The cast of Ratched are depicted in a split image with their fictional alter-egos from the series.

All There

The cast of Ratched go from first gigs to their latest sensation.

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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.

Nurse Ratched appears calm, collected, and inscrutable in a bright yellow suit and matching hat.

Sarah Paulson as Nurse Mildred Ratched

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.

Finn Wittrock: I did an episode of ER when I was just out of high school. It was my second job. My first job was on the pilot of Cold Case. I knew that I was staring down the barrel of some dues money if I got another job.
Cynthia Nixon: I was 12 and I had done an Afterschool Special, which, amazingly, starred Butterfly McQueen. Then I got a film called Little Darlings, which starred Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol and Matt Dillon. That was the point when I should’ve been eligible for my SAG card. But somebody at SAG was skeptical and thought maybe I was just a flash in the pan dilettante, so I had to go in and actually have a meeting to convince them that I was really an actress and I was serious and I intended to keep going.
Paulson: Well, you showed them, Cynthia Nixon.
Jon Jon Briones: I think for me it was an episode of Las Vegas. They were looking for someone with a thick Filipino accent, but when he starts singing it’s all straight American. I was actually doing a tour of Miss Saigon, but I taped myself and I got the gig.
Sharon Stone: I think I got it for a commercial for Broadway shows — how exciting it was to go to see Broadway shows. It was either that or for my Maybelline Slim Tint Lip Gloss commercial. It was very difficult for people to say, “Slim Tint Lip Gloss,” and play pool simultaneously. Because I ran a pool hall and I was a short-order cook in college, I could walk, talk, and play pool simultaneously.

Dr. Hanover is stationed behind an imposing desk in his oppressively blue office.

Jon Jon Briones as Dr. Richard Hanover

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.

For the rest of the cast, how did the project find its way to you? Finn and Jon Jon, you’ve worked with Ryan before, so I imagine it’s an instant yes when he calls you up.
Wittrock:
It better be. I was at a party for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. I have a distinct memory: He said, “Finny, come over here.” He explained to me the bare-bones outline of the part: “You’re playing her crazy brother. What do you think?” I was like, “Sounds cool.” I got a script a few weeks later.

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.

Sharon Stone

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?
Nixon:
I had heard that this project was around, and I knew Sarah was attached to it. I was hearing that maybe there were a few parts that I might be right for. It sounded amazing, and I ran away and read it and said, Yes, please!
Stone: My agent called me and said, “Ryan wants to have lunch with you.” Of course, I’m a person who’s scared to watch American Horror Story and shows like that. I’m a scaredy pants. I was afraid.
Wittrock: For good reason.

Lenore Osgood is pictured in a green dress and furs, all perfectly coordinated to match the monkey perched on her shoulder.

Sharon Stone as Lenore Osgood

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.

Wittrock: Exactly what you’re saying is so right. Finding the opposite self is a thing that I’m always figuring out. I had very warm parents, I had a very good upbringing, and to imagine my life without that is an imaginative leap that I think we do a lot as actors. What if that wasn’t there, what would I be like then? And I had this crazy happenstance where I was having a baby as we were filming. So I would be murdering priests and then going home and changing diapers. It was this pretty wild double life that I was living. I don’t know how exactly one thing informed the other, but they did have a yin-yang process to them.
Nixon: Since I started so young, my mother was my first acting teacher and my most important acting teacher. Even though she had not had success as an actress, she was very wise about acting in theater and film. She always used to say, “You can play yourself, and you can play your opposite.” Maybe you’re a very miserly person in your life, and you can play a miser and can also play someone who is incredibly free with money — because you can understand both ends of it. Whereas if it’s a quality that’s just outside your ken either on the good side or the bad side, or the big side or the little side, it’s much harder. Playing your opposite, somehow you just inherently understand what that is.

Edmund Tolleson looks deranged in a white muscle-shirt, surrounded by rifle-carrying guards.

Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson

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.

So I was absolutely terrified, but at the same time I felt like it was our collective mission as an ensemble to try to bring this particular world to life. It’s why you can interpret a classic play again and again in different ways with different actors and all the iterations are of value and are interesting and have meaning for audiences. This is one version, one idea of it. The more I held that in my mind, the easier it was to walk onto set.

Gwendolyn Briggs leans in to observe a lobotomy, looking sharp in her power suit.

Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn Briggs

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.

The production values, the costumes, everything on this show is so phenomenal. Jon Jon, for example, your character’s hair says so much about him.
Briones:
I’m just so glad that they made me look presentable. Actors, we’re playing, right? Costumes and wigs, that’s a big part of it. When you see yourself in the mirror after everything is put on, it’s like, Oh, there he is. It’s a magical point in your job when you see it and you go, O.K., I can do this. This is going to be fun.
Nixon: With Gwendolyn’s clothes, it’s so different from how women dress now — not just the stockings and the heels and the skirts being so tight, but the gloves and the hat and the hair just so. I’m just so relieved not to be living back then. But that was a really delicious part of Gwendolyn. First and foremost, she’s a career woman and she’s in politics — which is so much about image, and she’s always dressed to the nines. But she’s also a queer woman who in her downtime dresses in a far more butch, gender-neutral way, always walking a very fine line so that she doesn’t attract too much attention in the world that might be harmful. She not only dresses the way she feels comfortable and feels good, but she is also sending a message to women out there like Mildred who might be receptive.
Paulson: Mildred is like, Hello, hello, Gwendolyn!

OPENING PORTRAITS:
Sarah Paulson, Sharon Stone, and Cynthia Nixon by Zoey Grossman
Finn Wittrock by Jemal Countess
Jon Jon Briones by Michael Tran

Watch Ratched
on Netflix now.