'AHS: Freak Show's' Sarah Paulson on Changes for Bette and Dot, Odds of Surviving

The only member of the returning cast to survive all seasons of the FX anthology horror drama (at least so far) discusses the new challenges of, and what's to come on, Freak Show and beyond
Frank Ockenfels/FX

[Editor's note: This interview was conducted before Paulson was cast in Murphy's American Crime Story.]

On FX's American Horror Story, no one is safe — no one, it seems, but Sarah Paulson, who thus far has somehow managed to come out of the first three seasons (and at least half of its fourth) alive if not unscathed.

It's no small feat, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by Paulson, who told The Hollywood Reporter that she feels "very lucky" to have been allowed to take on such challenging and often polar opposite roles season after season. An actor who always tries "to find where the gravity lives, more than where the fun lives," Paulson has played a psychic, an unjustly institutionalized reporter, a witch and now conjoined twins on the anthology from Glee's Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.

"That's the place I feel the most alive as an actor: When I'm having to push myself to go toward something that isn't comfortable for me or something that I don't have a tremendous amount of experience [with]. It's an opportunity to do better work," Paulson said.

THR caught up with Paulson to preview what's ahead for her characters, their odds of survival and more.

You've developed such an important relationship with Murphy over the years. Have you begun asking him to write in specific story or character challenges for you to tackle?

In the beginning I was just so glad to be there and so grateful for the opportunity. In the beginning [in Murder House], I had a part that was sort of ancillary to the story in Billie Dean Howard, and I liked playing her, but it wasn't a central figure to the show. So, by the time I came in as a regular in season two, I immediately came out of the gate with the greatest part I ever had in my life. So, there was not much for me to ask for or hope for or wish for; I felt like every time I got a script I just went, 'I cannot believe I get to do this!' That character was really the greatest gift that Ryan has ever given me, and he's given me a lot of gifts.

When season three came around, it didn't occur to me to say anything that I was hoping or wanting because I had had season two, and I thought, 'Well, there's no way I'm not going to have good stuff in season three!' I think I felt a part of the show in a real way, and I was sure he was going to throw something to me that was going to be challenging and exciting. Then when it came to Freak Show, Ryan had talked to me in the middle to end of season three and said, 'I want you to play conjoined twins next year, and I don't know how we're going to do it, but it's what you're going to do!' [He] wanted me to start reading about it and start thinking about it, and at first I thought I [wasn't] going to invest my time thinking about playing conjoined twins because I know what happens in that writers' room, and Ryan gets bursts of ideas, and they all come up with things, and stories sometimes take sharp left turns. And so, I thought, 'Until I know they're in the room writing, and [FX topper] John Landgraf knows what the season is, and everyone's been told what it is, and this is really happening, I'm not going to start working on it.' Because I didn't want to be disappointed, and I didn't want to have gotten really deep into some research only to find out that now I'm playing Twisty the Clown!

When I really knew it was happening for sure, the only thing that I requested from Ryan was that I wanted them to be from the South. That was the first and only time I've ever said to him, 'Can it be this?' And he said, 'Yeah, I love that; that's great.'

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Why was that specific trait so important to you?

I liked the idea of them living in a place that was quite rural and away from a bustling town or a place they could be hidden. And of course there are small towns all over the country that are not in the south, but that is where my people are from: my grandmother's from Alabama, and my father's from the south, and I was born in Tampa, Fla. I felt [like] if I was going to play something so far from myself in terms of playing a person who had another head with two distinct personalities, I wanted something that was going to ground me and make me feel immediately connected to it, and I think the only thing I could come up with was a voice that I thought would be recognizable to me.

Playing two distinct personalities who are conjoined can limit some of the physicality they can express. How did you adjust to that extra challenge with the roles of Bette and Dot on Freak Show?

It's a real credit to Ryan and the writers on our show that the girls are really clearly marked on the page. I could really tell who they were in that first episode very clearly. I remembered thinking that I wanted Bette to have still have a sense of innocence and a sense of wonderment, and I wanted Dot to be much more cynical and have her way of dealing with the circumstances to kind of shut down [while] Bette was still a person who had hope and dreams and could live in her fantasy life. Within that process, Bette just kind of had a more open face, and Dot had more of a scowl, drawn-in, pulled face. Energetically there's something different coming out of both of them.

The physical world of everything is the girls wear different headbands; I wear a wedge that goes under my arm depending whomever I'm playing. It's to remind me that there's somebody else there because very early on when we were starting, and we were doing all of these fittings and trying to figure out how we were going to do all this, I said, 'What I'm afraid of is that when I'm not wearing the animatronic that's used for high and wide shots, I'm not going to feel the weight of having something attached to me.' And so I came up with this idea to have something that goes under my armpit that gives me a sense of width and spatially I can remember that there is another person there.

Your characters on the previous two seasons (Lana on Asylum and Cordelia on Coven) were really the heroines of the shows. How do you feel Bette and Dot fit into such a role?

I do think they are the heart of the show in the sense that from the very beginning [of Freak Show, the story] was through their eyes in learning about Elsa's [Jessica Lange] Cabinet of Curiosities. It is through them that we entered the world, and so I think it is through them that the audience can hold some of the story. I almost imagine them as one heroine as opposed to just one of them having a distinct title that way. Something happens in [the Dec. 10 episode, "Tupperware Party Massacre"] that changes the course for them in terms of them maybe having a little bit more of a sense of togetherness. I know that sounds funny considering they're very much physically together all of the time, but they've been very much at odds. And something happens that I think draws them to more of a common purpose.

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What kind of changes do the events of "Tupperware Party Massacre" cause in Bette and Dot?

I'm used to having them be at such odds with one another and wanting such incredibly different things and seeing the world differently. Let's just put it this way: they start to see the world in a similar way. And that was a new thing. Dot's voice changes. My way into Dot really involved a darkness and almost a forehead that was just tight, and some of that has changed. Bette's voice is much higher and so open and sweet; to me, that isn't a problem [now] because Bette doesn't have to change. It's Dot who goes through something — who has something happen internally for her. And that was a very strange phenomenon that happened with me where I thought, 'I do not know how to do this anymore.' And it took me a minute, and I kept asking for more takes because I was finding my voice. And then I thought, 'Maybe that's OK because when a person changes — when a person has some kind of internal shift and maybe some part of the way they moved through the world was a self-protective way, and that starts to crack a little bit, and they start to come into their own in a different way, maybe all of that tightness in her voice did relax a little bit.' Something about her sound could be different. I think from a performance level and a psychological level, it's sort of a profound way of thinking about it.

The story has diverged from Bette and Dot as performers in Elsa's show. Does that mean you won't have any more musical numbers this season?

I am not doing any more musical numbers this season. Of all of the things I've done on American Horror Story, that might be one of the most horrifying for me personally. I'm not a singer. I've been told by many members of my family for many years that I'm not. So, when Ryan said I was going to do this, I was so petrified. And the good news is that Jessica has an excellent vocal teacher. She can put out an album at this point with all the songs that she's done, not just on American Horror Story, but in movies, too. This guy named Bob Garrett who's incredible music teacher, he really specializes in helping actors who don't sing, sing. He came to New Orleans and was working with Jessica and was working with me every day. He charted — he literally was writing things down with little bubbles or dots ascending or descending depending on where the notes were supposed to go. He stood with me in the recording booth. I worked my ass off. It was the scariest thing, and I've done a lot of shit on this show! It's very vulnerable to sing — especially if you've been told you can't do it! The last thing you want is to do it on national television, let alone have it released on iTunes. The thought of it kept me up at night!

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You also have a distinct honor on American Horror Story as the sole survivor of each season. Can the streak continue?

I have hope that they will survive the season only because I love them so much, and the idea of having to film something like that is quite terrifying to me, actually. Call it method, call it what you want, but there's no way when I'm doing these things to not imagine that they're real and true. Otherwise I don't know how to do it; I don't know how to play it unless I really put myself into that reality. So the idea that I would have to do that, it's hard for me to even talk about; it makes my throat close up; it makes me upset! But this is American Horror Story, and people have to die. It's not a world in which anyone is ever safe. Do I like that so far I'm the only actor in the history of American Horror Story to survive every season? Yes, I do. Is that going to last? I really don't know. I like the title, though — believe me!

Have you begun thinking about what's next for you after Freak Show? Would you be up for season five of American Horror Story or perhaps Murphy's other upcoming FX anthology American Crime Story?

My focus will always be on American Horror Story for as long as he'll have me. I have never felt so completely seen by another director or producer or person before in terms of his willingness time and time again to give me something to do that I didn't even think I was capable of doing. I don't know why in the world I'd want to go elsewhere when I'm getting the best deal in town. I absolutely want to do season five; I hope he asks me to do it, but I haven't had those conversations yet. [But] I would also love to work with Ryan in a world that didn't involve me having two heads or gouged out eyes [Coven] or breastfeeding my 35-year-old son [Asylum]. This world is surreal, and we absolutely go places you could never go on other shows. I love that world, and I love playing that world because anything goes. We go pretty far and wide with things, and the show can support it [but] I would also love to work with him in a world where there [are] more boundaries. It would be very interesting to see what could happen there.  I've been spoiled, to be quite frank. He's been very, very good to me, and I've been doing this long enough to know how rare it is to have someone look at you and go, 'I want you to do this, and I know you can.' Long ago, when he said, 'two heads,' I thought, 'Yeah, that's never going to happen,' but then I got that first episode, and I couldn't believe what I got to do with these two girls. It makes me quite emotional because I know how hard it is to find, and I've been very lucky.

American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Do you think Bette and Dot can survive? Sound off in the comments section below.

Twitter: @danielletbd

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