Sarah Paulson on 'American Horror Story' Challenges and What's Ahead for Season 8

The upcoming cycle of the FX anthology is the highly anticipated 'Murder House'-'Coven' crossover season and sees Paulson playing three characters. "It's almost like a greatest hits album," she says of her returning co-stars.
Kurt Iswarienko/FX
Sarah Paulson in 'American Horror Story: Apocalypse'

Even Sarah Paulson, who is an Emmy winner (for American Crime Story) and who was a five-time nominee (for American Horror Story), acknowledges that in the era of Peak TV, anything can happen when it comes to TV's biggest night.

"I wasn't nominated last year for American Horror Story and sometimes that happens, where a show has been on for a long time and the voters just start to move on," Paulson told The Hollywood Reporter when speaking about her sixth Emmy nomination this year. The nod, for her role on FX's American Horror Story: Cult, came as somewhat of a surprise. "There is so much content and so much extraordinary work happening on television these days. I wasn't unaware that the nominations were happening, but I wasn't expecting to hear my name."

In Cult, the seventh cycle of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's horror anthology, Paulson played Ally Mayfair-Richards, a fragile yet passionate liberal who found herself paralyzed by a range of phobias that resurfaced after Donald Trump was elected president. In addition to the politically charged election theme, Cult tackled female rage and empowerment, and ultimately revealed itself to be about the cult of personality with Paulson's Ally ending the season on a much stronger note than when she began.

On top of reliving the results of the 2016 presidential election, Paulson also faced her real-life phobias when filming Cult, thanks to creator Murphy writing her fears of bees, clowns and of holes clustered together (termed Trypophobia) into the script. The upcoming eighth cycle AHS: Apocalypse, however, will bring about a first for the actress on the series. The new season, which will feature the highly anticipated crossover of previous cycles Murder House and Coven, will see her playing three characters.

Below, the lead actress in a limited series or TV movie nominee teases Apocalypse (which premieres on Wednesday) and opens up about how, after eight years on Murphy's critically beloved show, American Horror Story continues to challenge her in new ways. 

American Horror Story is always provocative, but Cult was provocative and timely. Do you think the relevance of the season kept AHS top of mind for Emmy voters?

We were certainly mirroring a lot of what the country was experiencing in its most extreme form — because of the horror component of our show. On the one hand, I think most people like to watch television to immerse themselves in a world that they don't actually live in. But in this particular instance, I think it might have been cathartic, and a little bit therapeutic, for people to watch other people be immersed in a world in which they did find enormous parallels to their own experience. Ally was being literally driven mad and I think some of us feel that happening when you turn on the news. I wonder if there wasn't some kind of cathartic viewing experience of letting yourself go into a show on television that mirrored your own life, but was much worse.

Ally emerged as a strong character in the end — whether she is good or evil is up for debate. How does it feel to be recognized for a season that spoke so loudly to female empowerment?

It feels good any time you're recognized for playing a person who is multidimensional and flawed — all things that make up all human beings. Ally began the season weaker and more susceptible to the terrorizing that was happening to her from people who claimed to love her. And what she did in response was that she gained power, her footing and ended up righting these wrongs in a very powerful way. Some of them may have been illegal or even criminal (laughs). It feels good when you're recognized, period, full stop. But it has an extra-special significance when it's a character that you have felt a connection with. Right now, as a woman, you want to tell responsible stories about the experience of being a woman.

Cult saw you facing some of your real-life phobias, on top of reliving the election results. How did that season challenge you the most?

There's this misconception — and I held this belief myself — that playing someone close to home would be easier. But there's a lot of denial that goes along with being a person walking around the planet; sometimes it's just too much of a burden to bear all of the realities one is dealing with in their life. Then, you add in what we have going on politically and in our world in general, and it's a heavy load. What I realized in playing Ally was that I had to confront things that I might want to push away. I had to invite some of those things to live and breathe in my mind and in my body. That was very challenging and uncomfortable. But I think it helped to make it maybe resonate with people more because I was accessing things that a lot of us spend time and attention on keeping out of the realm of consciousness, as opposed to bringing it to the forefront of one's mind.

What is the most unexpected response you have gotten about Cult?

Because of the extreme nature of it, no response was unexpected to me. American Horror Story deals in extremes, and that's why it's such an exciting world to live in and to come up with creative ways to bring it to life. Nothing would shock me in terms of the way someone could respond to it, because it hits people in all different ways. That's the beauty of it.

The upcoming season, Apocalypse, will feature the Murder House-Coven crossover that Ryan Murphy has long teased. Both of the characters you played in those seasons received Emmy nominations. Does that add pressure?

No. I think it's thrilling. Very often, you don't get an opportunity to play a part you've played. The unique thing about this show is that every year we are basically starting from scratch. I'm not coming back to work and putting on the same outfit that I wore as a character last season. We're not picking up right where we left off, and that's really exciting. At the same time, there can be those moments where you feel, "I don't know if I got to the end of things with that character." Before the character died or before the season was over, or whatever it is. So it is kind of exciting with distance and space between it, to go back to revisit something. It doesn't make me feel pressure, it makes me excited that I get to go visit an old friend, essentially.

You have played dual characters on AHS before. You have also said you never say no to Murphy, and on Apocalypse, you will be playing three charactersWhat are your hopes for your returning and new characters with Apocalypse?

I shot two of the characters that I'm playing on the same day. Although they are not interacting with one another, I shot one in the morning and a different character in the evening. And I didn't say no to him on that. (Laughs.) When I was doing Sally in Hotel, I was also doing Marcia Clark at the same time — but they were on two different shows and two different sets. [Paulson was nominated for both performances and took home the trophy for her Marcia Clark performance in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson]. That was enough of an out-of-body experience on its own, but I have yet to go between characters on American Horror Story in the same day, and I am doing that this year. I had played Billie Dean Howard and Sally in the same episode in Hotel, but we didn't shoot that in the same day. So this is the first morning where I started as one character and ended the day on another one.

Because of the crossover, Murphy promised fan-favorites would return. The Coven witches are back, and so are Murder House stars, including Jessica Lange. Cody Fern is a new addition in the key role of Michael Langdon (the Murder House baby). Will Apocalypse be a gift for the fans in terms of connecting the show's universe?

Cody Fern is a really extraordinary actor and he has some great stuff to do. Working with him has been really exciting and fun. To me, this season is going to be a little bit like an all-star special. Like The Love Boat with all the favorite guest stars ever (laughs). Where you open the door and you’re like, "Oh my god, there's so and so!" It's almost like a greatest hits album or something.

AHS was just renewed for a 10th season. As you continue to line up other projects (including ones with Murphy), are you ever preparing for the end of AHS?

I've made the joke before that I want to be doing this show until I'm 95. That they're going to have to drag me out of there kicking and screaming. That being said, I have no idea what Ryan's plans are for me. It's tantamount to me walking in and saying, "Do you want me to go left or right?" and then whatever he says, I will just go there. (Laughs.) So I don't know what his plans are for me as it pertains to Horror Story, but there will be crawl marks on the walls from them trying to drag me out if they ever ask me to go.

Who are you most looking forward to chatting up at Emmy after parties this year?

I only get to see [The People v. O.J. Simpson co-star] Sterling K. Brown once a year for dinner now, when I used to see him all the time at work. So that will be exciting. Betty Gilpin, who is on GLOW and who is a friend of mine. Her nomination was probably the most exciting one because I thought she was so exquisite on that show. I let out a little yelp when I saw that she was nominated and I sent her a text with a bunch of excitement emojis. Also, Laurie Metcalf and Mandy Patinkin — I could talk to Mandy Patinkin about anything, I just find him to be one of the most compelling actors around. 

Finish this sentence: There ought to be an Emmy category for ...

I really wish they would give Emmys out to every member of the crew. When a show wins for best show, I think every member of that crew should take home a trophy. There's no way to have the shows be what they are without every single member of that company. The writers and showrunners get to take those statues home and I think that the crew should get one as well.

American Horror Story returns with Apocalypse on Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX. Head here for details about the season and and bookmark THR.com/AHS for more show coverage.

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