Exclusive Interview: Sarah Paulson on ‘American Horror Story’ & 12 Years a Slave

Sarah Paulson

I got to interview Sarah Paulson at the Toronto International Film Festival for her role in the movie 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical account of the years he spent in slavery after being kidnapped from New York. Paulson plays Mistress Epps, the wife of the plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) keeping Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) prisoner. 

Since I cover both film and television, and I watch Paulson’s show, I made sure to ask her about “American Horror Story” as well. The third season had not begun airing yet and she would still have to keep quiet about upcoming episodes today, but we had a good talk about the new “Coven” season and last year’s “Asylum” storyline.


CraveOnline: Are you blonde right now for “American Horror Story?”

Sarah Paulson: Yes, I play Jessica Lange’s daughter this year on the show so I have to be blonde.

Is Cordelia as out of control of her situation as Lana was last year?

That’s an interesting question because I think that’s probably the biggest difference between my character this year and last year is that this year it’s about control for me. My character is much more repressed is all I can really say. There’s a bit of a repression. Control is a good word. 

How harrowing and difficult was it last year to portray the storyline about sexual orientation reprogramming and address those themes?

That was difficult. It was a hard day on set. We shot that aversion conversion therapy scene with Zach in the office for about six hours. It’s not an easy thing to do to put your hands in your pants on national television and simulate that kind of activity, especially when it’s not supposed to be one that’s bringing anyone pleasure, but it’s actually truly a horror.

Similarly to this movie, as horrifying as it is, it’s actually what happened back then, [and] still happens in some places around the world. Not to this extreme but that was the beginning stages of that kind of therapy. In order, I think, to really show what Lana was having to endure, it was important to do but it was not easy to do. It was a hard day on set.

Had you shot in New Orleans before?

We shot 12 Years a Slave in New Orleans. I had shot that a year before, last summer, and now we’re there for “American Horror Story.”

What are the pros and cons of working in New Orleans?

Well, the heat is the major con except it really lent itself nicely to 12 Years because the heat, the thickness in the air was a useful tool from an acting standpoint to set the place and the tone in your mind. In a show like “American Horror Story,” it just wreaks hell and havoc on the hair and the makeup and all of that stuff. It’s not helpful to shoot a TV show where it’s a much more glamorous thing this year than 12 Years was obviously to shoot.

The pros are, it sounds very cliche to say but it’s very true, the city is a character in the show as it is in 12 Years also. You can feel it. It’s one of those things where sometimes a location can really seep into the story and onto film and you can smell the city, you can taste it. It’s like that. The city is a very potent place. I love it. I love it there.

If you had been part of the main cast in season one, who would you have liked to play?

Oh my God, Constance. I would’ve taken Constance’s part. I would have liked to have been Constance, or Moira, or Connie’s part. 

Then who would Jessica have played? 

If there was another character I play, they’d have to not be there. They’d have to be playing someone else. Jessica could play Moira and I would play Constance. They aged me at the end of the finale of last season so they’d just do some makeup on me. They can do anything with movie magic.

I think the biggest shock in 12 Years a Slave is when you throw the glass at Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). How was that scene done? 

That scene was done actually with a foam Nerf ball that I threw. It was not a glass object because you can’t throw that at a person, or even a fake glass thing. It’s just not possible to do. I remember reading it in the script and thinking, “How am I going to do this?” Lupita and I were staying at the same hotel when we were doing the movie and had grown really fond of one another and had spent time together before we had to shoot that scene, making it even more difficult in my mind to imagine how to do it.

Then when we got there to shoot it, there’s something that [director] Steve [McQueen] does where he sets up this atmosphere of “It’s time to work. It’s not time to judge your character, to decide that you’re a vile, evil person” and that’s some of the work that I did on my own too, of course. This idea that nobody as a person sits around thinking that they are an evil person. It’s always motivated by something.

I keep trying to tell people that.

I know and it’s really hard for people to understand and I understand that, but at the same time I think if you just think about it a little bit more clearly and think about your own instincts that could be deemed evil or selfish or self-aggrandizing. Any kind of thing that we do that is not just for another person, that is about some narcissistic need or want, we’re all capable of doing some pretty horrifying things. Now this case is extreme but I feel like if you really allow yourself to be honest with yourself, we’re all capable of certain horrors. You have to think about why and what motivates it. 

From an acting standpoint, the only way to do these kinds of things is to figure out what makes a person do what they do. I can’t sit there and think, “You have to do this horrible thing. You can’t do this.” I have to do it. It’s my job in this story to be this woman, to help tell the story of Solomon and Patsey. I can’t take my foot off the gas. I can’t soft pedal it. I have to really do it.

At the same time, I’m a conscious self-aware person. I like to think that I am anyway. Of course I’m aware of the horror of what I’m doing as an actress in this moment, but that has to go to the back of my brain so I can do it. I just had to think about the terrifying jealousy and fear that she had of losing her husband to Patsey’s affection. She’s being usurped by this girl in her husband’s mind, body and heart.