Sarah Paulson on Her Empowering Turn in 'AHS: Cult' and "Challenging" 'Katrina' Role

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: CULT_Sarah Paulson - Publicity - H 2017
Frank Ockenfels/FX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of American Horror Story: Cult, "Drink the Kool-Aid."]

When it comes to American Horror Story, Sarah Paulson's role is rarely what it seems.

Starring in every season of the FX horror anthology, Ryan Murphy's reigning leading lady has now played eight characters in the franchise, with two of her roles crossing over to make cameos on separate cycles. In American Horror Story: Cult, the seventh season of the Murphy and Brad Falchuk-created horror show, Paulson entered the story as Ally Mayfair-Richards, a fragile yet passionate liberal mother and wife who found herself paralyzed by a range of phobias that resurfaced after Donald Trump's stunning election as president.

Throughout the timely season, however, Ally experienced a transformation that provided a welcome challenge for Paulson. As the main target of her Michigan town's post-election sprouted cult, Ally has been framed for murder, thrown into the psych ward and terrorized daily, losing her wife (played by Alison Pill) and the ability to see her young son, Oz, in the process. With nothing to lose in the ninth hour of the 11-episode season, Ally seeks revenge. She murders her wife and seemingly steps over to the dark side with her son in tow, joining up with cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) to start a new family.

"I don't know if ever in her life Ally has felt this powerful or capable," Paulson, who shares some of Ally's phobias in real life, tells The Hollywood Reporter of her big Cult shift. Though this season began with a much-covered election theme, Cult has come to reveal an underlying current of female empowerment as the episodes progress. Paulson says of Ally taking back her power, "There comes a point when once you realize that your life has forsaken you — you've got nothing in the world to live for except your son, and there's no one you can count on — that basically, all bets are off. You've already been to the brink. There is no going back and when you're pushed to that point, people can summon things in themselves they didn't know were possible."

Below in a chat with THR, the actress explains why the episode, titled "Drink the Kool-Aid," brought about her favorite scene of the season, details what it was like to film an election-themed cycle parallel to Trump's America, and sheds light on her next roles in Murphy's creative arsenal with FX's upcoming American Crime Story: Katrina and Netflix's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest prequel series Ratched.

After a season of being paralyzed by her fears, Ally emerges as a strong and almost entirely new person. You have played multiple roles within AHS seasons before [conjoined twins in Freak Show, an actress playing a role in Roanoke], but what did you most enjoy about this season's task? 

Well, I had spent many, many episodes and many weeks begging for my life, weeping, and in real peril and terror. In the beginning of the season, we thought that some of this was imagined for Ally. Then the more layers that were peeled back, the more we realized this was being perpetrated against her in a very purposeful and intentional way, which made it so much more horrifying. I just loved having an opportunity to take some of my power back in a way that felt empowering both as an actress and as the character. It had been many, many months of me doing a lot of crying and, as much as I loved the emotional depth of where they were asking me to go, it was an exciting moment to cross that threshold into new world order for Ally — which is a very new world that she hasn't lived in for quite some time, if ever. 

Much of the early strain between Ally and wife Ivy (Pill) was Ally secretly voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein on Election Day. We eventually learned their backstory and discovered that was just the final straw in a decaying relationship. At this point, how do you reconcile Ally's actions of killing Ivy and joining up with Kai?

She has nothing to lose and everything to gain, which is her son. That's all that matters to her. The safety and security and connectivity of her with her son. She's probably very aware that much of her mothering has been about her panic and fear and worry, about what was going to happen to her and to her child, or to her wife. Now, she's not afraid of what she can't handle and she probably wants to get to being present in Oz's life in a way that she's never been able to do before. It does make sense to me, but there's so many more questions that won't be answered until the final episode. So I can't answer that question with great clarity and full transparency but, at this point, I feel like I can say it is all about her boy.

I remember having these fights with the writers on set because I didn't understand how Ivy could go so far because of a Jill Stein vote. But it just ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back. I do get that it's very trying for people to be around Ally sometimes. Because people who indulge in their most vulnerable moments can sometimes be hard to take. I would posit, though, that given the extreme nature of it — I could recount many things that happened in those first five episodes — can you blame her? 

Let's talk about the scene where Ally seeks revenge and kills Ivy. What was it like to film Pill's exit scene, and do you feel that Ivy deserved it?

It's my favorite scene of this year. Alison is one of my favorite actresses and I had a wonderful time working with her and being married to her. But she deserves it 1,000 times over. I could have done it much more horrifyingly, I think. We've seen worse on the show. I thought it was the tame way to make it happen. As the episodes were coming down the pike and I was reading them, I kept going, "I cannot believe she's doing this to me because of Jill Stein!" Or because I was overly possessive of our child because I carried him. There are all kinds of things with Ally that are pejorative, but this kind of terrorizing and this kind of torture, all the while knowing the impact that it's having on our son? I kept thinking, "How in the world could she commit to this knowing that our son would be watching me dissolve into a puddle on the ground?" I know she wanted full custody and her own connection with Oz to be as vibrant as Ally thinks hers is, but it did feel very satisfying to me when I read that I was going to get to do that. That seems like the only damn answer to this story. The only way to resolve this is: You gotta go, and I've got to be the one to do it.

Ally now has a larger game plan that will feasibly play out in the final episodes. At this point, is she playing a long con or is she making it up as she goes?

I think she's just at the beginning of a road that will end somewhere that she's not even expecting. 

What has it been like working with Billie Lourd this season as your characters have evolved, and what's ahead for Winter (Lourd) and Ally as the season wraps up?

I have known her since she was quite young, so it's really wild and kind of beautiful and also bittersweet, because I realize I'm so much older now than I was when I first knew her. I just want to be Billie Lourd when I grow up, so that's sort of the truth. She is a fine actress — and I mean fine in that she's exquisite. I feel excited to see what she's going to do next. But, there are plot points with Winter and Ally that I can't possibly speak to right now, to answer the rest of your question.

When you began filming this season in May, did you find the show's post-election setting to be therapeutic after the actual election?

No. I did not find it therapeutic at all. It just felt like an aftershock. I remember the day we shot the first episode — where we're in our living room watching the election results come in — and all of a sudden it was a horrible flashback to that night. By the time we started shooting it was mid-to-end of May of this year and we had Trump in office for a few months. I wouldn't say we had gotten used to it by any stretch, because I don't know that I ever will, but we had a little distance from the November of it all. Even more distance from that then Inauguration Day, so it brought everyone right back there, no matter which way they lean politically, just because it was traumatizing. Everyone looked at each other and just went, "God, this feels too soon." 

Who did you base your Cult character on, where did you draw your diehard liberal inspiration?

She's not entirely other to me. Funnily enough, those parts are actually harder to do. When you play something extreme or outlandish, you have a lot more freedom in terms of how far you can go and in believability and permissibility. But when you're playing a character that's not that far from you, it's actually a bit more challenging. You end up feeling like you're not doing enough. Even though I do share some of Ally's political leanings — not the Jill Stein part, but the more liberal part — and I myself am afraid of flying, I'm afraid of the ocean, I'm afraid of bees. I have some of Ally's phobias, which is why Ryan was so kind as to put them in the show. (Laughs.) It doesn't make it easier to act. Because actually, when you go into a state of panic — that has happened to me before where you can become hyper aware or "white out" aware, where you actually don't know what's happening around you — it's hard to figure out what would be going on with a person in a moment of true panic.

You have spoken about the phobias you share with your character (must-see examples here and here). Did filming this season ever become too much?

No. It's a funny thing to put yourself in this alternate reality. If it were happening in real life, I, Sarah, would be freaking out. But I'm at work and trying to portray it. My thinking brain is so alive, there's no way I can't be aware that I'm pretending. If you actually faced some of these fears in a contained environment, like I am on the set because we can always call "cut" if I got too scared, it automatically takes the fear away. So I am actually having to conjure up something because your brain knows you're pretending. But, it was hard on me, physically. I signed up for this. I love my job and they pay me to do it, so I'm very happy to oblige. It's just that kind of work can sometimes take its toll on you physically, for sure.

Approaching Ally from an acting standpoint, I'm just trying to be as open as I can possibly be because she is so sensory-overloaded. I thought, if I could just try to open myself up to all the crazy environments around me, it would probably put me in the right place emotionally. I know that those are not real crazy clowns or actual murderers, they are just actors in costumes, but if I kept myself really hyper-aware of my surroundings from a sensory standpoint, I would probably be on edge like in the extreme circumstances Ally is put in. 

So after all the roles you have played on the franchise, Ryan Murphy's challenge for you this year was to add a real-life layer to it?

(Laughs.) I said to Ryan, "If I do this show again, you have to promise me that I don't have to run around and I don't have to cry. I'm just begging you." He just looks at me and is so inscrutable, I can't tell what his plan is. 

You are going to be starring in three of his TV shows, filming them all in 2018, with American Horror Story season eight, Katrina and Ratched. In what ways does working with Murphy continue to challenge you?

Something I think I said on the Emmy stage when I won that statue is that it was only because of his belief in me I even thought I could dream it. The same thing is true now. There is no one I trust more. I call Ryan and ask his opinion on projects that have nothing to do with him! He's so involved in my mind in terms of my career choices, because I do think that once in a while you fall into a collaboration with a person who you feel really sees you. I got very lucky with that. We didn't know how we were going to play those twins in Freak Show, the technology hadn't been done in the way that we were going to try to do it. And the same thing with Marcia Clark [in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. There were so many things I never thought I could do where Ryan has said, "This is what the job is and what I'm offering you and, do you want to take it?" I've always felt that if he thought I could do it, he must be right. I know that he has my back and I know he wants to push me to do things that are a little bit outside of my comfort zone, and everyone needs that in life. It's been an extraordinary relationship for me, not just professionally but personally, the way I can rely on him a great deal.

What excites you about your Katrina and Ratched characters, Dr. Anna Pou and Nurse Ratched, respectively?

I'm excited about the Ratched development also because it's my first foray into producing and that feels like a natural progression. I feel the most comfortable already in sharing my voice and my opinions and really having a seat at the table without having that title. But now having that kind of credit, where I can actually feel like I belong there in official capacity feels very sweet that it came to me because of my relationship with Ryan. I didn't come to Ryan a fully formed actor. So much of how I have come to even approach my work was developed with him standing there. So, to have reached a moment in my work life where he wants to develop something with me or produce something with me is a real evolution of work put in, on both our parts. That makes it feel extra rewarding, validating and special, so I look forward to doing it.

The characters are all so divergent, even though one of them is a doctor and one of them is a nurse, and we have no idea what next year will be on American Horror Story. He may know, but I don't and that's always exciting. My life with Ryan was always the mystery with American Horror Story of what character I was going to get to play. Now, I have this incredible good fortune of having three opportunities to work with him in the next year and two of the characters I know what they are, and I can research and learn. And then I have this mystery that I don't know what it will be and it just keeps it so exciting and fresh. It makes me one of the luckiest ladies in town. 

Katrina was pushed back and THR reported that it was retooled. What can we can expect with these changes?

It's not the same hush-up thing in the way American Horror Story is, where so much of the fun is that you don't know what the twists and turns are going to be. I understand why they keep that under wraps. With Katrina, I think there is great care and attention being put into this story and how best to tell it. They're taking their time with it, and that's honorable, even though I am incredibly hungry to chomp down on that part. I'm very much looking forward to having an opportunity to do something with a character that some people know. When I was playing Marcia Clark, there was a lot of attachment and expectation with who she was and a story that had been written by individuals about her. This character [Dr. Pou] is obviously far less notorious. So much less has already been decided about her, so she has more mystery around some of her choices and that's an exciting thing to broach as an actor. To figure out where you end up sitting on the line internally, so you know how to play something, is challenging and scary and I just want to get it right.