I can smell things. When Monte [Haught] comes in to do my touch-ups on my hair, I can tell if he’s just had chicken salad. Normally, I probably wouldn’t notice it, but I’m like, “Dude, did you just eat a big, creamy chicken salad?,” and he’s like, “Sorry!” I can smell it now.
Will we learn who was responsible, right away?
PAULSON: We’re on Episode 8, and I still don’t know who did it. The person was cloaked. The audience doesn’t know, and I don’t know either. I think the writers know, but they’re not revealing it yet.
Is that something you’ve personally speculated about?
PAULSON: I do have theories, but I bet who I theorize is wrong because it’s American Horror Story. If I’ve thought it, it means it’s not that because the writers are more clever than I. If I’ve thought it up, it probably can’t be that.
When you were first told about what this season would be and who the character was that you’d be playing, what was your initial reaction to it?
PAULSON: Well, I was very excited because I knew that I was gonna be Jessica’s daughter, which would mean that I would have scenes with Jessica. And when I found out it was a contentious relationship, I thought, “Oh, good!” That would mean it wasn’t some boring, lovey-dovey relationship. If Jessica is playing the baddest witch in town, I want to be the daughter of the baddest witch in town. What I liked about it, and what was very interesting, was that in the first three episodes, Cordelia is very sweet and very kind, and she’s desperate to have a baby, and then bad things happen.
What’s it been like to work with Jessica Lange, in this capacity, this season?
PAULSON: My relationship with Jessica is almost 10 years old, at this point. We played mother and daughter in a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway, called The Glass Menagerie, in 2005. The mother-daughter road is one that I have traveled with Jessica Lange before. That relationship was obviously very different, but I have done it with her. On the one hand, she’s absolutely my colleague, but she’s also my friend, outside of work. We’ve worked together since 2005. I did three episodes of American Horror Story Season 1, and then I did the whole season, last year. I’ve known her and worked with her for awhile now. The Jessica Lange experience is one I’m used to having, at this point, and it’s a great experience. I don’t have to pinch myself now and go, “Holy shit, I’m working with Jessica Lange!” I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m going to work with my mom.”
There’s obviously a history between Fiona and Cordelia. Do you think Cordelia would have been perfectly happy, if her mother hadn’t decided to show back up?
PAULSON: I think she probably would have been perfectly happy, if her mother had decided not to show back up, on the surface, anyway. I think, deep down, she’s desperate for her mother’s approval and attention. At the same time, she bristles against it because she thinks her mother is the most selfish woman she’s ever met, and she’s right. Cordelia was raised mostly by Myrtle, which was hinted upon in Episode 4, but more stuff comes out later about that. Cordelia follows the rules. That’s how she was raised. Her mother is the opposite of that. Her mother probably scares her because she doesn’t want to know the part of herself that is a rule-breaker and would do things to serve herself. Cordelia has done a lot to protect herself against her own wickedness, wherever that lurks inside of her. Now that her mother is back, it just means it’s all the more likely for her to have to contend with that part of herself. Now that she’s injured, her mother probably isn’t going anywhere away from her.
PAULSON: Oh, there’s something I could tell you, but that’s not until Episode 9. The Council are our own judge and jury, within our coven. I don’t know specifically if there’s a Council for each coven, or if it’s a Council for all witch-dom, everywhere. I don’t know the answer to that. There are rules, and when certain things happen, there are ceratin consequences. Fiona doesn’t play by those rules, so when the Council shows up, some shit might hit the fan.
Ryan Murphy has said more than once that this season would be lighter, funnier and sexier, but so far, there’s been gang rape, mass murder, incest and bestiality. Just how crazy will things continue to get, this season?
PAULSON: It’s American Horror Story. Do we want it to get any less crazy? I think he’s right that this season definitely has a lighter, sexier, more fun tone than Season 2, but it’s still got some darker elements that are probably darker than Season 1. To me, that’s the brilliance of Ryan and the brilliance of this show, in general. It keeps reinventing itself. It gets to be something new, every time. If there is a next year, it will be an entirely other thing. The thing that’s exciting for us, as actors, is that people have caught on now that the show is going to be different, every year. You don’t have to be disappointed that Tate isn’t going to be Tate anymore, and Lana isn’t going to be Lana Banana. People are into it now. Our audiences are growing, and that doesn’t really happen, in the third year of a show, where it’s topping the first seasons’ numbers. That’s pretty great and special, and I think it’s because the audience is starting to get it. They don’t have to worry that they haven’t seen the year before. They can start right now. That’s such an extraordinarily freeing thing.
To me, it can get as dark, as light, as crazy or as campy as it wants to be. As long as I’m still invited to the part, I don’t care what happens. It’s real escapist television. You can really invest, and you also know, going in, that you only have to watch it for 13 episodes. With any other serialized television show, if you miss an episode or you miss half a season, you’re screwed. You can’t just start with Season 3. There is something really neat – and I mean that in the literal, clean sense – to be able to binge-watch shows like this. You’re in it for however many seasons it’s on, but you know that you can get your fix, and then take a break from it for a minute.
PAULSON: No, I really didn’t. There has not been a single thing that I’ve read – and I’m maybe alone with this – that has scared me. I remember Ryan saying to me, “I can’t believe you didn’t call me after the conversion-aversion therapy scene when you read it,” and it just never occurred to me to complain about it, or not be excited to do it. From an acting standpoint, you can’t beat the stuff that we all get to do on this show. There’s nothing he could throw at me that would scare me, except to never ask me to come back again. Then, I would be upset. Other than that, he can throw anything at me.
You’ve done some really remarkable work, over the last few years. Does it feel like this is what you’ve been working your entire career towards, or do you feel really blessed and lucky for this embarrassment of riches?
PAULSON: I think it’s both. Of course, when you start working, you hope, in your tiny little actor heart, that you’ll get to do a lot of extraordinary things that will take you internally to some wild places, and that you’ll get to explore all different parts of yourself, your personality, your soul, your brain and everything. So, yes, I do think I’ve been working my whole career to get to a place where I can look around and go, “Gosh, I’m so proud of the last handful of things I’ve done.” I have to look back really far on my resume now to go, “Oops, wish I could take that off.” That’s a rare thing. I definitely feel blessed, and I definitely feel like it’s an embarrassment of riches, and I’m definitely greedy enough to not want it to stop. I want to take it and run with it, as far down that football field as I can.
Is it great, then, to already hear so much Oscar buzz for 12 Years A Slave?
PAULSON: It’s exciting! I think it’s one of those movies where you will look back, in 20 or 30 years, and it will stand the test of time. It will be a movie for the ages. I’ve done lots of movies in my career, and some of them I can say that about, but some of them I can’t. When you look over a long career, there’s really only a few things you can pick out and go, “That was a thing of great beauty. That was extraordinary.” And I can say that about 12 Years A Slave, with great confidence. That’s a movie I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to be a part of.
As somebody who continues to work in film, television and theater, would you like to always find a balance between the three?
PAULSON: I would. My great love is the stage because I do feel like it’s the place where, if you’re lucky and everything is firing in the right way, you have the greatest shot at being successful. I don’t mean by getting great reviews, but I mean by finding the core fo the person that you’re playing. Sometimes you don’t figure it out until the end of the run, but you had three to six months, depending on the length of your run, to figure things out. Acting is doing. The more you do, the more you learn. Work begets work. So, I do love that, most of all, and I hope to get back to it. At the same time, I’ve always really made my living in television. Television has always been so good to me. When I look around, I see the greatest actors in the world on television, right now. Some of the greatest parts for women are on television, right now.
If I had my druthers, I would be working in all different mediums, forever. I hope to do that. The theater commitment is hard, especially in conjunction with a television commitment. We started American Horror Story in July and we don’t finish until January. That’s a big, long commitment. If I do one play in between, and then I were to do another TV thing, that’s the whole year, and then some. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for movies and other things. I don’t know. I’m one of those actors who’s just standing there, waiting and ready for something to come my way. I don’t really try to think about, “Oh, I feel the next thing I should do should be a feature. Now, I think I should do a play.” Mostly, I just hope someone wants to cast me in something and I get to act again soon. That’s what I hope.
American Horror Story: Coven airs on Wednesday nights on FX.