Sarah Paulson on 'Freak Show': 'It's the craziest thing I've done'
In the three previous seasons of American Horror Story, Sarah Paulson has played a medium, a reporter targeted by a serial killer, and a witch blinded by acid. Clearly, Paulson loves a challenge…which brings us to this year’s Freak Show. Playing conjoined twins Bette and Dot, who are discovered by freak show manager Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange), Paulson admits it’s been her most difficult AHS character to date. But the actress is also finding the fun in it. “Now I’m really overusing the twin emoji on my iPhone,” Paulson jokes on location in New Orleans. “Boy, do I use it a lot. That thing was invented for me.” EW talked to the Emmy nominee about playing two very different ladies and whether she’ll ever get to play Asylum‘s Lana Winters again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So where does Elsa find you? Are you at, like, a Starbucks?
SARAH PAULSON: Well let’s just say they didn’t see the light of day very often.
Ryan said that Bette and Dot might be responsible for dark things.
Yes. Bette and Dot might be responsible for some dark things. When they’re discovered, Elsa in a way, even though it may not appear to be that in the beginning kind of saves them from what may befall them because of their dark deeds. Elsa at least in the beginning seems to be offering them an alternative to what would have happened if they were left where they were found.
Are their personalities different?
It’s not as simple as nice and evil. It’s more complicated in true Ryan Murphy style. One has more darkness in her but not darkness of evil—darkness of depression, of knowing what’s out in the world. The other one is more of an innocent. It’s innocent and more cynical. Even though they share a body, they have different brains and different hearts. They experience everything differently from each one another.
The process to create these twins sounds so intense.
There are so many ways that we’re making this happen that it’s not any one thing. It’s not just a visual effect, it’s not just the other head effect. This is a combination of 9,000 things. The part that’s the most hardest is when we’re doing the visual effects. I think I thought when I was going to do it was I would do all of Bette, in all camera sizes, and then switch over to Dot and vice versa. But what happens is because the effects have to be the same, the camera has to be locked off. Basically, I have to do Bette and Dot within each camera size and so I’m going back and forth with each girl, every time they change the lens and go tighter. So I don’t get like nine takes as one person. I have to go back and forth and back and forth. They have the same hairstyle but they wear different color headbands. So every time we go back and forth, five people descend upon me. We’ve gotten it down to a science—I can practically do it in my sleep. But there’s 9,000 things that happen as we change everything over, not the least of which is what goes on with me internally to play both of them.
Is this the most challenging AHS role you’ve had so far?
It is the most challenging so far. There’s the inherent reality that everyone knows that I do not have two heads. So we’re asking the audience to go with us on this journey. We’re asking everybody that’s a fan of the show, like people who are with the show, so I have anxiety because I just want so much for everything about it to work that people forget that they’re watching something that they know isn’t real and that they buy it and they believe it. I think that’s why these two girls seem like two different creatures. It’s hard to find to find all the color and variation and nuances. It’s hard to play one person with all of those things going on. It’s obviously doubly difficult to do it when you are trying to give shading and characterization to two people. And I have a southern accent also.
So is the Elsa and twin relationship maternal?
It’s more reminiscent to me of Jude/Lana, certainly between Dot and Elsa. Between Bette and Elsa, Elsa represents so much glamour and so much beauty that Elsa to Bette is like the most glamorous thing she’s ever seen. Bette is such an innocent. There’s so much wonder in her. It’s a very different kind of relationship.
What is Bette and Dot’s relationship to the group? Are you a threat to the other freak show people? Are you welcomed?
The troupe is in need of a real jolt of energy and a new attraction to make people in the town come and see it. The show is not in its heyday. It’s definitely on the downward spiral. I think because they all want to be employed and all of them recognize a kindred. When they see the twins, they’re hopeful and excited that we’re going to bring about a certain kind of change that’s going to be good for the group.
Do you deal with Twisty the Clown?
I think he’s watching us. But as of right now there’s no story there with that character.
Have you had to do crazy stuff yet, like snakes covering you or more goat’s blood dropped on you?
Yes. In the first episode. I mean I’ve got two heads, Tim. It’s almost like there’s no event that needs to happen for it to be the craziest thing I’ve done. But there is something that happens in the very first episode that’s crazy, that sets the scene for the rest of the season for them. It happens in episode one.
Everyone keeps telling me it’s the best one yet.
I think it is. I don’t know that I always have a finger on my pulse. I certainly didn’t think Coven would have the reaction it did because it was so much lighter in tone than Asylum.
I do know from an artistic standpoint both as a reader when I read the scripts the stories are so rich and complicated and it’s just so fascinating. I can’t imagine it not being something that people embrace. I think from a creative standpoint it’s got that feeling of Asylum, in that it’s really about something: this idea of being a forgotten soul in the world that’s just been cast aside. Everybody feels like that at some point in their lives. It’s something that I think has a tremendous amount of currency. It feels very honest about what it means to be a person. I also just think I don’t know how you’re not going to fall in love with everybody and root for people and there’s terrible things happening to people. And the way it looks! The set design! The costumes! The stuff that’s happening this year with the sets and the costumes it is so beyond. And Ryan’s going very different with the style of the show in terms of the way it’s being shot.
He said the look is different in terms of the camera movement.
It’s very different. There’s a stillness to it comparatively. I’m not saying it’s going to be still because it’s American Horror Story. But you think about the defining things of the show and you think about fish eye lenses and rapid fire editing. It is my understanding from working with Ryan the way it was being shot there weren’t a lot of Dutch camera angles, there were no fish eyes, no high and wide in the corner like the view of a spider. It wasn’t like that. I think it’s a very unique visual style and very different than what we’ve done. And I think that’s what’s so exciting about it. The minute you think you can figure out what you think we can expect from the show, it’s Ryan turning it on its head and going, “No I don’t think so.”
Have there been crazy moments in the make up trailer where it’s like “Oh, Angela’s got three breasts and Kathy’s wearing a beard”?
Oh my god. There’s nothing more insane than walking into that trailer. Jessica’s over there getting her hair, freaky make up done. Kathy’s next to me getting her beard put on. And Angela likes to flash them. She’s like, “Look at my three boobs!” Because they’re covering up everything. She can walk around with her three t*** hanging out and everybody is very happy that she’s doing so even though we’re not looking at her real boobs. It’s amazing.
This year in particular like you walk out of a trailer and you’re like Oh Jesus. You really feel like you’re at a sideshow. So many of the people there are really people with special abilities from that world. So many of our extras and background artists are like, “Oh I play at this show” or “I work in this circus.” It’s incredible and it gives it such a feeling of authenticity.
I know Pepper is back. That must be so exciting to you that this is sort of like an Asylum-prequel because I know how special that season is to you.
I love that idea. Maybe season five will be Aslyum the sequel! I just wanna play Lana Winters again—is that so bad?
Like old Lana?
No I think it should be Lana in the ‘70s. That was my favorite look in the world.
Do you know Bette and Dot’s arc? Like do you know what happens in episode 13?
Nope. It always changes. Ryan has told me what he plans for me. But I refuse to believe it until it’s here because I’ve done this long enough with him to know that he’s a man of fever dream inspiration and things come to him out of nowhere and all of a sudden things take a hairpin turn and it ends in a different way than expected. I do know sort of where I’m headed.
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.