Sarah Paulson Teases Netflix's 'Ratched' and How She Plans to Transform to Play Linda Tripp

"Any character you play — particularly the ones that on the surface seem difficult, angry or monstrous — it’s our job to represent all kinds of people without judgment," said Paulson while sharing some of the first details about the Nurse Ratched series and FX's 'Impeachment: American Crime Story.'
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Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson still finds it "strange" that after her Emmy-winning turn as Marcia Clark in 2016's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, it took a full year before the offers came rolling in. 

"The minute the show was over, I think Sterling [K. Brown] had several offers for movies. And I was offered nothing," Paulson recalled of sweeping that awards season for her role on the FX series when speaking during an intimate conversation at the 2019 New Yorker Festival on Saturday night. "I did think it was strange that it was a full year after it had been over. And I did have this extraordinary thing happen with statues and things — and with those things, you think, comes more opportunity — and, nothing was coming to me. And I thought it was so interesting that for him, as a man, it was immediate. And mine took a little bit longer."

Paulson made sure to note that Brown "deserves everything, always," as the actors have remained close since their co-starring turn as Clark, the lead prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder case, and her fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden. The actors even had their own secret opinions about the details of the relationship, which Clark and Darden themselves have never definitively addressed but that the show hinted was romantic. "Sterling and I both decided that we would decide whether or not we had, but we weren’t going to tell each other. So we both had our opinions; I think we both thought the same thing," said Paulson, who admitted that she has posed the question to her now-friend Clark. "My allegiance is and will always be to Marcia and if she’s not saying anything public about it, then I certainly am not going to."

But as happy as Paulson was for Brown in the aftermath of People v. O.J., she found herself in a place that she referred to as "pre-Marcia and post-Marcia" when looking back Saturday night.

After wrapping up with People v. O.J., she returned for the sixth season of Ryan Murphy's other FX series, American Horror Story, which she has now starred in for a total of eight seasons (she confirmed during the panel that she will not be making any appearances on the currently airing ninth season of the horror franchise AHS: 1984). But the dual role she played that season in AHS: Roanoke, she admitted, was not her favorite. "I said to Ryan, 'There’s pre-Marcia and there’s post-Marcia' and it was very hard for me, once I played a person that was that complicated and three-dimensional and fully realized, to then do something that was a little more on the surface. It made it harder to be excited about it. In my position, since I’m not directing and writing my own stuff, I’m a little bit at the mercy of someone’s interest in me and so I had to wait a beat before anything came to me. I got a bunch of offers to play prosecutors and I did not take those jobs, because I had done it."

The jobs that did eventually role in, however, brought Paulson back to the big screen for her recent roles in Glass and The Goldfinch, and will see her adding producing credits to her résumé for two highly anticipated forthcoming TV series that have her once again collaborating with Murphy — and, presumably, playing women that will require her to dig deep once again.

First comes Netflix's Ratched, a prequel series to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which Paulson is starring as the infamous Nurse Ratched and executive producing; and the second is Impeachment: American Crime Story, the third season in FX's real-life inspired ACS franchise that Paulson is co-starring in (as Linda Tripp) and producing alongside Monica Lewinsky (who is being played by Beanie Feldstein). Paulson is also currently filming the star-studded FX miniseries Ms. America, and on Saturday, she explained to the New Yorker's Michael Schulman how the projects are coming together, while teasing what to expect in some of the first details shared about Ratched and Impeachment.

Ratched, which was picked up at Netflix with a two-season order under Murphy's new content deal with the streaming giant, is an origin story set in 1946 — 20 years prior to the events of the book and classic film starring Jack Nicholson — with a multiple-season story in mind, according to Paulson. "I don’t have this massive hairdo that is sort of iconic that Louise Fletcher had," said Paulson of Nurse Mildred Ratched, the character made famous by Fletcher in the 1975 film. "This is how we discover who the woman was and how she came to be. Ideally, by the time we’re in season four, we’re in that story of the Cuckoo’s Nest."

Paulson, who said she filmed eight episodes and wrapped her camera work on the first season (there is no premiere date yet), recalled Murphy's initial pitch for the role: "Lady, do you want to have some like Walter White shit happen?" His oft-leading lady is no stranger to tackling difficult roles (see: American Horror Story and 12 Years a Slave), which circles around to when Fletcher herself took on the role after many Hollywood actresses of the time passed because they felt Nurse Ratched was too monstrous.

"Ratched was complicated and dark and not what I expected, and totally terrifying. It’s more psychological than murder-scary where somebody jumps out from behind you. It’s sort of a meditation on someone’s psychological strengths or weaknesses," she recalled of what drew her to the series. "What I found really interesting is that people prescribe such villainy to her and the truth of the matter is that she really was a product of her time. Part of the conceit of the movie is that you fall in love with all the men and their friendship, but you never want the killjoy coming in to say, 'We have to follow the rules.' But she was, in her way, trying to offer them help, just with devastating consequences. [But] there was no mustache-twisting. There was a real steadiness and a stillness to her that I like to try to steal."

Paulson teased that Judy Davis will play her onscreen nemesis named Betsy Bucket ("She eats my food out of the refrigerator and that doesn't make Mildred very happy," she said) and that the show will help viewers understand what motivated Nurse Ratched. "I don’t want to give away a piece that comes out in the second episode where you realize, 'Oh, that’s why she behaved that way,' [but] this is sort of a contextualization of how Mildred Ratched became the woman that you see in that movie. I do think any character you play, particularly the ones that on the surface seem difficult, angry or monstrous, a lot of people don’t like to investigate that stuff and to me, I think it’s our job to represent all kinds of people without judgment, if possible."

When likening the role of Nurse Ratched to other difficult characters she's taken on in the past, Paulson explained her thinking. "A lot of times, I wish actors were less afraid of what people thought of them and they didn’t make choices that were going to get in the way of their branding, in terms of their ability to sell shoes or open a movie or something," she said. "From an acting standpoint, I feel like there’s a larger calling. There’s a greater nobility in not shying away from something because it’s awful."

That brought Paulson to discussing the next vilified character she will be taking on with Linda Tripp. The long-gestating third season of ACS will focus on the saga of the Clinton presidency scandal, with Lewinsky on board to produce, and focusing on the three female characters of Lewinsky (Feldstein), Tripp (Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford). Impeachment begins shooting late February/early March, and Paulson said she will turn her attention to the role — for which she plans to physically transform — when she wraps Ms. America in November. 

“I’m going to take about three months off to eat some food, because I’m going to gain some weight to play her," said Paulson, explaining, "I don’t want to wear a suit because I think it will feel very strange. And also, this story is not a story that we’re unfamiliar with, but it is being told through the lens of the female perspective in terms of the three main women who were involved in this impeachment: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. And part of it is about the invisible nature of these women, so I didn’t really feel like it would be a great idea for me to come to work putting on some faux suit and be all pumped up with prosthetics and not be able to move my face or feel the feelings that she might have been feeling."

Admitting that she doubts she will make contact with Tripp, who went on to run a Christmas ornaments tour (something the show will nod to in an early episode), Paulson did share some insight on how she plans to approach playing her. 

"There’s no way for me to approach playing her as a way of thinking how to redeem her. I don’t know that it's redeemable, some of what she did to her friend," she said. "But I am interested in what causes people to behave in ways that make no sense and that lack a moral compass and that have a real suspect intentionality. I’m curious about what makes people like that do what they do. And not in an effort to reveal her to be Glinda the Good Witch — I am interested in understanding the psychology of the 'why?'"

She continued, "I think it’s interesting to understand why people do what they do, and, not in an effort to change public perception about her. I have yet to begin that deep dive, because it’s too hard to do that while I’m doing other things. So in the middle of November that will begin, and there’s a lot to gather and a lot of information and tape to watch. But I’m not going to be looking for a way to make her likable — I don’t really like to do anything like that. I’m not worried if people like me as Linda Tripp. That’s not my job."