Last season on American Horror Story: Asylum, Sarah Paulson played Lana Winters, a performance that found her toeing the line between sanity, rage and depression. That masterful turn solidified her as one of Hollywood's most promising, if underrated, talents. Now she's back, starring in the newest Horror Story installment, Coven, and also the heavily-buzzed about film 12 Years a Slave, opposite Michael Fassbender. Rolling Stone spoke with Paulson about voodoo, parades and the injustices of the 19th century.
In the new Horror Story season, you play Cordelia Foxx, a witch teacher. How would you describe her?
I'd describe her as a by-the-book kind of gal. I'd describe her as goodness personified, but the fact remains that she's the daughter of Fiona (played by Jessica Lange), so it can't be all benign and benevolent. She tries to lead that way – she tries to be the opposite of her mother.
But in the Horror Story world, rule-followers tend to get into trouble.
That may be true, but it's too early for me to fully. . . that part of our story has yet to reveal it self. I'm not saying that it won't, but it has yet to reveal itself.
Do you believe in witches?
No. . . witches? I don't know. I believe that people believe there are witches, and I certainly believe that people believe they have certain powers, and I support that kind of belief system, because I feel like everyone should be what they think and believe themselves to be. I myself believe more in ghosts than witches, but I'd like to believe that they're real, just because they're so damn cool.
Coven is shooting in New Orleans. Have you done any hands-on voodoo research?
I live around the corner from a voodoo place! But I've yet to venture in – it makes me real nervous, as you can imagine. It's here, and I'm aware of it, and I'm trying to embrace it, but I'm a little hesitant.
I can imagine why. The whole poking seems terrible.
Why would anyone wanna poke anyone secretly, and then have them fall down in some kind of pain in their belly?
Back to Horror Story – the past is always integrated with the present. How does that benefit Lana and Cordelia?
I think what [creator] Ryan [Murphy] is so interested in is how the past stuff intersects with today and how really not that different everything is. Even though we imagine that there's been things that were quite progressive – and I know we have an African American president – but racism is still running amok. It's very interesting, it's not by accident that it's something that you are aware of watching. And this year, yes, Cordelia's past is bumping up with her current state. She's trying to hold on so tightly to a sense of security and safety, and her mother's coming in and trying to mess it all up.
Those damn mothers! They tend to do that, but, you know, they mean well.
In Asylum, even though there were these awful horrific scenes that your character was a part of, there's also subtle and not-so-subtle positions on morality, justice and how people use science to justify their actions. Do those issues arise in Coven again?
In any good drama you've gotta have those elements. Especially on this show, which lends itself to that kind of storytelling, you can go forwards and backwards and still have an incredible narrative. Tying in all of those is a very powerful thing that Ryan tends to do. I don't quite know how he does it. I look at it sometimes and I'm like, "How did we get here? I don't understand how he was able to do it." But he's really a master. Ryan's interested in telling the story of the lost and the forgotten, and when you're thinking about your past in the present, those kind of themes often come up. What was, what is now, what you had, what is lost – you're trying to get back. It's part of the human condition, really.
Do you watch the show?
I don't watch it at night because it's too scary for me. I live alone and I get scared, but I always like to watch it. Sometimes I don't like to watch my work. It's like listening to your voice on an answering machine, but multiply that by a million and a half. But I was so proud of this show last year; I felt very honored that Ryan threw that in my direction. It was a big responsibility and an honor to play Lana Winters, so yes, I watched it. I watched it more than once. But in the daylight. And not in the rain. I could never do it on a rainy day.
Between you, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange, who is the most evil?
On the show?
Not in real life.
Oh. [Laughs] In real life, I'm not gonna say. On the show, it's Kathy at the moment. She's playing one of the most monstrous women that ever drew a breath. And having just filmed 12 Years a Slave whereI play a very monstrous woman, I understand that when you're playing it, you can't really approach it that way. I'm sure she comes up with many reasons to explain her behavior to herself as that character. But for my money, that woman, the real woman, was a terror. And brutal. To me, my mother, Jessica's character, is just selfish and narcissistic. And although that's terrible, it's not as horrifying as keeping people chained to walls in your attic. That's a bit different.
Let's talk about 12 Years a Slave. You character is the wife of a plantation owner – and a mean one at that. What's her deal?
Mean isn't even a way to describe it. Her behavior is deplorable. She's a monster. But she's mean because her husband, Michael Fassbender, is in love with Patsey, one of our slaves, and makes it really evident to everyone around that he prefers her over me. And I think that's a very humiliating thing to have to witness in one's household. She's a real product of the times in the sense that she's ignorant, and I personally feel not sort of deep enough – or not sort of self aware enough – to challenge what she's been taught. So she just perpetrates violent acts and lets her vicious jealousy just run rampant.
Does playing someone like that make you bewildered about the system and culture that was in place 150 years ago?
It was a real story back then, and certain parts of it wouldn't happen today, but I would venture to guess that there's still plenty of people in certain parts of the country that would treat another human being the way I treat this woman in the movie. I do, because people who aren't educated and people who are ignorant are not capable of seeing beyond what their own belief system is. And if you're not gonna challenge it, then you'll behave in indefensible ways. Some of the hatred and the fury, I can imagine continuing today in certain parts of our country, absolutely. There are racists all over.
Is this one of the hardest characters you've had to portray?
It wasn't easy. At the same time, I had a job to do. If I soft-pedaled any of my character's behaviors or tried to make her more sympathetic, her struggles were would be diluted, so I wouldn't do that. [Director] Steve McQueen would never let me do that, but it never occurred to me to do that anyway.
Have you had any time off in New Oreans to go exploring?
This cast is so enormous this season that we all have much more time off than we did the season before. I worked almost every day last year, especially from the middle toward the end of the series. This year, we have an ensemble cast of about 15 people, and there's a bigger story being told. The most amazing thing happened last night at the premiere of 12 Years a Slave. It was the most extraordinary thing, I had never done a second line, have you heard about that? It's what they do in a funeral procession. When you walk towards the funeral, you're behind the musicians, and it's some sort of funereal song, but then when you're coming back, you're celebrating life, and it's a lot of dancing in the street and it's a really extraordinary thing. We did the second line all the way from after the post-screening Q&A all the way to the party, and I turned around at one point to look behind us and there were just so many people dancing and walking in the middle of the street, traffic lights be damned. It was really one of the most extraordinary things I've ever experienced.
Every premiere will just be downhill from there.
Yeah, every premiere from here on out, if you don't have a second line, I'm out. Not even coming.