Sarah Paulson On The Serenity Of 'Carol' And The Frenzy Of 'American Horror Story'

Also, the shoulder pads of "American Crime Story."

Sarah Paulson has a lot to juggle right now: two Ryan Murphy shows ("American Horror Story: Hotel" and "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," which premieres in February) and a Todd Haynes movie ("Carol"). They couldn't seem more different, but watching Paulson bounce from one disparate project to the next is no surprise by now. On "AHS," she plays Sally, a dead inhabitant of the mysterious titular hotel whose frazzled ensemble and sadistic addictions are one with Murphy's fictional universe. In "American Crime Story," she plays Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the 1995 Simpson murder trial. And in the 1950s-set "Carol," she plays Abby, the childhood friend of Cate Blanchett's married title character, with whom she is still in love after a previous romantic fling. Got all that? We sat down with Paulson earlier this week to discuss it all.

Between “American Horror Story” and “Carol,” and with “American Crime Story” on the horizon, you’ve having an incredible few months. All these roles are kind of living in the past, “Hotel” in a very different way than the others.  

Yeah, my “Hotel” character died in the ‘90s, so it’s a bit of another world and time that Sally is living in, for sure. And “Crime Story” takes place in the ‘90s, too.

And they’re very costume-driven, especially “Hotel” and “Carol.”

Wait till you see the costumes in “Crime Story.” That’s all I’ll tell you. I’m just saying let’s not throw that out because there are pretty exciting window-pane shoulder pads. Don’t forget. That’s gonna be in there.

Ah, yes. The spillover from the ‘80s, of course.

The spillover of the ‘80s into the early ‘90s. That’s going to be really special.

When you’re doing these rich costume dramas, how vital is it to know your character’s aesthetic before taking the role?

I had a meeting with Sandy Powell, the costume designer on this movie. I must have had three or four fittings with Sandy, who I think is a real genius. Cate said something really wonderful in the press conference this morning, which is that the clothes feel like clothes and not like costumes. As beautiful as they are, you don’t get the sense that it’s a costume designer going, “Let’s put her in a lot of this." And of course Todd decided everybody had a color.

For me, it was when Sandy Powell put the signet ring on me as Abby. I looked down at my hand and there was something about it. That and all of my scarves. I wore a lot of neck scarves with blazers. It just looked like photographs I had seen of gay women in the ‘50s. I immediately thought, “Oh, I know," and that kind of thing is very helpful when you’re playing something. Just like my leopard coat with Sally. If I don’t have a cigarette and that coat on, I don’t really know how to do the scene. It’s very weird.

Sarah Paulson stars in a scene from "Carol."
Sarah Paulson stars in a scene from "Carol."

At what point did you see Sally’s look? We have the advantage of historical hindsight when it comes to “Carol,” but the universe in “Hotel” is out of this world.

Well, that was a Ryan thing. He had also directed the first two episodes of “Crime Story” and I was doing that at the same time, so he was slammed. We had not had meetings about Sally’s look prior to my first day of shooting. He approved all my clothes, but in terms of my hair and makeup, we did not know what the hell we were going to do. I came in and I had all the eye makeup on, the way that it is now, and my hair was just sort of fucked up. Ryan literally looked at it and said, “I like everything, but the hair is not iconic enough.” He originally wanted my hair quite long, and I had short hair. I had this sort of funny thing where every year of “Horror Story,” I’ve had a different hair color or an opposing thing to the season before, and I’ve never had short blond hair. Also, I just didn’t want to put extensions in and I didn’t want to wear a wig. I’d been wearing a wig as Marcia Clark. I just said, “Please let me not.” He said, “Why don’t we crimp it?” I was like, “Crimp it, Myrtle Snow style?" He said, “Yes!” And then all of a sudden it became this triangular, weird bush. What’s the character’s name in “Blade Runner”? It's her, mixed with Magenta from “Rocky Horror Picture Show" and what’s-her-head from “Rugrats.” I looked like all of them. Instantly, I know that if I stood and there was a shadow of me on the wall, that the audience would go, “That’s Sally.” That’s what Ryan wanted, an immediately identifiable shape to her. I thought it was so smart and cool.

How often does that happen, where you aren’t sure how you’ll play a character until the camera rolls?

It depends. I did have the first scripts for the first two “Horror Stories” before we started, but I was so entrenched in the Marcia Clark of it all that I was just trusting the Sally thing was going to come out in whatever way. And because she was a drunky and because she was dead, I thought I didn’t have a lot of boundaries. It’s sort of limitless, what I can do with her -- and also because of the ways I’d played other characters, on “Horror Story” particularly. This girl had no heroism to her. I thought, “There’s going to be great freedom to me maybe not planning so much, the way I have in the past with other characters.” It was partly circumstantial because I didn’t have the time because of the Marcia Clark component of this, but also because it lends itself very nicely to the character. It’s like throwing caution to the wind and let the chips fall where they may, and see what comes out of you. The uglier it is, the rawer it is and probably the better it will be. I thought, “Don’t be overly precious about it.” I just sort of learned into it.

Is it a relief to play a character who’s so unlayered? She’s wild and manipulative, and that’s that.

Yeah, Sally is a little bit like “what you see is what you get.” There are things we’re going to learn about her as we go along that will be like, “Oh!” I think it’s just going to make it click about what all this need is about and where the addictions come from and what the addictions actually are because there are some that may not even be fully exposed yet.

She has an addiction to a lack of remorse.

Yes, and she also has an addiction to other people’s emotions and a fascination to watching people have them. She has reactions to them having emotions, but she doesn’t really know what the feeling is, yet she’s crying. She’s like, “I can know that this is sad, but I’m not really feeling sad, but I’m crying.” And she’s just always injured by everything. She feels so unseen. She’s like a walking bruise, and instead of retreating, she’ll punch you in the nose if you squeeze her bruise too hard. As opposed to becoming a wallflower, she’s just going to take you down. And I like that. I’ve never played a character like that before.

And she’s so the inverse of Abby. Obviously those two projects are apples to oranges, but in terms of your résumé, it's quite a range. Abby is someone who is in love and it’s not going to map out, and yet she has such a resilience, while Carol, whom she loves, is struggling to actualize herself in a lot of ways.

She’s got a strength, for sure, that Carol doesn’t have. But think about it: Abby didn’t choose to marry a man, she didn’t choose to go with the confines of 1950s societal norms. She just isn’t doing that. I don’t know if it’s about being bolder or braver or just a bigger inability to not go with what is inauthentic for her. And I don’t think she’s making a political statement about it -- it’s just who she is. But I think it’s probably going to cause her to maybe be a little lonelier. Maybe. But I think she wants Carol. Period. The end.

Do you see hope for Abby’s life outside of what we see in “Carol”? 

I do, for anybody who’s capable of that kind of selfless friendship. I mean, you’re in love with a person, but you’re going to go help them by taking the person they are in love with who isn’t you and getting them safely home, and then staying in contact with that person. Basically, I think it also speaks to the confines of society for gay women at that time. It was not a big enough world, so if you found a person you could relate to and who was of your tribe, you weren’t so likely to want to let go of them, no matter what, even if it meant that person was in love with someone else. You still wanted to be near them because that was your world that you had built. Carol and Abby have known each other since they were children.

At first, the movie just hints at Abby and Carol’s history. It takes a while to get the full story and I was worried it wouldn't come at all.

It’s almost at the end, and it’s done in a very unemotional way, just like, “Here’s what it was.” There had been a scene in the movie that we shot that didn’t make the film, which was a scene between Abby and [Therese, Carol's new love interest, played by Rooney Mara] in the kitchen right before Carol and Therese take off on the road, where basically Abby is really questioning Therese’s motivation and what she wants and what she’s after. I spent a lot of time making it very clear to Therese that Carol is very fragile and you better not be fucking with my friend. But that scene is not in the movie, so some of that jealousy that I have was very clear in that scene. Because it’s not there, I think some of the other stuff is a bit more mysterious, which is fine. Having a mysterious character that’s got so much strength and has enough of an impact where you still feel the weight of Abby in the movie, I think is a plenty fine thing.

In reading the script for the first time, were you hoping for that backstory or did you want the mystery to linger? 

I didn’t know what I was wanting because I didn’t know what the story was yet. When I read the script, there was also a moment where I ask Cate's character to get back together with me that’s also not in the movie. I say, “Let’s open the furniture store. Let’s try again, you and me.” She rebuffs me and says no. It’s then when Abby says, “Well, I’ve got my eye on a redhead anyway, and it’s fine.” That stuff probably added too much confusion in terms of keeping this story very clearly about Carol's love affair and not about my pain about not being with Carol. As much as it was sad for me for Abby to lose those scenes, for the movie’s sake, it was probably cleaner and better. But in the script that I read, I got everything I needed in terms of all that history between Carol and myself. All of my jealousy was in the script, so I had that at my fingertips. And then in the book there’s much more Abby than in the screenplay.

It was definitely an example of beautiful female friendship and loyalty. Yes, this friendship did have a romantic component at one time, but it was not something that was going to cause the relationship to dissolve because it didn’t work out romantically. They had a bigger bond than that.

Aside from the fact that every director works differently, does being on the set of “Carol” feel radically different from the set of “American Horror Story”? “Carol” is serene and quiet, while “AHS” is loud and audacious.

Yes, it was not a huge crew on “Carol.” It was a very contained. We did the movie quickly. It was only six weeks and I was there for half of that. There was an element of ease and a quiet restraint, whereas “Horror Story” is just a shitshow in the sense that something is happening at a breakneck pace every second. We’re trying to get a blood gag to work and prosthetics applied, and, oh, we’re going to do a new scene now all of a sudden, and you’re like, “I gotta learn these pages!” There’s something very immediate about “Horror Story,” where you are just ready to go all the time. Your game is on and ready, and there’s something about "Carol" -- and it was partly the tone that Todd set -- that was incredibly subdued, but not without great energy and purpose. There was a quiet respect for the material and everyone was so excited to be there and wanting to get it right. Visually, there was a kind of mistiness. The way it looked in the movie was exactly the way it felt when we were shooting it, and that doesn’t always happen when you see something you’ve done.

Sarah Paulson stars in a scene from "American Horror Story: Hotel."
Sarah Paulson stars in a scene from "American Horror Story: Hotel."

Have you often watched your work and said, “That’s not the way I pictured that”?

Yes! More often than not.

What has surprised you the most?

Maybe it was during “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” actually. We shot that movie in two sections, so two weeks was the cult section, and then the family stuff with me and [Elizabeth Olsen and Hugh Dancy] was all a separate section, so I never came into contact with any of those people. It was only my imagining of that life that Martha was living based on the script. Also, sometimes we would be shooting -- and I didn’t even really know this -- but we’d be doing a scene where Hugh Dancy and I are in the kitchen having an intimate conversation where you would think the conversation we were having was the thing that was being photographed, but actually the camera was between us and shooting Lizzy Olsen in the other room, and that ended up being on screen. There were just so many things to do with the camera that I had no idea were happening, so you end up seeing it and going, “Wait, what? Oh! Wow!” Whereas with “Carol,” the way everything looked is exactly the way it looks. It was not a surprise to me at all.

With “AHS,” you lost a head but gained a lot of blood. This is a very gory season.

A lot of blood, and death. This is the first time I’m dead on the show. I’m the only survivor of all my seasons of “Horror Story,” except for now. I’ve lost that title, which sucks.

Is it a relief to play only one character this season?

It was an interesting thing. Because I had played the double-headed girls on “Freak Show” last year, somehow it really prepared me because I was doing Marcia Clark and Sally at the same time this year. I was very used to working in a schizophrenic, split way as the twins. So I’d go in one morning and play Marcia Clark, and then the next day I’d be playing Sally and then I’d have to scrub Sally off when I was going into the trailer as Marcia Clark the next day. So, at this point, it’s old hat for me on “Horror Story.” The more frenetic and insane, the more it feels like home. If it were calm on the set of “Horror Story,” I think I’d have to call somebody and say something is really wrong over here.

Was filming “Crime Story” as wild, given it’s also a Ryan Murphy production?

Very, very different. It’s not kinetic like that. That story is a story we know the beginning of and we know the end of. He can’t come in and sort of magically change anything, so it’s going to be interesting.

"Carol" opens in select theaters on Nov. 20. "American Horror Story: Hotel" airs Wednesdays on FX at 10 p.m. EST. "American Crime Story" premieres Feb. 2 on FX.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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