The sublime second season of American Horror Story, subtitled Asylum, swapped season one's supernatural spookies for something much more terrifying: human nature. Specifically, the horrifying ills we're capable of inflicting upon one another when the watchful eye of society has turned away.
And while slews were subjected to Sister Jude and Dr. Arden's mental and physical abuse inside the seemingly-impenetrable walls of Briarcliff Manor, no one suffered more than Lana Winters, played with an expertly-honed mixture of excellence and exasperation by Sarah Paulson. Often victimized, but never a victim, Paulson's ability to exude strength even in the weakest moments ensured Lana was a character you could, and would, always root for.
ETonline caught up with the actress (an Emmy nominee last year
for Game Change
, and current Critics Choice Award winner for AHS:Asylum
) to talk about tackling this seemingly insurmountable role, the physical toll playing Lana took on her and find out why she's returning for a third Story
ETonline: Ryan Murphy famously gives his actors little-to-no information when they sign on for AHS. How much did you know coming in?
Sarah Paulson: I knew everything through the aversion/conversion therapy scene, which was at the end of episode four, because we had given four scripts before we started shooting. But when I signed the contract, I had absolutely no idea what I would be doing aside from what Ryan told me one night at dinner: that I was a lesbian reporter named Lana who smokes. I had no idea that I was going to be captured by Bloody Face, no idea that Jessica [Lange, who played Jude] was going to insist I have electro-shock treatment to try to take away my gayness, no idea that I would attempt a coat hanger abortion, no idea that I was going to be breast feeding Zachary Quinto, no idea that I was going to have to murder Dylan McDermott as a seventy-five year old woman; none of those things were known to me. Which when I say it out loud ... [laughs] it's funny because I can't believe I did all of those things on television. Like, what show do you do all of those things on?!? Only American Horror Story people; only American Horror Story.
ETonline: In retrospect, are you glad you didn't know that coming in? Would the enormity of all that been too overwhelming?
Paulson: I think it was a good idea. There was a moment at the end of the second Anne Frank episode where I drop through the floor into the lair and wake up to find my girlfriends body and [Quinto] puts on the Bloody Face mask. Basically when I read that, I didn't know how I was going to stay on the show. How do you get me back into the world of the show, which takes place at Briarcliff? How is she going to survive this? Maybe she won't. So I think [not knowing] helped infuse some of my real terror and panic from actually being terrified and panicked that I would not be able to play Lana Winters anymore.
ETonline: What kind of physical toll did playing Lana take on you?
Paulson: It was both exhausting and exhilarating from an acting standpoint. I was over the moon with what I got to do, but it was quite harrowing and not easy. I remember having very melancholy days because I had to spend a lot of time in a very dark place in my brain. As an actor when you are doing something emotionally draining twelve hours a day, where I was being held captive, you have to stay in a certain place mentally. I knew I couldn't go over to craft services or my cast chair and check my iPhone to return texts or emails. I don't fancy myself a Method actress at all, but with this character I did find myself more removed than I normally am. I asked them to leave me strapped to that bed, because I thought it would help me be in an exhausted place where I'm at the end of my rope. That was a hard thing to sustain for the hours and hours while you are shooting, but it was the only way I could do it. Your mind knows your pretending, but, in terms of the adrenaline and the fact that you are actually crying, and that you are that upset, and you are screaming, and you are simulating terror, your body does not know that it is not real. Your body feels really wrecked afterwards. But the actress in me was like, "Bring it on! Keep it coming!" Because I love doing this, and this is why I do this; so I can be able to go to these places.
ETonline: Given all of that, what was the hardest part about playing Lana for you?
Paulson: It's funny because the emotional stuff was hard, it really was -- the coat hanger, the breast feeding, the raping, the aversion/conversion -- but the thing I found most challenging was playing Lana as a seventy-five year old woman. I think it's because I had been playing Lana in peril for so long, that playing Lana as a success was an unknown idea to me. The fighting for her life stuff had really been where she had lived for most of the series. Even in the pilot, she was fighting to be taken seriously, and she had yet to make something of herself. Also to play a person at seventy-five, when I myself have not experienced that reality -- not that I have experienced any of the other realities that Lana went through, as a younger person, but at least in terms of age and where she is in her life in wanting and hoping in her career were similar to things that I would want and hope for in my career as a person -- but to play a seventy-five year old, who basically got everything she wanted, even though she lost everything in getting there, to try to play her with all of that life behind her, plus the makeup was tough. That makeup felt like wearing a mash, like I didn't have my full faculties as an actress, and I felt like so much of what I was asked to do on the show was reveal her emotional life and this was the opposite of that. This woman who had been through it all and who just didn't want to talk about it anymore, that to me was the most challenging because I wanted to capture her physical life and vocal change even though she still had to be Lana and you had to still see that person; that committed and feisty and alert and ready to go woman. But at the same time she is diminished by age and experience and everything else, so that to me was the most challenging.
ETonline: Did you like how Lana's story ended?
Paulson: I remember, at first, being very troubled by episode twelve, Before Madness Ends, where Lana is very successful and very haughty, and really brushes Kit off, saying, "I don't have time for this sh*t anymore." But then she says something to him that I think is very powerful. She says, "I made something out of nothing, and I could easily be still there drooling into the bread dough" or whatever the line is. She says that she got out using her brain and her will and her wits and is the one who kept the tape and the one who shut the place down. I sort of understand because, what were her alternatives? Go to an ashram and become a Buddhist? If you really think back to the first installment, Welcome to Briarcliff, she was willing to risk everything to become a writer and be taken seriously. So I was not surprised that that part of her didn't go away, because, I think when you go through something that traumatic and you choose to survive, you have to kind of push your full experience to the side so you can live your life. I understand why people were put off by it but at the same time, what would you have done in the same situation where everyone is giving you opportunities you never thought you would have because of what was perpetrated against you. It was hard because I do love Lana-banana, and I wanted her to be everything a person could possibly be and more because she was such an amazing character, but I think that it was more real that she did what she did and became what she became and, at the end of her life, tried to make it all right by killing her son, which she should have done earlier. I think she finally did right in the end.
ETonline: You've signed on for season three of AHS, subtitled Coven. What excites you about Ryan's plans for witches?
Paulson: The most extraordinary thing about Ryan Murphy is his love for telling a woman's story and he has assembled an extraordinary group of actresses for the story we are going to tell next year. I know a little bit, things I cant say to you, but what I can say is that I think this season is going to have a bit of a more of a hybrid tone -- some of the lightness and humor from the first season as well as some of the bigger themes of female empowerment. Something Ryan does a lot and I think is part of what makes these stories so interesting is that he is telling the stories of the disenfranchised. About those who have been cast out of society, and this will be a way of exploring that in a contemporary society, because most of it takes place in contemporary times. It's really going to be something.
American Horror Story: Coven premieres this October on FX.