The amazing Sarah Paulson is one of the few recurring actors to appear in all four seasons of American Horror Story. In Freak Show, the show’s fourth season currently airing Wednesdays on FX, Paulson has let creator Ryan Murphy push her to new limits with her role as conjoined twins, Bette and Dot Tattler.
The role has not only required a physical transformation involving a fake head (“When I have that animatronic head on, I can't even bend down to put my socks on”), but it also commands extra emotional depth to give both sisters distinct personalities.
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Bette and Dot have certainly been the most challenging roles yet, but that’s part of the appeal and why the 40-year-old actress returns each year. “[Ryan] knew there would be a lot of work, so I think he was just giving me a gift, like the way he tends to do,” Paulson tells ETonline. “It's like Christmas morning every day at the Sarah Paulson household when it comes to Ryan Murphy.”
Ahead of the series return -- which features the addition of Neil Patrick Harris as Chester the Illusionist -- Paulson opens up to ETonline about her transformation for the part, working alongside her new co-star, and what would happen if all her AHS characters were in one room.
ETonline: How much detail goes into filming your scenes?
Sarah Paulson: Oh Leanne, if you had enough time in the day I would tell you everything but you would probably fall asleep before I finished. I think, according to what Ryan told me if I understand correctly, there are upwards of twenty-two people working on every single shot that there is of me in this show. hey have to do the visual effects and all of that happens in post. When we're actually shooting it, it's also incredibly time-consuming...But I’m only wearing the animatronic head when we have a big wide shot. The animatronic head looks just like me, she opens her eyes, opens her mouth and has my teeth in it.
How terrifying was it when you first put that Sarah Paulson twin head on?
It was actually really scary. Although, when I first put it on I was very excited about it because it meant I wasn’t going to have to use as much of my imagination to imagine something that was almost unimaginable. And I found myself getting very nervous every time I had to take it off. We used more visual effects work because it was very hard for me to imagine, physically what it was like to have another person there and to remember when to look at her and just all the intricacies that go into having them deal with one another. I'm right-handed, not left-handed, but Bette is a left-handed person and it was just all kinds of details that go in to make it look as authentic as possible and it's a pretty time consuming process that involves everyone.
The subtle nuances that you give individually to Bette and Dot are incredible. Why do you think Ryan Murphy tasked you with these particular characters this season?
The biggest thing is that [Ryan] knows I like a challenge. He knows that I tend to feel most alive as an actor when I'm stumped and I don’t know how to figure something out and so you couldn’t give me more of something that would be a head-scratcher than this one. At first it was challenging to try to figure out how to do all this, and like you said, which I appreciate you saying, the nuances and the subtle differences between the two of them because on the one hand they are different beings, but on the other hand they are twins. They had the same mother and father. They have similar ways of being just by virtue of the fact that like any twin that you meet, typically they share certain way of communicating with each other. I wanted there to be differences but also similarities so that you don’t forget that not only are they attached to one another but that they are sisters, twin girls. All those little nuances are very important to try and figure out.
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Looking ahead to tonight’s episode, what can you tease for Bette and Dot's journey with guest star Neil Patrick Harris?
My characters are very involved with Neil Patrick Harris' character. It's pretty amazing, believe me, I'm such a fan of his that it was really amazing. I work with some incredibly great actors but they're old news to me at this point. [Laughs] It's become part of my world at work to be with this incredible caliber of actors, so when somebody calls and they said all of your scene will be with Neil, I was just like, "What?!" I got so excited because I'm such an enormous fan. So I felt pretty cool, but all I can say is there's a Neil Patrick Harris twin story that I think is very interesting and really about Bette and Dot coming into their own as women.
How great was it seeing Neil bringing his own magical talents to the show?
It was pretty incredible and he is so brilliant at it, and I think that's another wonderful thing about Ryan. He's very smart and if he knows that you have a particular talent that lends itself to the show, he is going to ask you to call upon it. That means the show is only going to benefit from Neil Patrick Harris doing magic that he can actually do versus asking him to do something that he can't do. Really, while we're talking about Neil Patrick Harris, is there anything that he can't do? You could ask him to do anything and I'm sure he'd be like, "Oh, I actually have a degree in that." There's nothing he can't do.
In a teaser for tonight’s episode, it looks like Bette and Dot could be taking a step forward in their womanhood. What can you say about this evolution of character?
Well I think Dot's first kiss was in episode nine with Jimmy and so Bette has yet to be kissed so here's hoping that somebody gets a little action.
Do you find yourself drawn to more Bette or Dot more?
You know people ask me that all the time and it's almost I feel like a mother being asked to choose who her favorite child is and it's impossible to answer. I think I love playing Bette because she is so far from me -- that kind of vulnerably open person. I'm not trying to say I'm a hard nut like Dot, but I think I am more guarded although I think the truest part of my soul is more Bette. Over the years you kind of learn to protect yourself from the ways of the world that can be sometimes hurtful. And the thing I love about the sisters is they're really shadow-selves. Bette is that part that lives in everyone who is just a hopeless romantic and completely positive person and Dot is someone who has seen a little bit more and she chooses to be a more cynical way and be more protected. We all have both Bette and Dot in us, I think.
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Many of the regular actors on this show have been pushed to the limit, but Ryan has asked you to complete some pretty intense things on camera. At this point is there anything you won't do?
I had to masturbate on television, I had to simulate an abortion, there has been a lot. At this point [Ryan] just knows. He said something to me at the end of season two, he said that he was surprised that I never called and said, "No, I won’t do that." I never really have those feeling of, "That character would never do this." People do all kinds of things that surprise and shock you and you never know what a person will do until they're faced with certain circumstances. I really just look at [Ryan] and say, "There's nothing you can't throw at me."
I honestly feel that if you get to play in the world that is American Horror Story, you just show up prepared for this kind of thing. And if they aren't throwing you that kind of stuff to do, then you aren’t having the full American Horror Story experience. So for me it's a badge of honor that I hold that I have done the more harrowing things on this show, and I just hope he doesn't quit throwing these kinds of things at me.
What do you think would happen if all of your AHS characters--Billie Dean, Lana, Cordelia, Bette & Dot--were in the same room together?
[Laughs] Well I'd like to think that Lana was taking copious notes about how fascinating everyone was and investigating the murder that Bette and Dot perpetrated. I think she'd like to get to the bottom of that. I think Billie Dean would be communicating with Bette and Dot telepathically, or imagining that she could. And Cordelia would be making sure that everyone had some nice cookies and milk and making sure that everyone knew that they were in a safe space to talk about their feelings, and encouraging them all to be their best selves. Bette and Dot, I think, well it would depend on what point in the story. Bette and Dot in the beginning, versus Bette and Dot where they are now in the story would be very different. Bette and Dot in the beginning, Bette would be so excited to be in the room with everything, especially beautiful blonde Cordelia, and she'd be wanting to know that Lana was writing down, and curious of Billie Dean and how she could talk to them in their head. And Dot would just hate them all, but then be a little bit interested in Lana because she seems so self-possessed. Whereas Bette and Dot later on in the season, they would be wanting as much information as possible about what it would be like out in the real world as women, independent and on their own.
American Horror Story: Freak Show airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.