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Emmys: Sarah Paulson on the Tortures of Being on 'American Horror Story'

The star of the second cycle of Ryan Murphy's FX anthology series shocks with dramatic range and extreme emotion.

American Horror Story Asylum Premiere EP Lana - H 2012
Mike Yarish/FX
Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters in "American Horror Story: Asylum"

This story originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's special Emmy stand-alone issue.

Sarah Paulson was put through the wringer on FX's second installment of American Horror Story. In Asylum, Paulson plays Lana Winters, a 1950s-era lesbian journalist determined to expose the wrongdoings inside a mental institution. What she doesn't count on is that the facility's sadistic matron, Jessica Lange's Sister Jude, uses Lana's sexual orientation against her, torturing the intrepid reporter with electroshock therapy. Other horrific traumas follow, from aversion conversion therapy to rape. It was a cathartic journey for the Game Change actress who, thanks to the drama's anthology format, was given the opportunity to portray Lana's journey from beginning to end, when, at age 75, she becomes the final Briarcliff survivor.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You're back for season three of American Horror Story. What's the appeal of doing an anthology like this?

Sarah Paulson: The blessing and the curse of being on a TV show that's long-running is that you're playing the same part year after year. There's something wonderful about that, but there's also something challenging in keeping your own interest level -- or having other people who may hire you in the future think of you as just one character. To be able to have an opportunity to show different capabilities is a real gift. It's hard to find that in serialized television.

THR: How much of Lana's journey did you know about when you signed on for Asylum?

Paulson: [Co-creator/co-showrunner] Ryan Murphy sent me the first four scripts, which was Lana starting as an ambitious reporter, and by the fourth episode, Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) tries to perform aversion conversion therapy on her. I didn't know that Lana was going to be captured, tortured and raped and then escape, only to end up back at Briarcliff. Nor did I know Lana was going to become pregnant, and I'd end up playing a 75-year-old woman at the end of the story in "The Last Man Standing."

THRMurphy has said how much he enjoyed that the hero of this season was a lesbian, which isn't something we see often on TV.

Paulson: I liked that it was absolutely 100 percent of who she was, but it was not something that she was going to let stand in the way of everything she was trying to accomplish in her life. In the beginning, her gayness was what got her imprisoned at Briarcliff. Sister Jude was able to keep her there by threatening to out her love of Wendy (Clea DuVall), and that was a very serious, real threat.

THRAs a gay woman, how did you approach filming the aversion conversion scenes?

Paulson: When you spend the day strapped down to a bed and then having to breastfeed someone who has tortured you … none of this was easy, and yet at the same time, I felt this incredible commitment. Most of the series of harrowing scenes that I had to play were with Zachary Quinto, who is a close friend. We shared a trailer on set. We're close, and it made what would have been potentially impossible easier because it was with someone I trusted. Ryan remembers saying to me, "I wasn't sure when you read the scene if you were going to take issue with it and not want to do it." That never occurred to me. This is something that women and gay people have had to endure at some time in our culture; there are still people who believe they can take the gay away and who have tried some version of this therapy even today. But it was not easy for me to go home at night and just shake it off.

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THRAnd you had no idea whether Lana would have any redemption at the end of this horrific journey she was on, either.

Paulson: Ryan mentioned something around episode 10 and said there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. I wasn't ever going to go to him and say, "Can you please not have it read so difficult?" because I felt I just wanted to do right by Lana Winters. I knew they were going to take care of her in whatever way, even if she had to die.

THRYou also were able to play the entire journey of Lana, who ages a few decades in the finale.

Paulson: The last scene of Asylum is also the first scene of the whole series, so you again see this 32-year-old girl who comes to this institution so she can get a big story and be taken seriously as a reporter in 1964. She ends up exposing Briarcliff and bringing that place down. By the very end of it, when Lana is a 75-year-old woman sitting in that chair being interviewed about her life, I didn't have to fill in any blanks. It's a very rare thing to be able to tell a story and not have to make it up because you've actually played it. It felt like I had actually lived Lana Winters' life, and here I was now at the end of that life.

THRIn the next season, American Horror Story: Coven, how different will your character be from Lana?

Paulson: Definitely different. Basically, she's going to look different, and my relationship to Jessica Lange is going to be quite different this time. At the beginning of last season, no one knew that Lana would be the hero, so it's possible I could end up the evil one this year. As of right now, there will be some of Lana Winters' qualities in my character, but I don't know for sure.

E-mail: Lesley.Goldberg@thr.com
Twitter: @Snoodit