Sarah Paulson remembers some good cries
By Kathryn Shattuck
Sarah Paulson operates under the belief that blood once flowed through even the stoniest of hearts.
As the star of “Ratched,” Ryan Murphy’s origin story of the mental-ward tyrant Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Paulson had no desire to lazily recreate Louise Fletcher’s performance. Instead, Paulson wanted to excavate the interior of a character she never saw as a villain in the first place.
In this version, Mildred Ratched arrives at a Northern California psychiatric hospital in 1947, where doctors are performing disturbing mind experiments on the patients. Tears roll down her cheek before she grips an ice pick and a hammer to perform a lobotomy.
“I thought, if we’re going to go back and invent it 20 years prior, who might she have been, and what might allow for the calcification of soul and spirit that we see in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’?” said Paulson, who is a virtuoso of terror in her own right from her run in Murphy’s “American Horror Story.”
It’s the kind of gutsy deep dive she took in her Emmy-winning portrayal of Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” (Linda Tripp is next.) And that she admires in the fearlessly unaffected performances of Gena Rowlands and Kim Stanley, two of her cultural influences.
“If you only give the audience what they’ve already seen,” she said in a call from Los Angeles, occasionally cooing to her dog Winnie, “we could all watch footage from Court TV.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Lisa Eisner
Over the years, I have come to collect her pieces. It was the moment I felt like a grown-up, that owning something like this was a sign that I had come into my own in terms of making my home be reflective of my personal style and taste. I have this dish — it might be an incense holder — that’s an abalone shell whose interior is this beautiful opalescent pink. And it’s got this rim around it, almost like the spine of an animal made of spores and bronze. It looks like it came from the sea, which of course the base of it did, but everything she has done to it is just so beautiful and still feels so raw. I like having those grounding elements in my house because I feel always like I’m about to float away.
2. DeLuscious Cookies & Milk
It’s very important: the vegan chocolate chip cookie. I am not a vegan, but I want you to understand that it is the superior version of their very magical cookies. Something that tastes this good should have a lot of butter and eggs and dairy. But this is a cookie that don’t need no butter.
I think Renée Zellweger actually introduced it to me. We did a movie together called “Down With Love,” and she would never forget your birthday. Every year there would be a big cold glass bottle of milk and these cookies from DeLuscious. I swear to God, they seemed like they were still warm. Since I’m not a vegan, I can gulp that milk down right along with my vegan cookie. I like the incongruity of it.
3. John Cassavetes’ “Opening Night”
It’s nothing original to be an actor and to love Cassavetes. But that movie hit me before I had even arrived at the age where (I was) contending with the core theme. She’s this actress who is meeting this moment where she is aging. It makes my blood run cold in terms of what I recognize about it for me at 45.
I find Gena Rowlands to be the world’s most spectacular performer, and this is the performance of a lifetime. It was so devoid of vanity that for me is of great value, because sometimes this industry dictates that you pay a lot of attention to what your exterior is looking like. It infiltrates the work in a way that can be really dangerous. I thought: “This is an actress who is not afraid to be loathed, who is not afraid to be humiliated, who is not afraid to be ugly. This is the kind of acting I want to do.”
4. Kim Stanley
The movie “Frances” was one of the more defining moments for me. I remember being a 14-year-old and coming across it on television. It was this scene of Jessica Lange sitting in the car, staring at her house. And I thought, “What is this, and who is that?” But Kim Stanley was the most astonishing thing. This is probably something for my shrink to decipher, but I’m drawn to performances that are not about endearing oneself to an audience. I remember when I did “12 Years a Slave” being confronted with these feelings of, “Should I be bothered by the potential hatred that will be held by viewers for me?” But there was something that struck me as so true and so vulgar in terms of her living so vicariously through her child’s success, and her child’s beauty, and her child’s bravery. It was something I’ve never been able to shake.
5. Joan Armatrading’s “Heaven”
I think it’s the most exquisite love song ever written. I grew up with all my friends worshipping Madonna. And I worshipped Joan Armatrading and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell and the Pretenders and all this music that my mother had these records of. When she was out of the house, I would just put them on and cry like a good little artist who wanted to be a poet-performer. I had never heard anybody sing about love in a way that had all of the elements of the actual experience, which was exhilarating and mournful and celebratory. It’s my idea of heaven, for sure.
6. “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
It’s the most exquisite book about pain I’ve ever read. But really what it’s about is friendship and the circuitous route that it sometimes takes. There was something so poignant to me about the love story between these friends, it just made me weep. And I mean sob uncontrollably in my bed at night before I turned off the light.
7. NPR’s “Throughline”
It’s revisiting moments in our history in an effort to give greater clarity to where we stand now. And I think it’s important, given what we’re dealing with politically as well as from a social justice standpoint, to re-examine what you held to be true, and to perhaps give context to those stories. This podcast gives me a real opportunity to be told about it in a way that is inventive and clear and made by young people. I find it to be wonderful.
8. “I May Destroy You”
I don’t know how Michaela Coel made a show that is about sexual assault, and yet it’s about everything else that happens in one’s life as well. And she challenges you to confront so many widely held beliefs. Arabella is a character who sometimes you don’t like very much. I think there’s such bravery in creating a character that an audience struggles with wanting to spend time with. And yet in the very next beat, you fall in love with her again. And the very next beat you weep for her. And the very next beat you’re laughing uproariously. Also, it’s got the world’s greatest title.
9. “Ann” on PBS Great Performances
Yes, I’m biased because it was written by the person I share my life with. But I feel like there is something very profound about loving someone the way I love Holland Taylor, having never known about “Ann” [Taylor’s Tony-nominated one-woman show about Ann Richards, a former governor of Texas]. And having not seen it until we were deep into our love story, and then to be sitting in an audience and watching the person you love more than anyone in the world do something astonishing. To basically realize that the person you love is a touched-in-the-head genius and a true artist with a sense of civic duty and responsibility. To be in such awe of a person that I already felt I knew so well. And to recognize how hard it is to fully know someone.
10. Sam Shaw’s Photographs
The moment I knew I was going to own a home, the thing I wanted to acquire most were these photographs of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. These probably are my most cherished possessions. I have one photograph from “Opening Night” that was wrinkled and damaged, and I insisted on having it anyway because it was a very beautiful moment of Gena Rowlands on the floor, in a pile. It somehow makes me feel connected to the performers themselves. And it’s a way to remind myself about the kind of work I want to do.
When Cate Blanchett and I were working on “Mrs. America,” as a wrap gift I gave her an original photograph of Sam’s, a very big close-up of Gena’s face. Just a meaningful thing between actors who love the same actors.