American Horror Story: Sarah Paulson on that mysterious final shot
Plus: The actress teases what's in store for next season
WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the season finale of American Horror Story: Cult!
The Cult of Kai Anderson is no more. In the finale of the latest edition of American Horror Story, Evan Peters’ volatile cult leader was shot by Beverly (Adina Porter) at a debate for Ally (Sarah Paulson), who is now a Michigan senator. The final hour capped a huge 180-degree turn for Ally, who began the season terrorized and, by the end, held all the power and rocked a very familiar cloak (more on that in a bit).
EW talked to Paulson about the intensity of Cult, that important final shot, and what’s in store for next season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ally’s arc was a full 180, from victim to political power player. Did you know Ally’s evolution from the start?
SARAH PAULSON: Let’s put it this way: I didn’t know anything definitively, but I know [AHS creator] Ryan [Murphy], and I know Ryan isn’t going to have me running around weeping for four episodes straight and then put me in the loony bin for an episode and then have me come back and be rocking in a rocking chair. I just knew he wasn’t going to do that. I just didn’t think he’d want to do that to me from an acting standpoint. I don’t mean to be like, ‘Oh, woe is me’ or ‘Cry me a river,’ but those things are hard to do. I’m sure actors with waterworks, they can just press an internal button and it happens, and I am just not that way. It costs me something. So I thought there’s no way he’s going to have had me do this for so many episodes to have no payoff for me, as a character and an actor and as a friend. But I didn’t know how it was going to turn and what kind of purpose I was all of a sudden going to have on Ally’s own life. I didn’t know what that was going to look like.
The episode where it was revealed that Ivy was in on it, I didn’t read till I was in that episode. He gave me the first four. But I was told if you read too far in advance it might impede my ability to do some of the stuff in the beginning, and they were right. So I skipped the episode in my reading where that was revealed, which I think was episode 4. I think they were smart. I wouldn’t have been able to count on Ivy or rely on her or whatever internally I was doing to feel married and connected to Alison, and that character would have been much more challenging if I knew. Also, I think it’s hard not to telegraph, like you look at that person another beat and you tell the audience to suspect her. So I didn’t know about Ivy till episode 4.
You were operating at such a heightened emotional state in the beginning. Was that exhausting?
Yes. Yes, Tim. It really was, and I was shooting The Post movie at the same time so I was flying back and forth to New York while I was doing it. So it was one of those blessing-and-a-curse times. I threw my back out while we were shooting our first episode, and then I was having some violent stomach thing where I think I had gastritis or something. But I think your body doesn’t know you’re not in peril. Mentally I know I’m pretending, but in order for me to fully go there, I have to fully go there. So I was really sick to my stomach a lot. In the first episode, when we’re doing the whole reaction to the election results, I had one of those portable stim machines tucked in the back of my underwear and all the little nodes were attached to my back. It was running on a low frequency so that it wouldn’t bother the sound department while we were shooting! I was being put through my paces and it was exhausting. I would be far sexier a performer, and I mean that in the cool way, if I was like, “No, Tim. This is just fun for me! It’s so fun!”
This season has been so prescient, and that final moment where Kai is going on and on about women felt even more powerful looking at what’s going on in Hollywood. What was it like shooting that?
Doesn’t Ryan always sort of have his finger on the pulse of the thing that happens right before it happens? It’s really bizarre. It’s his superpower. Unfortunately, this particular story has taken a very powerful turn, and I think fortunately the outcome has been one of a rising up, which is necessary and important, but the consequence is we’ve learned so much about what’s going on for so many women and it’s really horrifying.
But to speak to what it was like to shoot that episode, that scene in particular was our second-to-last day, actually. Evan was really off the rails in a great way. We were all so tired. I think because we were shooting in a frenetic way, we were coming to the end of it and we had to make our days. It was probably 4 in the morning when we finished that. Part of what you’re feeling is just a generalized kinetic frequency that we were all operating on at that point. And Evan in particular. Evan was having that season where he was doing more than he’s ever done on the show, with so many characters and acting by himself. It was like Bette and Dott on Freak Show on steroids. It was incredibly incredibly challenging. I think he’s always been so extraordinary on the show and has never gotten the proper attention he deserves. So if you haven’t’ noticed him here, then you have a problem.
Evan is one of the most alive actors I’ve ever worked with. That scene where I tell him that Speedwagon was the mole and it was never his sister and he realizes he killed her: That scene was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done because he was really on the brink. It was one of those things where the beauty of our having been working together for seven years on this show is we’ve had to wipe snot off each other’s faces more than people in our lives who are really close to us probably have, because we’ve gone to so many dark, emotional places, and a lot of times together. So there’s a beautiful intimacy from an acting standpoint between us. So that was kind of the most special element of the show this year for me. Even though it was harrowing and awful and hard, it was very beautiful to get to watch Evan do all this s— even though it was so dark.
What does that last shot mean to you? It’s left pretty open-ended.
Well it’s the green cloak of the SCUM. It’s the SCUM cloak. Listen, this is a conversation that Ryan and Tim Minear and I really had. At the end of the day, she’s the mother of a son. She has a boy she’s raising. There’s a kind of poignant moment where he says, “Am I going to be a good person? Am I going to be a good man?” And I say, “I hope so.” And their intent with writing it and my intent with playing it was, “I hope you will because my mission in life now is to create a world where men have to be responsible for themselves and their behavior. I’m going to be in Washington and have some power, and the goal being nobody is going to get away with anything anymore. More than a good person, you have to be a feminist. You have to be on the right side of history.” It should have had a feeling of something odd in my communication to him.
But I think they wanted to keep it sort of mysterious in the sense of what does it mean. And what does it mean to each audience member in terms of how they view the reality now that Ally has power, beyond just personal power. But what will she do now that she has some sort of beginnings of a political voice and an opportunity to reach further into the world of being a civil servant? What will she do with that? If she is in fact a member of a new group of women who will stand for nothing but the righteous treatment and respect of them, what will that look like? But it shouldn’t be definitive. It should be up to the viewer to decide what it means she’s going to do with this. Does it mean she’s going to kill men? I don’t know. I have an opinion about it, but it’s not one I’m ready to share. But it was a conversation that was had about what this would mean for her being the mother of a young man and having been a person who witnessed so much senseless killing. But it should be a mystery.
It’s joked about in this episode, but was there ever any thought that Lana Winters would actually interview Ally?
How genius? That to me was the greatest thing ever. I don’t know what they used but there was one take where I looked at her like, “What did you say?” I was like, “Oh, I wish I could do something right now that’s so inside-baseball.”
We did do one thing. I don’t know if they left it in there [editor’s note: the scene appears to be cut]. Adina walks by and I went to light my cigarette, and I see [Kai] and I don’t end up getting it lit till he crosses me and gets in the van, but then I lit it. The only reason I’m saying it is I used matches from Hotel to light my cigarette. It said Hotel Cortez. We were playing a dicey game. The props guys were like, “Should we can? Can we?” I was like, “I think we should f—ing do that!” But if it’s not in there, then it’s not in there [laughs].
Have you and Ryan talked about the next season of AHS?
I have. I can tell you absolutely nothing. He and I have had a preliminary conversation, and I can tell you that the thought of it is very exciting to me. However, I think the the kind of magic of this and the beauty of it is that these ideas come to him in ways that are like flashes of fever dreams. Sometimes he’ll have a big idea. I’ve had him tell me things before that were going to be the whole thing that ultimately never turned into the season. So what I’m saying is, I have had a conversation for him, something that is percolating. I do not think it’s been decided. I think it’s a percolating thing. It got me very excited. Whether or not I’ll actually do that or that will be the story remains to be seen. I have said before to that anything he decides to come up with, I’m always so game and on board with because it’s obviously been a wild ride for me. But there have been some preliminary conversations. I hope it’s the one I hope it is; let’s put I that way. I’ve heard more than one idea and there’s one in particular I really hope lands.
American Horror Story
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.