The cast of Ratched go from first gigs to their latest sensation.
Time can’t dull Nurse Mildred Ratched’s reputation, but it can certainly add to it. And that’s exactly what Ryan Murphy proves in his 1940s-set horror-drama Ratched, which imagines a riveting origin story for the iconic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest character.“It is Mildred Ratched, it is that character — but it is invented,” says Sarah Paulson, who steps into the central role and also executive produces the series. “It is an idea of a life she might’ve had. It’s an interpretation.”Ratched’s wickedly addictive first season sees Mildred arrive at the sinister Lucia State Hospital as it prepares to admit a new psychiatric patient, the notorious killer Edmund Tolleson, played by Finn Wittrock. He just so happens to be Mildred’s foster brother, and she embarks on a plan to free him even as she becomes entangled in a web of relationships inside and outside the facility, including a tentative romance with politico Gwendolyn Briggs, played by Cynthia Nixon.Paulson, Wittrock, and Nixon, along with Sharon Stone, who plays ill-fated socialite and pet-monkey-owner Lenore Osgood, and Jon Jon Briones, who stars as the devious Dr. Richard Hanover, gathered recently for a special panel organized by the Screen Actors Guild and moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley.
Jenelle Riley: Going back to the beginning of each of your careers, could you tell me how you initially got your SAG cards?
Sarah Paulson: For me it was an episode of Law & Order, the one with Jerry Orbach and Chris Noth. I’d never been on camera before. I moved like I was in a neck brace the whole time. I was like, Does the camera go with you? It was a learning experience in many, many ways.
And now you’re all here on Ratched. Sarah, what was your reaction when Ryan Murphy approached you about putting this iconic antihero at the center of a story?
Paulson: I pursued him about it. My agent said, “Did you hear about the script Ryan has? It’s basically an origin story about Ratched. Has he talked to you about it at all?” I said, “He hasn’t, and I don’t know what to make of that.” I called him up and he said, “Look, you’ve always been so excited about being in that American Horror Story world, because every year you get to play something different. You’ve never expressed any interest in doing a serialized anything or playing the same person over and over.” I said, “Please, let me just read it.” And then it became mine. It was really wonderful that he trusted me to do it.
You have to be able to accept your dark self wholly and then realize you are maybe not that dark. You have to be able to bring it all to the screen.”
Briones: We’d just finished filming Versace, and I got an email from Ryan’s producing partner Brad Simpson that day. They wanted to see Miss Saigon on Broadway, so I organized tickets for them. They went backstage after the show and Ryan asked me, “What are you doing after Miss Saigon?” I said, “I’m going to be looking for a job,” and he said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to snatch you up.” I thought it was Hollywood talk. A few months later, I got a phone call from my agent saying we got an offer and that he wanted me to be in Ratched and a few episodes of American Horror Story. It was like Christmas Day.I love that he saw you singing and dancing and said, “That guy should perform lobotomies.” Cynthia and Sharon, what about for you?
Your characters go to some really dark places. Do you take the work home with you? Is there levity on set? Are you able to leave these characters behind at the end of the day?
Stone: Well, I don’t think you can not have levity when there’s a monkey on your head pulling off your wig. You have to go to these deep places, and you have to be able to accept your dark self wholly and then realize you are maybe not that dark. You have to be able to bring it all to the screen.
The 1975 film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and this character have been so emblazoned on our minds. Sarah, were you intimidated to step into Mildred’s shoes and show a new side of her?
Paulson: Sure I was. Louise Fletcher gives a beautifully nuanced performance in a sea of a lot of other things going on in that movie. She’s very mysterious. I certainly felt the towering presence of that, mentally, as well as an awareness that the audience was going to have an attachment to her from that movie. But this journey is a separate thing. What Ryan does most successfully is create these worlds. It’s down the rabbit hole into this other place that you can really lose yourself in. That’s why actors want to work on his stuff: There’s just a myriad of things to chew on, always. As long as you find some way to ground them, it can be really liberating.
Do you have any theories on why this series strikes such a chord with viewers?
Stone: I do: Sarah is awesome. Sarah created something that was about a partnership in a way we hadn’t seen in this kind of show. People wrote online about their feelings and the way that they were moved not just by the show, not just by the astounding set decorations and amazing costumes, but by this love story.
Sarah Paulson, Sharon Stone, and Cynthia Nixon by Zoey Grossman
Finn Wittrock by Jemal Countess
Jon Jon Briones by Michael Tran
on Netflix now.