In Ratched, Sarah Paulson mines the origin story of an iconic villain.
How did Sarah Paulson feel when she walked onto the set of Ratched, her latest collaboration with superstar TV creator Ryan Murphy? “I was terrified, and if you lifted up my little skirt, you would see my knees were probably a little wobbly,” she reflects now.Her anxiety didn’t emanate from the show’s twisted setting — a California mental hospital, replete with what passed for cutting-edge tools of the trade in the late 1940s. Nor did her fear grow out of the prospect of bringing to the screen a younger incarnation of the sadistic Nurse Ratched, immortalized by Louise Fletcher in the landmark 1975 drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, although that was a consideration. “It’s an iconic performance,” Paulson says of Fletcher’s Oscar-winning turn. “It’s, I think, one of AFI’s top five most villainous characters in cinematic history, along with Hannibal Lecter and all these other true, true villains.”The real specter of Ratched — and its real overture — was that it presented Paulson with her first opportunity to star in and executive-produce a project, working alongside Murphy, her longtime creative partner. The American Horror Story mastermind has written and directed a range of distinctive roles for Paulson over the years, from a pair of conjoined twins in A.H.S. to O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark in American Crime Story, a performance for which Paulson won an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award. “I’m 45 years old, but I am doing work that I wouldn’t have known what to do with in my mid-30s, that’s for sure,” says the actress. Stepping into an unfamiliar role behind the camera sparked in Paulson a desire to “meet the moment.” Even as she prepared her own take on the infamous Mildred Ratched, she guided her co-stars — an incredible ensemble including Judy Davis, Sharon Stone, Cynthia Nixon, Amanda Plummer, Rosanna Arquette, and Sophie Okonedo — through Murphy’s signature approach.And despite their long history, Paulson says she remains endlessly surprised by the originality of Murphy’s vision — in the case of Ratched, a noir tale rendered in lurid color. “I would just marvel at it all the time,” Paulson says of the series’ distinctive aesthetic, “the wallpaper and the nurses’ lounge and just the pink.”
Krista Smith spoke to Sarah Paulson about the series, and about the arc of Paulson’s career, for her podcast Present Company.Krista Smith: What goes through your mind when Ryan Murphy, who you’ve worked with for almost a decade, comes to you and says, “Hey, I’ve got this idea . . .”?
I thought, I
want to be
able to meet
on executive-producing Ratched
But that wasn’t necessarily an entirely new situation for you.
SP: A similar thing happened to me when I played Marcia Clark. I had to confront all these beliefs I had about this woman I did not know. The truth of the matter is — and this is not dissimilar from Marcia Clark — you could argue, when you watch [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest], that Nurse Ratched was actually a product of a patriarchal infrastructure in that hospital. This movie was ’74, ’75. Second-wave feminism was happening outside those walls. As a woman, she might have had to compartmentalize in order to do her job.
Did having that agency change the way you got out of bed every morning to approach the day?
SP: Absolutely. I thought, I want to be able to meet the moment. . . . He sent me cuts of the show. I don’t [typically] watch myself, so I had to remove the part of myself that was dealing with my aging face and the sound of my voice and the choices I was making in the scenes, and zoom out, think about the show as a whole.
I don’t know why we have to make ourselves smaller so that other people feel comfortable.”
If you look at the whole of your career, you have done it all, and then arguably the most important professional relationship in your life happens at a time when most actresses are in a cold sweat over the approach to being 40. But you hit that moment with Ryan, and it feels like it just has gotten better and better for you.
SP: There’s no question about it. But I still feel like I’ve got one hand on the window, pushing up, and I’m just trying to keep the window open for as long as possible. There is that fear that it’s going to come crashing down.
You do not lead with an apology — certainly not on the red carpet. And I have never yet seen a dress wear you, even though you push the limits. It’s like you’re a character that’s an extension of Sarah Paulson on that red carpet.
SP: There’s so much sorrow in the world right now for so many people, but some joy that used to be something to indulge in was the love of fashion, the real expression. It is something so magical and wonderful, and I loved doing it.
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