Sarah Paulson on Flipping Her Political Script With 'Mrs. America'

Mrs. America - Sarah Paulson - Publicity-H - 2020
Courtesy of FX

[This story contains spoilers from the May 20 episode of FX's Mrs. America.]

Sarah Paulson doesn't like to watch herself onscreen, but since she's just as enamored with the cast of FX on Hulu's star-studded Mrs. America, she's planning to watch it … eventually.

"I so want to watch what everybody else is doing because it's a veritable wonderland of magical performers," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I probably will watch this one, it's just while it's currently on and everyone's consuming it I think I'm going to wait. It's better for my mental health given the current state of affairs to just steer clear of anything that might send me down a bad rabbit hole."

The miniseries, created by Dahvi Waller, follows the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and the backlash against it, led by Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett, who also executive produces). Paulson plays the fictional Alice Macray, a conservative housewife who brings her opposition of the ERA to Schlafly's attention in the first place. But in the eighth episode, "Houston," Macray's eyes are opened when she meets the feminist figures she's railed against in the past as she and her fellow opposition members Rosemary Thomson (Melanie Lynskey) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) attend the National Women's Conference in Houston.

Below, Paulson discusses playing a character whose politics don't necessarily align with her own, how her new puppy Winnie has been helping her cope, and her involvement in future Ryan Murphy projects (including the teased American Horror Story spinoff and the Netflix drama Ratched). The Mrs. America finale hits Hulu on Wednesday, May 27.

There's a really poignant moment in the episode where all these equal rights resolutions have passed at the conference, and the women all sing "We Shall Overcome" together, but in real life the fight for those very same rights continues today.

The night that we shot the scene, we were all in the convention room together and Melanie's character and Kayli's character turn around in opposition, I believe it's of the same sex inclusion, and Alice doesn't, or keeps turning around and wanting to see what's going on. That night was very emotional for every single actor in that room. It was really quite a profound way to spend an evening, and I think Liz Banks and I shot until 5 in the morning and then we both were on some 6:30 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles. We were both nodding off waiting to board the plane because we had been literally shooting for about 17 hours, which is crazy.

It is a very wild way to end, and be like (tearfully), "OK, bye guys, I'll see you at the airport, Liz? OK, yeah, bye." I think we both slept for 35 minutes at home before the car came to get us and take us to the airport.

What is it like to play a character like Alice, who holds political beliefs opposite of your own?

Any time we can take off whatever particular worldview glasses we traditionally wear, and put on another pair and take a look at something through a lens that is not our own, is an enormous learning opportunity. It didn't make me want to dive into being a more conservative thinker, but it certainly reminded me of the very thing that ultimately happens to Alice during the course of this show, and particularly in her episode. It's not that Alice goes through this experience at the convention — which Dahvi and I described as this Alice Through the Looking Glass, Alice in Wonderland [situation where] she drops down a rabbit hole and it's this whole other universe. She doesn't do this and then come out the other side a different person; she comes out the other side with a different worldview based on coming in contact with those that she perceived to be her enemy. I think there's something very powerful, certainly about how it pertains to where we are today in the sense that we all tend to consume and digest information that sits well with us naturally, and we don't tend to consume or digest the things that don't align with our particular way of thinking. But what that creates sometimes is a very narrow worldview. And I think the only way to really have as broad a view of things — which would inherently mean a greater, real understanding of things — is to open up your perspective. So this was a real opportunity for me to dive into something that was not my worldview.

And yet what I was able to grab onto and what was very valuable to me was that at the core, Alice is just an incredibly compassionate person and a very open person who is really rooted in the pursuit of goodness and what is righteous and what is good. So there was a part of that that I could get behind in terms of, she's the one in the beginning who obviously feels very threatened, but is the one fighting against allowing people with real hate in their hearts into our organization and really being upset with with the race conversation and bigotry that she sees in the movement. In episode three or four [she's] really coming up against people from certain states who are representing people who really have a bigoted, racist worldview and Alice is very uncomfortable with this. She was a prime candidate to have the wool pulled from her eyes and to have this experience and be open enough to it.

The minute she pulled the curtain back and realized that people on the other side were were actual human beings with families and loves and lives of their own that were very important and she took it out of the context of Phyllis's rhetoric, it became impossible to ignore that they were human beings. I thought there was something really profound about it. Although yes, she is a person who has a political view that is different than mine even by the end of the series — I don't think she comes out of Houston a feminist. I don't think she sheds her entire core belief system or core values, which I really respected. It was important to Dahvi and it was very important to me and to Cate as well to not have it just be this easy thing of, "she dips her toe in this water and comes out a feminist," because that just didn't seem realistic. And also I don't know what story that tells. Like, "Oh, once you dip your toe in the liberal waters, you're never going to want to leave." I don't think that's something that I was interested in investigating. It was much more interesting to me to see what happens when you dip your toe in and how much of it permeates? How much of it changes you? And in what ways does it change you? I don't think Alice would ever, ever devalue herself as a wife and a mother and a homemaker in the pursuit of rights for women. I don't think that's what happened to her. But I think she was incapable of going forward thinking of them as the enemy and as lesser in terms of their value as people, and it opened and broadened her potential standing in the world, for sure. But she's still a woman of great faith and a devoted wife and mother. And those things don't change.

It's the same with what you said about trying to see things through the eyes of people outside of your own experience.

If you're watching MSNBC and read The New York Times and you don't ever watch Fox News and you don't ever listen to a person with a different worldview because it doesn't align with yours, then you get shocked when things turn out politically in a way that you didn't expect. But it's because you're not as aware of what's happening on the other side and how many people subscribe to those beliefs. You don't have to have your mind changed or assuaged to believe what they're believing, but it's interesting to be educated about the whole story so that when you wake up one morning and you have a president you weren't expecting, you aren't as surprised.

What's it like to play a fictionalized character in the context of all these real-life figures?

I'm not going to lie — it was a bit of a bummer to constantly be referred to as the composite character. It's like, (excitedly) "You've got the iconic Gloria Steinem, Tracey Ullman is Betty Friedan," and it's like, (dejectedly) "Sarah Paulson is Alice Macray, the composite character." I couldn't help but feel a little protective of Alice, because although I am an amalgamation of women that were in Phyllis' orbit, she is absolutely fictionalized. I was totally jealous when I walked in the hair and makeup trailer and there were all these images of the real people and of the actors portraying them. I'd love nothing more than to curate and cultivate a look that you're trying to emulate, and have these brilliant hair and makeup people do this job that's extraordinary, and to try to get a voice down and a way of walking. All that stuff is so challenging and exciting. So I was absolutely jealous of all these wonderful actresses getting to do that.

At the same time, I felt like I am getting to do something in this series that I think is pretty wonderful: Over the course of a little under a decade, Alice starts the show one way and she lands somewhere entirely different. I don't think you can truly say that about most of the other characters in terms of the amount of real estate — in the figurative sense — that they travel internally, so that by the end of this story they are not the same person they were when they began. That was something really interesting to me that we were able to do because of Dahvi's real, real expertise and the way she crafted it. It was a very slow burn. There's not a lot of Alice in the beginning in terms of dialogue. It's just little seeds, little seeds, little seeds, and then it blooms into this story in episode eight, which was exciting. To look back and think of Alice the first time you see her with her hair in curlers and talking about Gloria Steinem in a totally uneducated way, but in a way where it was just a fear-based reaction. And then by the end of this, she's been in a room with Gloria Steinem and she's seen the power — not only her power, but the power of her personal interest in other people's opinions and thoughts and not just dictating what we we're all to do and believe and think, and how that was such a totally novel thing for Alice to be seeing. That was really exciting to play. It's always nice to do something where there's a real arc and a real journey where you can look back and go, "Wow, that woman in the hair salon and the curlers is not the same woman we see at the end of episode nine."

She is hopefully representative of how people can evolve politically at any time in their lives.

Yes, Alice represents a certain kind of hope that you can take a kind of naivety or a willful ignorance and it can blossom if you allow it to. And I do think it's a credit to Alice's openness. But if you allow it to, you can find yourself a more educated and knowledgeable, present person who can admit that there's more going on than what's happening in your own backyard. I think that is hopefulness personified. Alice is hopefulness personified. That is extraordinarily valuable in the telling of this story, and also just a lovely thing to be holding close right now in our current situation.

What has been making you feel hopeful?

Well, I have a new puppy. It's impossible to have a tiny 6-month-old puppy who sees a butterfly for the first time and not think, "OK, all I have to do is just be present right now. Just look at the butterfly. Look at the butterfly, look at the butterfly," so that I don't think too terribly much about the great unknown of what's in front of us. Not to get too airy fairy or philosophical about it — or faux-philosophical about it, because God knows I'm not a philosopher — but the idea that we do spend so much time in our lives busying ourselves. I don't mean for the sake of busying ourselves, but our lives are very busy. We can move away from the ultimate gray area that most of life is made up with, and the great unknown, by having our structures and our regimens and things that we do every day. And when those things are stripped away, and all you feel is the gray, it can be really, really terrifying. But the truth is it's always lurking just behind our normal day-to-day activities. And so there is a moment that we can reflect on in that way, to just try to stay in the moment and look at the damn butterfly and look at your puppy and lament the fact that that shoe you were never really wearing much of anyway, you don't have anywhere to go now, so she might as well just chew it to pieces. You're not going anywhere. Let her have the shoe.

It's interesting because we spend our lives thinking about the future and what's next, and it's weird to have a time where you're forced to think about the present.

Because there's so much of this that we don't know. There's so much about the virus that they don't know. There's so much worry about a resurgence. There's so much chaos from a government standpoint, from a federal standpoint. The new world order of the unknown [is] impossible to ignore or deny or distract ourselves from, so the only way to combat the fear of that — because it's so normal to be frightened of that. That's the big, great thing is to just focus on this very moment, and now this moment, and now this one. I'm getting great help from a tiny puppy who just sees a bee or an ant for the first time and it's just like, so curious and, you know, chases the squirrel and sees a bird. It forces me to look at the bird as well.

I hesitate to say, like, "That's been the positive part of this." At the end of the day so many people are dying, and so many people have found themselves in situations that are truly terrifying: They don't know how they're going to live financially. They don't if they're going to have jobs. They're in dangerous domestic situations. There are all kinds of new realities for people that it's hard to talk about it in an interview about a television show about what's positive about this experience. Because at the end of the day, although we do need to try to find [positivity], and everyone can benefit from it, there are there are just so many new realities that are filled with a lot of fear for a lot of people, so it's hard to talk about without feeling a little bit like a tool.

On the flip side, people are taking real solace in entertainment right now, so it is helping people through this time.

Oh, absolutely, and I am happy. I am one of the very lucky few and I do know this. I know what my job is when we do find our way back to work, whenever that is. I do know what I'm going to be doing and I know what the job I'm doing after that is as well. And that is an absolute, ridiculous luxury and I know it and I don't take one minute of it for granted. It's just a really scary time out there for a lot of people, and people I know and certainly people I don't know. It's really something to be going through. I'm glad people can immerse themselves in any kind of show or thing that they can get immersed in. That's great. We need all of that, too. I couldn't possibly see spending all our time thinking about this. We'd all just like, walk right into the road.

Ryan Murphy recently posted about an American Horror Story cast Zoom call and teased a spinoff. What can you say about it?

I can't say anything about it except for that I hope to be directing the new [series]. I hope that will in fact come to fruition. Not with anything official, but in fun, playful conversations with the man, that has been floated about. So hopefully! And you have to say it like that. You have to use the words I'm using: "Floated about, nothing official, but conversations, fun conversations I've had with him that might full well turn out to be nothing." Which would be really exciting to me because I have to say, that one episode I directed was a really confronting experience for me, because I realized how much of a "hair on fire" kind of person I am rather than a "go with the flow" kind of person. So I would really like to have another opportunity to be in that world that obviously, having been in for so many years, I feel about as comfortable as one could feel trying my hand at that. I would like to do more of it, but I would also like to have more experience doing it. So for my second round up at bat, I would love it to be in that world. And of course I want to be in it, too. There's no American Horror Story spinoff, movie, play, projection from space that I would not want to be a part of if I could be.

And you have Ratched coming to Netflix this year, too.

I actually finished Ratched 36 hours before I flew to do Mrs. America. So it was a bit of a schizophrenic experience in the sense that I had been so immersed in this 1940s world and playing this character, and then flying there and walking right into hair and makeup — my wig got lost on the way. I'm not kidding, the wig never made it to Canada. I was supposed to start shooting the next day and then somebody had to send somebody to the airport to go through trunks. It was really quite a wild ride to be Mildred Ratched on a Friday, or actually a Saturday morning because we finished at like 5 a.m., and on a Monday morning I was on a plane to Mrs. America land. It was really wild.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.