Sarah Paulson first became a part of American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy’s kooky summer stock for the stars, with a fairly minor role in the show’s first season, as a psychic looking into the history of that season’s so-called Murder House. So it was a bit surprising to see the actress—perhaps best known for television work on series as diverse as American Gothic, Deadwood, and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, as well as frequent film roles, including work in Serenity and Martha Marcy May Marlene—land at the center of the series’ second season. The story of the horror perpetrated in and around an insane asylum in the 1960s, the second season of American Horror Story featured Paulson as ambitious reporter Lana Winters—a lesbian in a time unwilling to consider thoughts of homosexuality—who’s intent on getting the true story of what’s going on in the asylum. Those two story points converged when Lana’s own girlfriend signed her over to those in charge of the asylum at the end of the season première, turning Lana Winters into one of the most impressively sympathetic characters on television, a woman with impressive fortitude who is nonetheless forced to suffer horror after horror. Through it all, Paulson’s work kept Lana grounded when it would have been very easy for the character to drift off into the realm of utter and abject misery. She talked with The A.V. Club on the eve of the season finale about what she knew about the season when she signed on as a regular, why American Horror Story is a more fun job for actors than some other TV shows, and what moment of the season surprised her the most.
The A.V. Club: What were your first thoughts when you were told about this? Actually, what were you first told about the story?
Sarah Paulson: I really wasn’t told anything. I just was asked to be a part of the season, and I signed on to do it. And that was probably in February or March. I didn’t get scripts. I got the first four scripts along with the rest of the cast a month before we started shooting in July. So at the end of May, early June, I got the four scripts, and that’s when I first learned who I was playing, and that’s how I found out. I didn’t have any idea when I signed on what I would be doing at all, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before in my life, said yes to something having no idea what it was gonna be.
AVC: What was that like for you to sign on to something without that guarantee of what was going to happen?
SP: Well, it was both scary and also kind of exciting. I thought, “I’m just gonna dive into this, and I hope I get something to do.” By the time I got the four scripts, I did have some time to prepare, but there was something nice about basing it all off the scripts and going with what was in front of me, as opposed to spending lots of time preparing. I had a month to prepare, but I was doing a movie in New Orleans, so it was hard for me to prepare one while I was doing the other. So I waited to focus on American Horror until I was done with the movie, and since I had four scripts, that was helpful—to have a little bit of future episodes to see who this character was going to become and who she was. I sort of learned more about that from the other scripts. But after episode four, after the fourth script, I didn’t know what was coming next and had no idea what was going to happen to Lana.
AVC: Did you realize your character would be as central as she was? In many ways, she’s the main character of this season.
SP: Yeah, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that at all going into it. I definitely had a lot to do in the first four episodes, but it wasn’t until I was taken by Thredson to his lair that I realized what a central figure she was. The truth of the matter was, the stuff I was doing with Zach [Quinto] in his basement, it was just the two of us. It was like doing a two-character play. It would be the kind of thing where I would see the episode and forget that anybody else was in it, because we had been so focused on our stuff, down there in the basement by ourselves, and we just didn’t see anybody for days. And we’d be, like, “Oh, are there other people on this show? I didn’t know that!”
AVC: This season has been about people like Lana; they want to make a story, but ultimately become the story. How do you seek out the arc of that character and keep her strong?
SP: Again, I really feel like I just took it from the script. I certainly don’t know that I would have been able to survive what Lana Winters went through and come out and write a book and try to live a life. I think that was a pretty amazing thing that she did. I think some of it she was able to do because she embraced the newfound fame and success and found a way to turn her back to the trauma and just face the light that was coming toward her. I thought it was really just all on the page.
Some of it was helped enormously by the fact that this show is a miniseries; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end of the story. The story will be over January 23, and next season will be completely different and having nothing to do with this year. There was a lot of information I could glean from that as well. I knew what was going to come and happen to her, so it was helpful that way, too.
AVC: As an actor, what’s the appeal of that miniseries structure?
SP: It’s not that I wouldn’t be open to doing this at all, but if you get on a show that hits, and you’re playing the same character for years and years and years, I think it’s very hard—although it’s possible—to have people see you as anything other than that character. The idea of being on a show where each season stands alone, and you can come back the next year and show an entirely different aspect of your personality or your talent or your anything is an enormous gift that you rarely get in television. I can’t think of another show where they’ve used the same actors to tell different stories season after season. For me, it’s just such a blessing, because there’s always that fear that you’re going to get pigeonholed into playing something you’re recognized for, and then people will only want to see you do that. With this, no one can get too attached to the character, because by the time the next season is on, there’s a whole new story.
AVC: This season has had several incidents of sexual violence, including some against your character. For you, is there a line that can be crossed, where it no longer enhances the story?
SP: It’s not always easy. It was certainly a traumatic thing to film, the rape scene in particular. But it was a story point. It wasn’t just being done in a gratuitous way to have someone get off on something. It was how my character gets pregnant, and ultimately, how a lot of things in the story then later happen because of it. I didn’t feel like it was done for the titillation factor. If that had been the case, I would have been very uncomfortable with it. But I’m always interested and dedicated and committed to telling the stories that the writers have come up with to tell, as long as it is something that I can stand behind as the character, not necessarily as me, Sarah Paulson, the person. I’m interested in telling the character’s story, not my beliefs, political or otherwise.
AVC: The season also featured depictions of how homosexuality was treated in that time period, particularly in scenes featuring your character. Was that something you researched at all?
SP: I did research it, a little bit. I researched more about the aversion-conversion therapy [in which someone tries to get a homosexual to associate unpleasant things with images they desire], but not extensively, because it was relatively new at the time, and I didn’t want to be well-versed in it. Because then I think that Lana would have said, “I’m not doing this, because I know what it is.” I didn’t want to be very well-read about it. But I certainly read about what it meant to be gay in that time. I did think about that, although my character was less terrified than my lover’s character on the show. Wendy was much more concerned, because she worked with young children. It was enough of a terror for her that she signed me away. I certainly read a lot about it, but it was always in my mind that Lana didn’t go around talking about it, but she wasn’t quite as secretive as Wendy was.
AVC: As the season has gone on, Lana has lied more and more about her experiences at the asylum and when captured by Thredson, often for dramatic effect. Why did you decide she was telling those lies?
SP: I decided that she was telling those lies for the reasons that I think are the real reasons. It made a better story.
It was twofold for me. One, it made a better story. And the other one, the more psychological, the more internal reason, was that it was a way of her being able to write about it freely without going to the darkest, most painful thing. If she created some illusion around it, and there was some deception or some altering or embellishment of the truth, it was a way for her to imagine that it was more of a story, as opposed to something that really happened to her, in a way that would be too painful for her to write fully. But there was definitely ambition involved, in that she knew that there would be an element of it that would be more dramatic and more horrifying. Particularly the stuff about that there was another woman who was brought down into the basement with me. And leaving Wendy out of some of it, she was able to use the excuse that it wasn’t pertinent to the story. It really was probably more to do with the fact that she didn’t want it to be just a book for lesbian women. She wanted it to be a book for everyone to read and was probably afraid that it would be put into a certain kind of market and released in a certain kind of way, and she wanted it to be released in a wider way. Ambition was definitely a piece of the story; there’s no doubt about it.
AVC: This show is really known for its crazy moments and crazy twists. Was there one that stood out to you in particular when you first read it?
SP: It wasn’t a crazy twist so much as it was a surprise to me: “The Name Game” episode where we were all singing and dancing in Jessica [Lange’s] character’s mind was a pretty amazing thing to read on the page and think, “Is this really… wait a second… we’re going to be dancing? This is crazy!” It wasn’t an expected horror-story kind of twist, in a way where it was like something was revealed that I wasn’t expecting. But it was something we were all going to have to do—Evan [Peters], Jessica, and I—that was just so insane to me that it was kind of perfect. But there is something that happens in the finale that I think is a surprise.
AVC: What was the approach to that musical number? Lana seems initially skeptical of it—even though it’s a dream sequence—but then immediately falls into it.
SP: Ryan [Murphy] had talked to me about wanting it to be that thing of that macabre, dreamy… Is she dreaming? Because it’s that thing where the audience at first maybe doesn’t know exactly what’s happening, and another way to keep it a little mysterious is, if I were just to go right into it, you would know right away that it was some fantasy, which it had to have been anyway. But I think it was enough of a weird reality that I thought that if Lana was a little like, “What the hell is happening?” and then got really into it, it would be a little bit more destabilizing for the audience. Like, “What is going on?” It was the first time my character had smiled since the first episode, so it was really great to do.
AVC: How important is it to the show, to have those moments of humor or joy that are sprinkled here and there within the darkness?
SP: There’s definitely funny moments, but they never really happen with me. My character doesn’t really have a lot of funny stuff. I laughed when I got to say to [Thredson], “I don’t wanna ruin it for you, but Spot jumps.” She was making a bit of a joke there. But, really, Lana smiled in the pilot a lot when she was with Wendy. We had shot something in episode 11, “Spilt Milk,” that didn’t make it into the episode, where Wendy and I were in bed together, talking about children, and it was a scene that was supposed to be a memory while I was sitting with the doctor when I’m contemplating having the abortion. It didn’t make it into the final cut of the episode. I smiled a lot there, because I was with my girlfriend, but that didn’t make it in. I mean, maybe there was like a half-smile while my face was wet with tears when Sister Mary Eunice said she believed me that Thredson was the killer, only to untie him and let him out. So none of it was really any joy. Sometimes there were smiles of relief or something. “The Name Game” was the first opportunity for Lana to have any lightness and joy. And it was all in Jude’s imagination! It wasn’t even real! How about that?
AVC: Working on this season, what have you learned or reconsidered or thought more deeply about in terms of mental illness and our treatment of it?
SP: Oh, gosh, our treatment of it now is obviously vastly different than it was then. But aversion-conversion therapy is something that’s still practiced in certain parts of the world today, which to me is just absolutely horrifying.
In terms of mental illness, that’s an interesting question, although it’s not one that I thought about much, because my character didn’t suffer from mental illness. My character’s arc and the things I was really thinking about were what it would mean to be wrongfully imprisoned, to be held against your will, and have no recourse to do anything about it. I thought about what it meant to have power, versus what it meant to have none. I’m sure all those things could relate to the story and the history of mental illness and mental health facilities in our country. But given that so much of my story was about how to get out and how to survive being wrongfully taken, I can’t say that I’ve given… I learned a tremendous amount in terms of something I took away from it, certainly the story and place that we are depicting and the timeframe that we are depicting, it was just a horrible place. I mean, obviously! This just makes me sound like an idiot. But that question is something I can say honestly is not something I thought about directly. I learned more about what it meant for me, playing the character, about perseverance and hope and determination, more than anything, because that’s what I was dealing with directly.
AVC: How did you develop those thoughts and themes? Because wrongful imprisonment isn’t something a lot of people experience.
SP: Again, it was that thing where, because I had no experience of it, I hope I was able to experience it somewhat authentically, in the sense that I didn’t know what to do with it, and I didn’t know how to get out, except for in the second episode where they try to escape. It’s that thing that happens to you, where you grasp on to anything you can, any little glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, because you don’t have any other choice but to do the impossible, risky, dangerous thing, because the alternative is to stay put and rot away. And that just wasn’t something that Lana Winters was going to do. She wasn’t going to go gently into the night. I could admire that about her greatly, her incredible determination and fortitude. She’s quite a lady.