The groundbreaking vision of American Horror Story may not be to everyone's taste, particularly with its dark and unsettling second season, "Asylum." However, no one can deny that AHS features one of the strongest ensemble casts assembled for the screen -- silver or otherwise. With careful precision, filmmaker and television powerhouse Ryan Murphy (Glee, The New Normal) gathered a cast of players that not only committed themselves to the challenging, genre-driven material at hand; they elevated it to vertiginous heights. And next to the legendary Jessica Lange, no other AHS player proved as fearless as the Emmy winner than Sarah Paulson.
As intrepid reporter Lana Winters, Paulson brought a humanity and soul to the often soul crushing abuse she endures at the infamous Briarcliff asylum. What made Winters such an unforgettable character was Murphy and the series writers never allowing her to become a horror victim stereotype. Winters always had a plan, keeping her wits about her no matter how dire the circumstances. She may look like Mary Richards, but she possessed an edge and a survivor's mettle that made her all the more unique. With television currently housing some of the boldest entertainment in recent years, the success of AHS is testament to the narratives that are proving irresistible to audiences today. They are not shying away from the mirrors reflecting back such dark themes and images.
"It's really a whole sort of psychological terror and people who have power versus the powerless," Paulson said.
The contrast between Paulson's contribution to the first season of AHS, where she played a moony psychic, to her role as a lesbian journalist in "Asylum" is a testament to her versatility and strength. And, with the series finale now here, the final act of Ms. Winters harrowing journey is appropriately, well, mind-blowing.
"You won't really believe that happens to poor Lana Winters," Paulson teased.
Sitting down with Paulson at a Century City hotel suite for a press day last fall, little had been revealed on the show about what the ensemble would face. At that time for Paulson, who looked so refined and elegant to greet the press, the hardest part of Winters' journey was incredibly still to come.
Talk about a survivor's narrative, indeed.
Find out what else made Paulson the MVP of this second season of television's most provocative series in this new Personalities Interview.
JORGE CARREON: Is Ryan Murphy some sort of calculated genius or is what happens on American Horror Story truly organic to its premise?
SARAH PAULSON: I certainly think it's meant to be organic to the premise. I know that it's very out there, but I think that's what makes it so exciting. It's a very visceral viewing experience and I know that Ryan has a very specific editing style. He works with the same editors I believe on most of these shows. And there's a kind of aggressiveness to the editing which I think helps to tell the story. I certainly think it's what he wants in terms of calculation.
CARREON: Do you think it is shock for shock value's sake?
PAULSON: I don't think it's for shock value sake. It's a lot to take in but slowly this story starts to come front and center and its less about ig scares and things jumping out at you. It's very emotional and it gets increasingly emotional as the story goes on, as you start to develop more of a connection and investment in the characters. I think Ryan's good at grabbing you in the beginning by throwing everything at you and any kind of take his foot off the gas a little bit and everything kind of can settle. I think that's what he does so well.
CARREON: There was a line in the second episode where it's said, "Times may have changed, but the nature of evil hasn't." Do you think that's what people are so galvanized by this universe?
PAULSON: I really loved the first season but this is much more based in reality. I think it's a very horrifying reality, but a reality nevertheless. The first year, if you died in the house you know your character was a ghost. I personally don't really believe in ghosts. I haven't had any encounters and I'd like to keep it that way. Whereas this year it's really a whole sort of psychological terror and people who have power versus the powerless. In 1964, there was a certain stopping point where you couldn't pass if you didn't have enough power. This show really explores that which I think is very terrifying. The idea that women like my character could get committed to an institution specifically for being a lesbian in 1964 is a terrifying concept when you think about it.
CARREON: What makes a role that lives in the grey such an exciting prospect for actors?
PAULSON: To me, most of life kind of lives in the grey and I don't just mean morally. I just mean kind of everything. If things were black and white it would be a lot clearer as to what to do all the time. That's another thing I think Ryan does is that he takes you to the brink and lets you hover in this uncomfortable place and that's what makes it so creepy and awful.
CARREON: For a show with the title "Asylum," the word commit can have a lot of meanings in this particular context. Why commit as actors to such challenging and disturbing material?
PAULSON: It's been hard. There's something that happens to me around episode six and seven, in particular, that was so disturbing, I had to ask if they could give me a second. I went into a corner and bawled my eyes out. It got to a point where the kind of torture that was happening to an innocent woman was really horrifying. It is a difficult thing to kind of suspend yourself in. It's one thing on the page. You see a two-page scene but you're shooting it for seven hours. And if the terrible thing is happening over and over and over again and you're having to stay in this emotional place, it's really hard. In episode two, my character gets electroshock therapy. I couldn't walk for two days afterwards because what I had to do to my body to be that rigid and move in that way. I had a conversation with my mother the next day and she said, "How are you?" I said, "I'm okay. I'm a little tired. We did this electroshock therapy yesterday." She said, "That is just so horrible!" It was kind of exhilarating actually because the actor part of me is very excited by the fact that I get to really sink my teeth into something. You don't always get those opportunities. If you think about Claire Danes, who's got this incredible part on Homeland that's so multifaceted. But, before Temple Grandin there was kind of a dearth of real great stuff for her to sink her teeth into. Now she can really let it fly, which I think is an incredible thing. It's similar with this and I think it's why it's attracted the caliber of actor of James Cromwell and Jessica and all these people. It's because there's something really meaty there, which you don't find in a lot of places. But you're finding it on television more than anywhere else.
Tune into the season finale of American Horror Story: Asylum on Wednesday, January 23 on FX @ 10pm.
To watch the full Personalities Interview with Sarah Paulson, click on the embedded player located to the left of this page.