Sarah Paulson on ’12 Years a Slave’: If You Hate Me, I Did My Job

By  · Published on October 15th, 2013


In Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave the main Louisiana plantation we see, run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is an authentically cruel environment. McQueen makes you feel the heat, tears, and fear there. Among all that sweat is Marry Epps, an Ice Queen played by Sarah Paulson. She’s unfazed by the sweltering brutality, engaging in it in a way that’s as terrifying as her husband Edwin, if not more so.

McQueen and Paulson turn her movements into moments of pure tension. She’s a villain seemingly without remorse, making her a character most actors might shy away from. Paulson, though, isn’t afraid of taking on the challenge. Speaking with her, it was obvious that under the right circumstances she’d be game for almost anything.

When do you know what’s the right film, play, or job to take?

I think it’s just always a roll of the dice, even if on paper it’s got all of the elements that you think you would need to have anything to be remotely good. And sometimes it still doesn’t work out that way. And other times, I did Martha Marcy May Marlene and [director] Sean Durkin had never done a full length feature before. But a short film of his had won the top prize in short film competition at Cannes. I took a risk on it even though he was a filmmaker there was no sort of proof that he had the goods, except for that short film. And it turned out to be great. I got very lucky that he was so extraordinary and the movie turned out so well. But sometimes it doesn’t always work like that, even in the best of circumstances.

To me, I try not to think about the result of it and I try to think about the experience I want to have. I wanted to work with Jeff Nichols and Steve McQueen because I had loved Take Shelter, and I had loved Hunger, and I had loved Shame. I thought I’ll do anything to be a part of these movies. I wish there was some kind of magic wand to help you figure out what thing was going to end up being great, but I just don’t think it works like that.

I imagine walking onto a set with Steve McQueen, you do feel some level of confidence.

Yes. He’s intimidating to people because he really knows what he wants. A lot of directors spend a lot of time kind of coddling their actors and making them feel every single move they make is fantastic. He’s just not like that. He’ll let you know if it doesn’t ring true to him. He will always demand more and better. And, at the same time, he’s incredibly nurturing and will say things like, “There isn’t a choice you can make that would be wrong because you are in the sphere of her so solidly, but you just…anything you do will be the right choice. So just let it fly.”

That’s a very freeing thing to have with a director, because you know that they know they’ve cast the person they think is the most right for the part, and you have their confidence instilled in you because of that. I don’t think a lot of us worried that he didn’t know what he was doing.

Do you tend to get that level of trust from a director?

I think it just depends. I feel like Steve has this kind of singular vision. He’s a real filmmaker. And he’s really a storyteller, and he does it through moving pictures. But probably because he’s an artist in other mediums as well, he just knows very much what he wants. He’ll know it when he sees it. Sometimes you just have to keep going until he sees it and then you know what it is he’s looking for and you go from there. But some directors don’t really know. They’re waiting for you to show them something. I think that can be a very difficult way to work sometimes, because sometimes, with any given character, there’s an infinite number of ways that you can play something. You want somebody to help guide you and tell you, “This is really what I want.” That kind of specificity means you can really go far within the world of what he’s asked for because he knows so concretely what that is.

Some directors don’t really know. I had a director once say something to me with another actor, who shall remain nameless, and we were doing a scene together and we turned to the director and said, “Is there anything…” He wasn’t tending to the scene properly and we both knew it. He took his glasses off and he said, “Well, you’ve got to show me something, don’t you?” as if it was up to us to tell him what it was he wanted.

He knew what he wanted when he saw it. You know, that’s a very scary “at sea” feeling to have with a director. And that happens, unfortunately. In my experience it has been the case more than I would care to admit.

And then you have to start throwing everything in the kitchen sink and hope it gets edited…

Exactly. You hope something sticks. They go into the editing room and you hope they pull something together. But having done a lot of theater in my life, I’m hoping to do so much more. I like to feel that I know what the trajectory of my character is and what the beginning, middle, and end of it looks like. Even if night to night it changes, you have a blueprint and you know what the layout is. When you go within the boundaries of that and parameters of that you can feel free to play. When there is no ground plan and there isn’t anything you are just kind of letting everything fly.

It can make you just feel a little untethered and unplaced. So you are liable to not make as confident choices and, therefore, not as specific choices, and, therefore, not as good choices.

Coming from a theater background where you have to use your whole body as a performer, it’s interesting how for 12 Years of Slave, the way Mary moves, she’s almost like a mannequin.

It’s interesting that you say that. That is actually an image that Steve gave me. He said, “I want you to think of her like a porcelain doll or like a cake topper.” Both of those images are images of immovable or immobile objects. They are stony-faced. They are one expression for life, those porcelain dolls and those cake toppers. It doesn’t move no matter what just happened because, obviously, they are not people. It made me think about my posture, fulfillment, and it made me think about… I was wearing a corset and several petticoats, and that all creates a certain way of moving that I thought was really right for her.

There is no slouching and everything has to be very precise. Something I’m very pleased with is several times you see me wiping my fingers, brushing things off of myself after I claw other people’s skin and looking for skin underneath my fingernails. Steve used all takes in which I did that, which I thought was another reason why he’s, of course, brilliant. I don’t think I did that every take, but I tried to do it sometimes. And he picked all of those takes, and so there’s this real connective tissue between that physical behavior and my character.

McQueen described the performances at the Toronto Film Festival saying, “These are artists, not actors.” For you, what’s the difference there?

I think probably the difference between an artist and an actor is bravery ‐ not being afraid to be a character that no one likes; not being worried about how your face looks, what your level of beauty is or isn’t. You are leaving your vanity at the door. And probably your willingness to take risks. I’ve never used the word “artist” to describe myself. I always feel pretentious when I do that. It’s fine for someone else to say that about me. I’ll take it. I consider it nice and I appreciate being grouped in with those other people that I really do view as artists. When I refer to myself as an artist I can never go without feeling embarrassed.

As a performer, are you always “in your head”? Or is it pretty easy to lose yourself, especially on a film like this having those dresses and environments?

It is very helpful. The heat was very helpful. The plantation we were shooting on was very helpful, the space, the time, the sound of the potatoes. The whole environment really lends itself very well to helping to get inside the head of those women in the space and the time that we were portraying. But I can get in my head. I’m very self-critical. I tend to walk away from everything I do no matter in what medium always going, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

The reason that I love the theater is that I have an opportunity the next day to try again and to try to get it right, whatever “right” is. Sometimes I think when it comes to acting it’s so hard to even know what is right. If you are an instrument from which things are coming out of, how can there be right or wrong? It seems best to you, so it’s your choices in things. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. Someone else could play the part and make different choices and it would be equally right.

I always hear actors say that there’s plenty of times where they thought the project or performance didn’t come together, and yet, they’ll walk down the street and hear about it all the time from people who love it.

Yes. That happens all the time; just all the time. But that’s the great thing about film and television and all of it, is that it’s so far reaching. One thing you do, you never know, could reach one person and be very meaningful to them or illuminate something about themselves. It’s a powerful thing.

One show that has reached people is American Horror Story. One of my favorite parts of last season was how [your character] Lana Winter could never catch a break. For the third season, does your character have better luck?

[Laughs] My new character? Well, luck? Hmm…I don’t know about that. She’s different than Lana. I feel that [my new character] Cordelia wants to be seen. Lana was more about ambition. It was also she was a woman in a man’s world and wanted to be taken seriously and wanted to be legitimized and felt that she was capable of more than she was being given credit for. Cordelia has some of those same ambitions. I think she definitely wants to be taken seriously.

When you look at The Aversion Conversion sequences between Lana and Dr. Thredson, it’s played completely straight. It’s a show where you could be hammy, but is the intent always to play it as emotionally honest as you would, say, on a play?

I try to always do that. If it comes off campy or over-the-top hat’s partly because of the period and the smoking and the style. I always try to find the truthful place of it, because if was that [campy performance] approach, then it’s hollow and it doesn’t affect the audience as much and you don’t feel connected to it because you don’t feel that you are watching a real person. You feel like you are watching a caricature or some stereotype.

When it came to the Aversion Conversion Therapy scenes, I read that Ryan Murphy said to you, “I’m not sure you’d be comfortable with this.” Tying back earlier to the idea of an artist not having vanity, as a performer, is there a particular subject matter or scene that you wouldn’t be comfortable performing?

I don’t feel that when it comes to acting. A part of my job is to try and portray people as honestly as possible, flaws and all. There was an actress I ran into who read the script for 12 Years of Slave and said, “I can’t believe you played that part. I would never have been able to play that part.” I couldn’t understand what she meant. I thought just because I acted this way doesn’t mean I am this way in life, nor does it mean I support it or believe in it. This is my job.

It’s a good part, in a great movie, with great actors and a great director. Why would I not want to have that experience? Just because someone might not like me afterwards or someone who isn’t, perhaps, a complicated nuanced person might think I am that character? I can live with that because I’m an actress.

If you walk out of the film hating me, that means I did my job.

12 Years a Slave opens in theaters on October 18th.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.