TV & Film

'American Horror Story: Coven' Star Sarah Paulson On Jessica Lange And The Ryan Murphy Way

The core actors on "American Horror Story" have to pull off a difficult hat trick.

They have to create characters with heft, depth and texture, despite the fact that the show, as executive producer Tim Minear discussed in a recent interview, often has the quality of a surreal fever dream.

Their range has to be supple and extensive, because they need to traverse everything from moments of high operatic drama to intimate scenes of coiled, complicated intensity.

Lastly, the actors have to be fearless (the ultimate irony, given that "AHS" is a horror show). Within the course of a season, the show tends to throw just about everything at its cast. Last year's "American Horror Story: Asylum" included aliens, Nazis, an exorcism, grisly medical experiments, a serial killer, an alcoholic nun and mutations roaming the woods outside a grim mental hospital. (There was more, but you get the idea.)

Sarah Paulson's deft performance did a lot to ground that.

When "American Horror Story: Coven" premieres Oct. 9, it'll be Paulson's third trip through the "AHS" funhouse, and it's not hard to see why she's become a mainstay of the repertory company that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have assembled around the drama. "AHS" is a big show with a lot of jolting ideas and arresting images churning through it, and it tends to hire actors whose charisma and presence can take up a lot of space.

Rather than trying to compete with the largeness of the show's ideas, the tragic grandeur that Jessica Lange brings to her roles or "AHS'" complicated mood swings, Paulson typically goes for subtlety without sacrificing strength. Last season, her character, Lana Winters, brilliantly stalked the border between Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama and fine-grained, meticulously conveyed pain and regret.

I have particular fondness for a scene in which she and Zachary Quinto's psychiatrist character verbally sparred in Dr. Thredson's home. It was all weird angles, odd tension and deliciously dry comic timing with a buzzing undercurrent of fear running through it; "Mad Men" by way of "Rosemary's Baby." Paulson and Quinto had a ball with all those layers without letting their characters even get close to the land of caricature.

Of course, Lana also screamed a lot, because holy hell, the character went through some terrible times. But there was something indomitable about her, which made Lana a great foil for Jessica Lange's Sister Jude.

"American Horror Story: Coven," which stars Lange, Paulson, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, Denis O'Hare, Lily Rabe, Gabourey Sidibe, Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga (among others), is in production in New Orleans, and once again, from script to script, Paulson doesn't really know what's coming next for her character. When I spoke to her in August, filming had barely begun on "Coven's" new season, but she sounded excited about playing the daughter of Lange's character.

In the interview below, she talks about her first time working with Lange almost a decade ago, and discusses the particular challenges of the distinctive melange that Murphy, Falchuk, Minear and the rest of the show's writers, actors and directors have concocted. (This conversation has been edited and slightly condensed.)

You got to do so much last season -- Lana went through so many kinds of things. I talked to Jessica a bit about her input to her roles, and I was wondering if you have any input into what you do on the show.

I think that's something afforded you when you've won a bunch of Oscars. [laughs] But I don't complain about it, really, because I feel there's just a part of me as an actress [that likes to work]. I've been doing this a long time, and any bone thrown in my direction, I'm just so happy to have some food, just so excited. Not that I wouldn't have things to say, but I'm also very interested to see what they're going to give me and the challenge of how I'm going to do that. It's a little scary.
They picked up my option to be on the show again, but I didn't know what it was going to be. So you're just sort of flying blind, and it's very few people that you do that with. But when you realize the company you're keeping and the actors that you're with, and "the Ryan" of it all, which is an enormous piece of this... Ryan is really kind of a mad scientist. He's brilliant, and he's got a great thing about casting, and he knows what everyone's strengths are, and he's really good at playing to them, I think. That's an extraordinary thing, to work with someone who can do that.

It strikes me that Ryan's trying to evoke the quality of a fever dream with this show. It's very intense; but as an actor is it more difficult because the progressions are not all laid out or gradual?

There are so many sharp, hairpin turns. [Miming her reaction to scripts or stories] "Wait ... what? I don't ... All right. What about Point A to -- oh, so just Point A to D to Z? All right!" You're like, "Whoa!"

I do think it's very brilliant, the visual [approach]. When somebody says 'fever dream,' you know exactly what they mean. But I also see it cinematically: Somebody waking up and [there's] sweat all over their face, and [they're] half awake and half asleep -- all that kind of floods into your brain. And I think that is exactly what he's doing. To me, "Asylum" in particular feels like a fever dream, more than "Murder House."

So week to week when you get the scripts, you really have no idea what's coming?

I remember getting the script where I was taken by Bloodyface. I end up down in the lair, and Wendy's body is there, frozen, and he puts the mask on for the first time, and I remember thinking, "How do I get out of this? Does Lana get out of this? The show is called 'American Horror Story: Asylum' for a reason -- if I'm not in the asylum, do I stay on the show? How is it possible that she survives this? And if she survives it, how does she get back in there, where the bulk of the story is?" It's that kind of thing where you're like, "I have no idea." I had to just go along for the ride and hope for the best. I didn't know if Lana was going to make it.

There are so many kinds of stories spinning around, from aliens to Nazis to crazy priests. As an actor, for those reasons, is it more challenging to keep it human and grounded?

To me, all I could think about -- I couldn't think about the scary part of it, or "We're trying to do a horror show" or think about it in a horror way. First of all, I was lucky that so many horrible things were being perpetrated against me, I didn't really have to imagine what the horror part of the show was. [I didn't have to project] "I think what's happening over here is horrible!" It was important for me to focus on the intent of the scene or the truth of the scene and what I would really be feeling if this was actually happening to me. I couldn't think about it in any fantastical way or any result-oriented way, [such as] "I want the audience to feel this" or "I want them to be scared here." I couldn't think about that.

The only thing I could think about was, "Here's a woman who's going to have to fight for her life. What would that look like? What would that feel like? What would I do? How would that manifest itself?" With other characters, when I did Billy Dean last year, I could be more grand. I was thinking of a quality more than the truth of the thing; whereas with Lana, it was more important to focus on that.

I so appreciated how you and other actors would play certain scenes. You couldn't play everything at a fever-pitch level.

No, the audience would be just as exhausted as [the actors]. You have nowhere to go.

Playing a mother-daughter relationship with Jessica this year, is that scary?

No, because this is not the first time I've been Jessica's child. We did "The Glass Menagerie" on Broadway together in 2005: I played Laura Wingfield, she was Amanda. We have done it once before, in one of the great plays of all time.
It's funny, I know Jessica is quite a formidable presence and she can be a little scary because she's Jessica f***ing Lange. But to me, she is my favorite actress of all time, she is the reason I wanted to act. She's the first person whose acting I ever saw where I thought, "That. I want to do that."

When I auditioned for "The Glass Menagerie" -- I still have the piece of paper that says, "Your final audition/Your reading with Jessica Lange." So I'm not afraid of her as an actress anymore. I've had my panic attack when I was, like, 30, going [in a scared/wheezing voice], "I'm on Broadway, and I'm on Broadway with Jessica Lange, and in a Tennessee Williams play!"

Now I'm excited, is what I am. We have yet to film any of our scenes from the first episode, of which there a few. I don't know what it will be like [because it's not a continuation of "Asylum"]. This year it's a true mother-daughter relationship, in that it's quite complicated. It's not one of those kumbaya situations. Not a lot of hugging on this show.

I'm not afraid of it, I'm really excited, because it's like I get my own personal master class in acting. It's all I can do not to take a pencil out from under the table and [write down], "Oh, in that moment, she did this. I'm going to steal that for the next episode." [laughs] If I could do that, I would.

At the same time, you can sort of lose yourself in it, because she goes there. You always take your cue from your leading lady, whoever it is -- the leader of the pack. She is our leader and she goes there fearlessly, and so you better strap in and get ready to do the same thing, or jump off the ship.